If you’re like me you’ve probably used the terms service dog, therapy dog, and emotional support dog interchangeably and without much thought to it. But in reality, there are major differences that separate these types of dogs and their functions to their owners also vary too.
Service Dogs are trained to help people with physical or mental disabilities, such as visual impairments, anxiety, depression, seizure disorders, diabetes, PTSD, etc. They help with daily tasks that are otherwise difficult for their handlers to do because of their disabilities. The job of a service dog and their training is specified to the type of disability their handler has. They help them feel more independent and stay safe when doing daily tasks. The American Disabilities Act (ADA) has regulations in place that allow people with disabilities to be accompanied by their service dogs even in places where animals aren’t allowed, they can be in public places like restaurants, schools, grocery stores, places of worship and employment. However, service dogs on airlines become a gray area of access, the ADA doesn’t have regulations over airlines and international travel, each airline has their own regulations regarding service pets but for the most part they aren’t barred from traveling with their handlers. An important thing to mention is that service animals are limited to dogs only, and they are the only type of pet that’s covered under the same regulations of the ADA, other pets can be “service pets” but they are usually for personal use and not able to access public spaces they otherwise would be barred from entering like service dogs are allowed to.
While some service dogs wear special harnesses, vests, or their owners carry certifications, these things are not required. According to the ADA, the staff is only allowed to ask, “(1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?” Staff are not allowed to request any documentation for the dog, require that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person’s disability. However, the ADA doesn’t require documentation of proof that the pet is certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal but registration might be required in certain cities under the local dog licensing and registration laws.
A therapy dog also receives training in providing care but their responsibilities differ in that instead of doing or assisting in daily tasks like service dogs, therapy dogs provide psychological or physiological therapy to all types of individuals not just one person. Therapy dogs are usually found in facilities where they comfort others and provide affection like schools, hospitals, and nursing homes. But not every dog can be a therapy dog, in order to be a therapy dog they must have the temperament appropriate for the kind of care they give. They must be friendly, confident, non-aggressive, calm, patient, and able to be trained in specific tasks if need be. Like service dogs, there aren’t required certifications in order to be considered a service dog, but most places where therapy dogs are allowed to volunteer at require some form of certification and proof of being vaccinated. National organizations like the Alliance of Therapy Dogs or the AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) program offers training programs to organizations that provide therapy dogs to hospitals and nursing homes. Unlike service dogs, therapy dogs aren’t covered under ADA regulations and legal protections, they don’t get access to places where pets are not permitted or have special accommodations.
Emotional support animals (ESA) can be dogs or other pets that provide emotional support and comfort to their owners. ESAs are prescribed by a licensed mental health professional like a psychiatrist or therapist. The responsibility of an ESA is to provide therapeutic support for individuals with severe mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, panic attacks, bipolar disorder, phobias, PTSD and other emotional disorders with symptoms that disables the individual. ESAs don’t have legal protections under ADA and don’t require specific training like service dogs. But they’re protected under federal law and people who have ESAs are able to live in otherwise non-pet friendly housing and can accompany their owners on flights. The main caveat separating service dogs and therapy dogs from ESAs is that in order to have an ESA there needs to be a medical recommendation by a healthcare professional for the individuals’ disability or condition. Showing the medical recommendation is enough to certification or proof that the pet is an ESA.
General etiquette around Service Dogs/Therapy Dogs/ESAs:
1) Minimize distractions- while they are trained in only caring for their handlers and specific individuals, they are still pets and they can get distracted with the noises people make to get their attention, petting, and approaching the dog while they’re working.
2) Ask permission from the owner first if you wish to approach the dog. They might be working and being distracted could be detrimental to their handlers’ health.
3) Don’t offer food or treats to the pet, because it can be distracting to the working pet and they might have a certain diet or schedule of when they could eat.
4) If a service dog, ESA, or therapy dog is without their handler, in most cases something happened to their owner and follow the pet because someone might need help.
*When in doubt about how to act around these pets, always ask the owner and don’t assume you know best. They’re working dogs and if they can’t do their jobs, their owners are put at risk. *