The Difference Between Service, Therapy, and Emotional Support Dogs

Carlee Linden

Last Updated: August 19th, 2020

A man waits for the bus with a service dogHave you ever seen someone in a store with a dog claiming it’s a service animal — meaning the dog needs to remain with the owner at all times. Or have you ever heard of landlords who argue with tenants about their emotional support animals?

The terms service dog, therapy dog, and emotional support dog are often used interchangeably. However, each of these dogs has different roles, responsibilities, rights, and training.

To clear things up, we asked the experts to explain what having a service, therapy and emotional support dog means and requires.

What is a service dog?

Service dogs are defined by the ADA as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person's disability. The dog must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability. For example, a person with diabetes may have a dog that is trained to alert him when his blood sugar reaches high or low levels.

How do I know if a service dog is right for me?

If you feel a service dog could help you, the next step would be discussing this with your doctor and/or any treating therapists. Your doctor is the only one who can determine if you meet the legal definition of disability and whether you would benefit from having a service dog. Make a list of the tasks you think the service dog could help you with.

Can my dog be a service dog?

If you are hoping to train your pup as a service dog, the first thing I would do is meet with a trainer who trains service dogs. A good trainer will help you assess and evaluate your dog for public access work. Service dog work is not for every dog. It involves significant training beyond basic commands, as well as public access commands such as ignoring people, food, pets, and being able to keep a calm focus on you in case of a medical alert.  Less than 5 percent of dogs are cut out for service dog work, and many “wash-out” during training.

How long does it take to train a service dog?

Training a service dog can take a long time, a year or more of training. The easiest route is to find a company that already trains service dogs and meet to review your needs. Some amazing organizations are Canine Companions for Independence, Good Dog Autism!, Guide Dogs for the Blind, and Tackett Service Dogs. However, more organizations are available as well.

What else should I know about service dogs?

It is a felony to fake a dog as a service dog and in some states, it is punishable by a fine and jail time. If you’re looking to bringing your pup with you wherever you go, there are many pet-friendly establishments across the world.

-Nicole Ellis, a Certified Dog Trainer and Pet Expert with

What is a therapy dog?

A therapy dog offers comfort to people with various physical and emotional issues. They are often used in situations where people who are facing stress and grief need their spirits lifted. They can often visit nursing homes and hospitals, along with children’s reading groups.

How do I find out if a therapy dog is for me?

A therapy dog is not for an “individual” person, as that would be an emotional support dog. A therapy dog works with a handler, usually the person who owns the dog. The two become a team, with the handler being the dog’s advocate. It is usually owners who feel the dogs have the temperament to work in a therapy situation. The owner also has the interest to pursue working in the various hospital, nursing home and school environments.

-Kim Paciotti, Founder of Training Canines, LLC

Can my dog be a therapy dog?

Pet owners play an important role in determining their pets’ aptitude. They have to make an honest evaluation. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can you handle unusual smells or being around sick patients in discomfort?
  • Are you willing and able to follow the rules set by the program of the facility?
  • How much time would you be able to set aside for visits? One visit a week? One visit a month?

Would your pet really enjoy this or are you doing this for you?

Can you afford that as well as the other things involved like gas and vet visits?
After answering these questions, it’s time to have a look at the pet. Not every pet is suited for this kind of work. They all have different personalities, and maybe they don’t share your views on visiting strangers. Here are a few useful questions to evaluate the pet:

  • Does it have good manners? Even around new people?
  • Is it at least one year old?
  • Does it have a clean bill of health and up to date rabies shots?
  • Does your pet like to travel?
  • Are you sure your pet won’t mind being excessively petted, hugged, or even tugged by kids or adults?
  • How long does it take to train a therapy dog?

You must check out the local registration and certification process and requirements. Before getting started, it’s good to know your pet is a match for this work. Good manners are essential. For example, your dog can’t bark at people, run towards them or jump on them Dogs in this atmosphere have to stay calm and relaxed, despite unusual noises or smells. Make sure you and your dog meet the requirements for this work before going any further in the process.
There will usually be an online or workshop ‘course’ to complete as a pet handler. Here you will learn how to make sure you, your pet, and the people you visit stay safe at all times. Every organization has its own procedures for making visits, so you will also have to learn how their processes and procedures.
It’s important not to rush the process or skip steps. Make sure you understand and are able to follow through on the information received during the training. Also, now is a good time to make sure your pet is ready. Pay a visit to the vet to make sure all is in order and up to date.

What else should I know about therapy dogs?

The people who establish these programs put in hours of effort and research to match the perfect animal to every human or home in need. Of course, we are not saying that a dog, rabbit or cat will make the whole world healthy again. However, reports prove that in 91 percent of animal-assisted cases, there have been marked improvements in both mental and physical conditions.
-Suzie Cyrenne, Co-founder of HomeoAnimal

Pug stares you right in the faceWhat is an emotional support animal (ESA)?

An emotional support animal offers comfort to people who are suffering from mental health conditions. These conditions can include (but are not limited to) anxiety, depression, PTSD, and certain phobias.

How do I find out if an emotional support animal is for me?

To determine whether you qualify for an emotional support animal, talk to a licensed mental health professional. If they determine an ESA would be beneficial for you, they will write a letter to prescribe an ESA. For the letter to be valid, the prescribing doctor must identify you as their patient, say you have a disability, and specify that your ESA helps you with that disability. It must also include their license number, contact information, be on their letterhead, and be no more than a year old.

Can my dog be an emotional support animal?

Since ESA's don't require any specific training, any dog can be an ESA. However, if you plan on taking your ESA with you on planes, you should make sure you have an ESA that is well-behaved and can handle the stresses of navigating an airport and flying.

How long does it take to train an emotional support animal?

Unlike service animals who go through rigorous training, emotional support animals do not require specialized training.

What else should I know about emotional support animals?

Unlike service animals, ESA's are not permitted in all public locations. They are allowed on planes as per the Air Carrier Act and have access to all rental housing under the Fair Housing Act. If you plan on taking your ESA to any restaurants, hotels, shops, or other public locations you should call ahead to make sure they are allowed, otherwise you may be turned away.

Many websites will certify your pet as an ESA for a fee. Some even say they will add your pet to an ESA database and send you a card or vest for your dog. There is no federally recognized database for ESA's and ESA's are not required to wear vests; you just need the prescription letter from your doctor to verify their ESA status. These sites are essentially a scam, and they make it harder for people who need an ESA to prove they need one because they cause more intense scrutiny for ESAs. If you aren't under the care of a licensed mental health professional and are just getting making your pet an ESA so you can fly with them or have access to rentals that are not pet-friendly, please reconsider.

-Ashley Jacobs, CEO of Sitting for a Cause

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