Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs, Emotional Support Animals: What's The Difference?


Wouldn’t a world where we could take our pets anywhere with us be an amazing thing? From planes to restaurants, some of us want our pets to be a part of our everyday life. So much so that some try to side step the system. This can be harmful to those in true need.

In reality our pets don't cross over to the category of service dogs. There are 3 types of categories when it comes to dogs that “assist” us. Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs, and Emotional Support Animals. Each category is important to understand especially if you are considering a dog for a specific need, a specific task, or a specific reason. Under the law they all have varying degrees of rights and they are not all equal.

Service Dogs

While not to diminish the role of therapy dogs and how they can be helpful to many people in a variety of situations, nor discount the role of emotional support animals and how they impact the lives of their owners - A service dog is the only animal of this group that is highly trained and afforded special access where other animals would not pass.

Service dogs are highly trained team members that work with their handler’s specific needs. They help mitigate their handler’s disability and afford them safety and independence that may otherwise hinder an individual’s daily life without a Service Animal. This is the only case where the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects the rights of people with disabilities to bring their into otherwise forbidden places. It is also important to note that under the DOJ/HUD/FHA The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Fair Housing Act and Federal Rehabilitation Act, Service Animals cannot be barred from otherwise pet restricted housing. The DOT Air Carrier Access Act also provides accommodation for Service Animals.

It is not possible to simply send away for a certificate or pay a fee and have a dog certified as a service animal. Simply buying a vest doesn’t cut it either.

Therapy Dogs

While therapy dogs also receive special training, they are for completely different purposes than service dogs, and the training is much more broad and forgiving. Whereas Service Dogs work for their handlers to provide specific needs and tasks, therapy dogs are utilized to assist individuals other than their handler/owner. These dogs are often chosen for their easy-going personalities and steady temperaments. They are often utilized in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and other locations to provide companionship and comfort for patience, residents, and students in need.

Therapy dogs have many benefits and have a variety of jobs, they are not afforded the same rights under the ADA, DOT, and DOJ/HUD as Service Dogs. Therapy dogs go through their own set of standardized training and certification depending on their purpose.  At the end of the day they do not have the same jobs or legal designation as Service Dogs.

Many pet owners do seek out and successfully have their own pets certified as therapy dogs. We will explore this in more detail in our next blog post.

Emotional Support Dogs (Animals)

From Hamsters to Peacocks we’ve heard it all lately when it comes to emotional support animals, the truth of the matter is emotional support animals are far different from service dogs and therapy dogs.

Emotional support animals can be virtually any animal that its owner finds to be supportive for their emotional needs. There is no specialized training, required behavior, or certification necessary to be an emotional support animal. And no species classification. While not to diminish the role of an emotional support animal and the comfort they afford their disabled owners, there is very little oversight in designating an animal as emotionally supportive.

But in all seriousness, there are many scams out there providing quick certificates for animals claiming they are emotional support animals. A true emotional support animal is not a pet, but a companion animal to an individual with a verifiable mental or psychiatric disability. As such it is this type of animal that, while not afforded the rights under the ADA, they are given rights under the HUD and FHA – Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 and landlords must make reasonable accommodation for such animals. And Emotional Support Animals are not required to have any kind of specialized training.

Emotional Assistance animals do not bypass rules for air travel or fall into the same category as Service Dogs. And with more and more people abusing this status airlines are cracking down on animals allowed on flights. On the lighter side of things for a good laugh, read this emotional support animal journey with The New Yorker contributing writer, Patricia Marx.

Since many people often wonder how to get their dogs certified as therapy dogs, we will explore the pros and cons of therapy dogs in our next blog post.