What’s the Difference Between Service, Therapy and Emotional Support Dogs?

Posted by Christy Caplan
Service Dog

The differences between therapy, emotional support and service dogs are confusing to even the savviest dog owner. Each of these three recognizations is specifically defined, both in terms of the jobs undertaken and the legal rights offered.  

We recently wrote about the latest DOT news surrounding service animals and emotional support animals.

"The U.S. Department Of  Transportation (DOT) provided an updated statement last month and it's all made very clear for those that need to fly with their service animals, ESA's and PSA's. The good news is all breeds are allowed to fly under this statement."

This is outstanding news but how did these dogs receive their designation? How do their roles differ?

With that in mind, we thought it was worth writing about what each of these dogs does for their human handlers. These terms are not interchangeable, although they are often lumped together in the latest news stories. Many of these humans need physical or emotional assistance and rely on their specially trained dogs to help them travel. What do these all mean?

The American Kennel Club (AKC) helps explain the differences!

What do service dogs do?

A service dog will protect someone who is having a seizure.

According to the AKC, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service dogs are individually trained to perform specific tasks and to work with people with disabilities. The ADA tells us disabilities can be "physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability." The work of the service dog must be directly related to the handler's disability. 

The ADA mandates that service dogs have full public access rights, which means they are allowed to go places where are animals are forbidden.  

What is a therapy dog?

A therapy dog is needed at school to help children experiencing anxiety.

Yet, therapy dogs are not service dogs!

"Therapy Dog is an AKC program which recognizes the necessary therapy work performed by dogs through accepted organizations based on the number of visits. Therapy work involves volunteers who schedule visits to various facilities and locations such a nursing homes, classrooms, libraries, assisted living centers, hospices, funeral homes, schools, shelters and even courtrooms."

The AKC does not certify therapy dogs; the certification and training are done by qualified therapy dog organizations.  

What do emotional support animals (ESAs) do?

An ESA will help someone when they experience social anxiety while flying.

A support dog is a companion animal that provides therapeutic benefits to a person with a medically diagnosed disability. Support animals do not have to be trained for their role, but medical documentation is required in order to receive this designation.

Emotional support dogs are not considered service dogs under the ADA.

"They may be trained for a specific owner, but they are not trained for specific tasks or duties to aid a person with a disability, and this is the main difference between ESAs and service dogs. This doesn't minimize the support these dogs provide for people with a psychological disorder."

As everyone has heard, airlines are tightening restrictions on emotional support animals.

Therapy animals, guide dogs, psychiatric service dogs, assistance dogs and working dogs all need special training! Whether you have panic attacks, a mental illness, or post-traumatic stress disorder you may need a service dog, therapy dog or ESA.

Do you have a service animal? Please leave a comment below.  

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What’s the Difference Between Service, Therapy and Emotional Support Dogs?