What's the Difference Between Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs & Emotional Support Dogs?

Dogs are often more than just man's (and woman's) best friend; for a lot of people, they're professional helpers, providing invaluable assistance that makes day-to-day life more manageable.

Helpful Dog
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But, when you delve into the idea of a "working dog," things can quickly get confusing. In the olden days of working dogs, it was guide dog or bust, when it came to taking on a job that wasn't, you know, herding sheep on a farm or retrieving duck carcasses on a hunt. But today, dogs are trained to do so much more than just guide the vision impaired. And, beyond that, dogs are helping hundreds (okay, definitely thousands and probably millions) in purely emotional ways.

This can be confusing though, as you try to determine the difference between service dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support animals—especially when so many people (erroneously) use the terms interchangeably. Here's a handy dandy guide to the differences between these three very distinct classes of working dogs—and what those differences mean on a practical (and legal) level.

Service dogs

In the hierarchy of working dogs, service dogs sit at the top of the list. Service dogs are, as the name implies, trained to perform a specific task or service for an individual with a disability. This can be a physical disability (like vision impairment or mobility issues), medical disability or condition (like seizures), or mental disorder (like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), but it's important to note that service dogs are not just there to make someone feel warm and fuzzy or to comfort them during sad or stressful times (that would fall under the work of an ESA—more on those below).

Close-Up Of Recue Dog
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From a legal standpoint, a service dog must be individually trained to perform tasks for a person with a disability and those tasks must be directly related to the disability in question.

Per the ADA: "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. A person with depression may have a dog that is trained to remind her to take her medication. Or, a person who has epilepsy may have a dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure and then help the person remain safe during the seizure."

Hearing Dog
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The most common point of confusion between legitimate service animals and therapy dogs and ESAs comes when dealing with psychiatric service animals. The ADA covers psychiatric service animals, but not emotional support animals and therapy dogs. According to the ADA, the distinction comes down, once again, to task-specific training.

"If the dog has been trained to sense that an anxiety attack is about to happen and take a specific action to help avoid the attack or lessen its impact, that would qualify as a service animal," the ADA explains on its website. "However, if the dog's mere presence provides comfort, that would not be considered a service animal under the ADA."

'No Pets Allowed - Service Dogs Are Welcome' sign
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Service dogs are afforded legal protections and allowed to accompany their human partner anywhere the human is allowed to go. The ADA does not require any specific documentation or "proof" that a dog is a service animal—service dogs aren't required to wear vests identifying them as service animals (though many do) and businesses are only allowed to ask the owner of a service dog two questions:

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?

Low section of man sitting on bench with German Shepherd service dog
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That's it. No one can ask a person with a service dog to supply documentation of the dog's training or to demonstrate its task. They also can't ask the dog's human partner to divulge details about their disability. This makes good common sense (no one wants to force someone with a disability to answer intimate questions about their health for strangers every time they leave the house), but it also means that there's a lot of abuse of the ADA, with a lot of people bringing their pets (or "therapy dogs" or emotional support animals) out in public and passing them off as service animals.

service dog
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Abusing the ADA is a terrible thing to do. First of all, it's illegal. Falsely claiming that your dog is a service animal is a criminal misdemeanor and punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to six months in prison. Second, even the most well-behaved and well-trained pets are usually not prepared to go in public and, even if they are, their presence could distract legitimate service animals or service animals-in-training. This is a nuisance at best and potentially deadly at worst, if the dog distracts a working dog from performing a life-saving task.

Therapy dogs

People petting dog in group therapy session
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Now, for the second tier of working dogs: Therapy dogs. Like service dogs, therapy dogs do receive training to do their work, but unlike a service dog, who receives very specialized training designed to help it assist one individual with a disability, a therapy dog's training is more general. Therapy dogs are typically owned by people who do not have disabilities themselves, but they accompany their owners to volunteer in schools, hospitals, and nursing homes to provide comfort to people in need. Therapy dogs must have a calm and friendly temperament and be able to tolerate petting and contact with strangers.

Cute Bischon therapy dog
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Therapy dogs can play an important role in improving the health and emotional well-being of the patients and people they volunteer with. Over the years, research and anecdotal evidence has shown that visits from therapy dogs can increase in calmness, happiness, and overall emotional well-being and even decrease stress levels and blood pressure. What's more, these visits can give residents and patients at the facilities the dogs volunteer with a much-needed break from daily routines and can decrease feelings of loneliness, isolation, and hopelessness.

Again, it's important to note that, even though therapy dogs do receive some training and, in some cases, may do intermittent work with disabled individuals (such as visiting people with disabilities in hospitals and nursing homes), they aren't service dogs and the legal protections afforded to service dogs don't extend to them.

Pet therapy
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Per the AKC's therapy dog training program website:

Therapy dogs are not service dogs. Service dogs are dogs who are specially trained to perform specific tasks to help a person who has a disability. An example of a service dog is a dog who guides an owner who is blind, or a dog who assists someone who has a physical disability. Service dogs stay with their person and have special access privileges in public places such as on planes, restaurants, etc. Therapy dogs, the dogs who will be earning the AKC Therapy Dog™ title, do not have the same special access as service dogs.

It is unethical to attempt to pass off a therapy dog as a service dog for purposes such as flying on a plane or being admitted to a restaurant.

Emotional support animals

As we get to emotional support animals (ESAs, for short), we have some good news and bad news. The good news is that, like the name implies, ESAs don't have to be dogs. Whatever animal makes your heart happy and helps you cope with the emotional stress of being a human in this often messed up world can be an emotional support animal.

Handsome man traveling with his cat
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The bad news: ESAs are, in many ways, at the bottom of the working dog hierarchy. In some ways, however, they have more rights and privileges than therapy dogs, however.

Let's start with a definition of an ESA. The legal definition of an ESA comes courtesy of the Fair Housing Act and Air Carrier Access Act:

"An emotional support animal (ESA) may be an animal of any species, the use of which is supported by a qualified physician, psychiatrist or other mental health professional based upon a disability-related need. An ESA does not have to be trained to perform any particular task. ESAs do not qualify as service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but they may be permitted as reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities under the Fair Housing Act. The Air Carrier Access Act provides specific allowances for ESAs traveling on airlines, though documentation may need to be provided."

This brings us to the good news: Your ESA (be it dog, cat, or peacock) is legally allowed to live with you even if your landlord has a No Pets policy and it's allowed to fly with you, in the cabin, on any commercial flight in the U.S. Rad, huh?

To qualify as an ESA, your pet doesn't need any specific training and it doesn't need to pass any fancy tests. All you need is a letter from your doctor (your psychiatrist or even a psychologist or counselor—basically any mental healthcare professional, regardless of their ability to prescribe medication) explaining that, in their professional opinion, you need that animal around. This means that, if you suffer from anxiety or any other mental health-related issue that doesn't rise to the level of needing a specially trained service dog, you can still get some legal protection for the furbaby that makes you feel like life is manageable. While ESAs are not allowed in most public places, the law does afford them the right to live with you even in pet-free apartments and rentals and to fly with you, which is still pretty huge.

Flying with ESA
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Most airlines and landlords will require a signed letter from your doctor or mental healthcare provider on official letterhead that is dated within the last year. This means that you'll need to follow up with your doctor/psychiatrist/psychologist/counselor/therapist/etc. at least every 12 months to maintain your animal's ESA status or risk losing its protections and benefits. But that's a small price to pay for the daily endorphin rush and mental health boost your ESA will provide.