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Service Dog vs. Therapy Dog vs. Emotional Support Animal

written by familyadhd

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Service Dogs vs Therapy Dogs vs Emotional Support Animals

What’s the difference between a service dog, therapy dog and emotional support animal? Aren’t they basically the same?

This is a question we came across a lot in our research and have been personally asked quite a bit since we published our first post announcing that we’re going to be adopting and training a psychiatric service dog candidate for Patrick.

While most people are well-meaning when they ask, some look down on the use of service dogs as they assume it’s simply a means for individuals to take their dog to the movies and the mall.

It’s sad that this misconception taints some individuals’ views of not just service dogs, but their handlers.

Hopefully this post will help clear up a few things and bring some greater understanding for the individuals that use the types of animals mentioned below!

So, what is the difference between a service dog, therapy dog and emotional support animal?

What is a service dog?

A service dog is not a companion, a service dog is essentially an assistive tool that helps improve one individual’s function and/or accessibility.

A real service dog has undergone special training in order to meet certain criteria and perform certain work and tasks for its handler (no one else)

A service dog handler must actually qualify for a service dog.

In fact, there is a legal aspect to having a service dog as this dog is not subject to the same rules as pet dogs. The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) will not cover you and allow you to bring your service dog essentially anywhere the public is allowed unless you qualify for a service dog.

The Americans with Disability Act has detailed 3 specific criteria a service dog and its handler must meet:

  1. In order for someone to have a service dog, the handler must have a disability that limits their daily life.
  2. A service dog must be trained to take note of certain aspects of his/her handler’s disability and respond by performing certain work or tasks.
  3. A service dog must be able to be in public without causing a disruption (public access is a big reason why many service dog candidates wash out aka fail).

Additionally, and this probably goes without saying, a service dog must be completely housebroken and must remain leashed (except when it is necessary to be off-leash to perform work or tasks).

Training a service dog typically takes 1-2 years, but a dog must reach a certain level of maturity in order to really grasp the full training, which is why many service dogs seem to complete training around 2. Many recommendations suggest a minimum of 120 hours of service dog training (of which at least 30 should be focused on public access)

A fully trained service dog is granted public access rights in the U.S., however, flying on a plane with a service dog is not covered by the same law (it’s covered by the Air Carrier Access Act). We’ll get into that in a later post.

The American Disabilities Act does not require service dogs to be certified or registered, however, it can alleviate a lot of issues/confusion down the line from everything we’ve read. We are planning to register our service dog (as this is the route we’re pursuing) with the organization recommended by our service dog trainer upon completion of training down the line. Don’t worry, we’ll be documenting our entire process, so you’ll be able to watch us go through that step in a couple years–fingers crossed!

If you still have questions or want to know more about service dogs and the ADA, this is really useful resource released by the Department of Justice.

What is a therapy dog?

A therapy dog, like a service dog, has typically gone through certain training in order to perform as a therapy dog. However, a therapy dog is trained to interact with a variety of people, not just his/her handler.

A therapy dog’s purpose is to make those it interacts with feel better.

Therapy dogs are not given public access rights like a service dog. They are typically allowed to go in hospitals, nursing homes, etc. with prior permission.

Now, this is where it gets a little interesting. We’ve seen some programs not require this, but it seems like the most notable therapy dog certification programs require that dogs complete a variety of training courses (including Canine Good Citizen, which many service dogs also complete), after which they can achieve different levels of certification based on the number of visits completed.

The AKC Therapy Dog levels are:

  • AKC Therapy Dog Novice (THDN)
    Must have completed 10 visits.
  • AKC Therapy Dog (THD)
    Must have completed 50 visits.
  • AKC Therapy Dog Advanced (THDA)
    Must have completed 100 visits.
  • AKC Therapy Dog Excellent (THDX)
    Must have completed 200 visits.
  • AKC Therapy Dog Distinguished (THDD)
    Must have completed 400 visits.

As you can see, in order to achieve a distinguished therapy dog certification, dogs must complete quite a few visits. You can read info about the AKC’s Therapy Dog Program on their site if you’re curious to learn more.

While therapy dogs and service dogs have completely different purposes, they are both (in theory) highly trained and serve specific purposes.

But again, they are not the same.

What is an emotional support animal?

Emotional support animals are pets that provide comfort and potentially help reduce disability-related emotions.

However, they’re not necessarily trained in anything in particular.

Emotional support animals are not granted public access rights, but under the Fair Housing Act an emotional support animal can be viewed as a “reasonable accommodation” if there is a no-pet rule.

We’ve read that federal law states that reasonable accommodations for emotional support animals on planes must be made (we couldn’t find the exact law), but that the owner must contact the airline at least 48 hours ahead of time with the request and have a letter from a licensed medical professional on official letterhead stating:

  1. The individual has a mental health related disability that significantly impacts the individual’s activity in some way.
  2. The individual requires the presence of that particular emotional support animal on the flight and/or at the individual’s destination.
  3. Credentials of the licensed medical professional writing the letter must be stated in the letter.

Emotional support animals are supposed to be able to behave properly while flying. I don’t know what a property management company would/could do if an emotional support animal caused issues with noise in a no-pet building.

It’s interesting that due to the purpose of an emotional support animal, it’s covered by certain laws that therapy dogs are not, but given the fact that it provides a specific service directly to its owner (as does a service dog) it makes a bit more sense.

On the other hand, many people believe that emotional support animals should have to undergo some kind of official training in order to be considered legitimate emotional support animals.

We’ve seen a lot of articles in the news over the years discussing the issue of people claiming animals are emotional support animals when they really aren’t simply to take advantage of the exceptions they receive when flying and in no-pet housing. It will be interesting to see how/if laws change to address this in coming years.

Different, but Helpful

Well guys, there you have it! Those are the primary differences between service dogs, therapy dogs and emotional support animals. As you can see, none of them are interchangeable and they all service very different purposes and undergo very different training (or in some cases, no training) in order to achieve those titles.

Were you aware that there were such drastic differences between the 3? Do you or someone you know have a service dog, therapy dog or emotional support animal?

Just a quick update, we haven’t heard any news from our breeder and don’t expect to until closer to mid-May, but we’ll be sure to share as soon as we have some good news about the births of the 2 upcoming litters we’re waiting on!

Please don’t forget that you can support us on our journey by sharing our story and our fundraising page if you wish. Thanks again for all of the awesome comments and please feel free to leave any questions you have below! We’ll try to answer them to the best of our abilities.

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Alli Smith April 17, 2017 at 5:21 am

I did not know the difference between these 3! I thought they were all considered service dogs. It can be confusing and you explained the differences so well.

familyadhd April 17, 2017 at 11:00 am

Thank you!

robin rue April 17, 2017 at 5:48 am

I had no idea there was a difference between any of these dogs. It is helpful to know the difference and what each dog is or isn’t trained for.

familyadhd April 17, 2017 at 11:00 am

I’m so glad!

Christy Maurer April 17, 2017 at 8:30 am

I knew there was a difference between a service dog and the other two, but I didn’t realize therapy and emotional support dogs fell under different categories. I know service dogs shouldn’t be messed with though! They’re doing a job!

familyadhd April 17, 2017 at 11:01 am

Yes!!!! That is 100% true 😉

Katie Kinsley April 17, 2017 at 8:30 am

My husband and I have been thinking about training our dog as a service dog in order to be able to fly him on the place. He’s still too hyper yet and gets distracted easily. We’re working on it.

Jacqui S April 17, 2017 at 10:13 am

This is a great informative post. One question I have. For service dogs, I understand that other’s shouldn’t try petting, etc. But, the person the dog is helping, they can still show affection to the dog?

familyadhd April 17, 2017 at 11:09 am

Yes, we have been told that you can show your own service dog affection at appropriate times (handlers have to be mindful of the fact that their service dogs are working and you wouldn’t want to distract your service dog), but unlike choosing a pet, when you choose a service dog candidate puppy (depending on the type) you don’t choose a super cuddly pup that just wants to snuggle up with like you. We’ve consulted with a handful of people that focus on assisting people in choosing the right service dog candidate puppy and they’ve all said it’s counterintuitive, but it’s important not to choose a puppy that’s the cuddliest and that you’re emotionally drawn to. You have to focus on choosing a puppy that passes certain temperament tests and shows independence and a drive to train. So while you don’t have to be cold to your service dog, service dogs aren’t trained to be super affectionate, so it’s kind of a unique situation! Great question 🙂

candy April 17, 2017 at 12:04 pm

We have a friend who has a service dog. The dog is very friendly but nobody is allowed to feed or really interact with his service dog. The dog is there for his needs and to help the owner.

familyadhd April 17, 2017 at 3:31 pm

Yep! It’s the number 1 complaint we’ve heard from other service dog owners–other people try to touch service dogs, but since they’re working it’s really disruptive and doesn’t allow them to focus on what they need to be doing 🙁

jenn April 17, 2017 at 12:25 pm

I had no idea that they were so different. This is such an interesting blog post. Very good to know.

familyadhd April 17, 2017 at 3:31 pm

Thank you!

Marysa April 17, 2017 at 9:56 pm

My friend recently told me about this. I guess a lot of her friends use emotional support dogs and are able to take their dogs a lot of places.

familyadhd April 18, 2017 at 10:38 am

Some stores are definitely more willing than others since they legally don’t have to, but some want to accommodate as much as they can regardless!

Heather April 17, 2017 at 10:55 pm

Yeah a service dog is definitely different than an emotional support animal. I wasn’t sure about therapy dog, but knew the difference with the other. I think it’s amazing that dogs can do these things. They truly are man’s best friend.

familyadhd April 18, 2017 at 10:38 am

Right? Dogs are amazing <3

David Elliott April 18, 2017 at 12:55 am

I didn’t realize that there were three different areas of classicifations for these animals. This is good to know though when people bring such animals around to work and such.

familyadhd April 18, 2017 at 10:39 am

Very true!

My Teen Guide April 18, 2017 at 12:59 am

This was a very interesting post. I did not know there were 3 different kinds. I thought all were considered service dogs. It is good to have this information on hand so we can be aware of the limitations of each kind.

familyadhd April 18, 2017 at 10:39 am


Rebecca Swenor April 18, 2017 at 1:38 am

This is a great post about the differences between the therapy, emotional support, and the service animals. I didn’t know know all the differences to them all. The emotional support animal I actually thought had to have training. Thanks for sharing the differences.

familyadhd April 18, 2017 at 10:39 am

You’re welcome! So glad this was helpful to you 🙂

Jaime Nicole April 18, 2017 at 6:19 am

This is such a hot topic now, especially on airplanes and on airports. You’ve given a great description here of the differences!

familyadhd April 18, 2017 at 10:41 am

Thank you! Yes, there’s a lot of buzz about emotional support animals especially (since some people try to work around the system and claim animals are one thing that they aren’t). It’s a tricky situation because we need to make sure that people with actual emotional support animals and service dogs are able to take advantage of their legal right to have those animals with them, but also crack down on people manipulating the system. So complicated!

Kita Bryant April 18, 2017 at 2:36 pm

I have a friend of mine who did training with her dog back in the day. They were going to be a pet therapy team. Many people had no clue there was a difference. This is super informative.

familyadhd April 18, 2017 at 3:53 pm

That’s awesome! And thank you 😉

Anosa April 18, 2017 at 3:23 pm

It’s sad to think people assume those with service dogs are just “in need of a companion”, I am glad to have read this post and gotten an understanding

familyadhd April 18, 2017 at 3:53 pm

I’m so glad! <3

Amy @ Marvelous Mommy April 18, 2017 at 3:44 pm

Thanks for sharing, I was not aware of the differences. Congrats and good luck with your new service dog!

familyadhd April 18, 2017 at 3:53 pm

Thank you so much!

rika April 18, 2017 at 4:13 pm

Very useful info. SO glad that I read this post and understanding the differences! Dogs are awesome.

familyadhd April 18, 2017 at 4:21 pm

They truly are!

Peachy @ The Peach Kitchen April 18, 2017 at 4:38 pm

I had no idea there are certain kinds of dogs and their differences! Hope you get your new service dog soon!

familyadhd April 18, 2017 at 8:45 pm

Thank you so much!

Bonnie @wemake7 April 18, 2017 at 9:17 pm

Thanks for explaining the differences. We have thought about going through the process ourselves for our son that has Autism but wasn’t sure which way to go.

familyadhd April 18, 2017 at 10:08 pm

You’re welcome! There are so many adults and children that utilize service dogs trained to assist those with Autism 🙂 If you go that route we’d love to hear about your experience!


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