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Service vs Therapy vs Emotional Support Dogs

There seems to be a lot of confusion out there on what the difference is between a Service Dog, Emotional Support Dog, and Therapy Dog. If you’ve ever been interested in registering your dog as any of the above I’m sure you’ve come across the vests that mimic a service dog vest you can purchase online or forms you can fill out so your dog is put on an “official registered service dog list”. First things first, these are not legit sites. You cannot simply buy your dogs way into some list so he/she can qualify as a service dog. There are many more steps and training that goes into training a service dog and even a Therapy and Emotional Support Dog before your dog can hold any of those titles. While I’m sure you have a sweet, well-behaved pup it is super important to follow the appropriate steps for the safety of your dog, the people your dog will encounter, and even yourself.

Service Dogs

Service dogs are generally talked about more often and therefore people have a better understanding of what their purpose is as well as the extensive training these dogs go through before they are paired with their human. However, it may still be a good idea to brush up on your knowledge. After chatting with Rachel from Canines with a Cause there were still some pieces of information we didn’t know about!

Types of Disabilities that Can Be Helped by a Service Dog

Each service dog has been trained for a specific task, from helping someone with sensory issues such as blindness or hearing loss, detecting blood sugar level in someone with diabetes, mobility issues, post-traumatic stress, and more.

List of some disabilities that may be helped by having a service dog:

  • Blindness

  • Deafness

  • Diabetes

  • Cancer

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

  • Paralysis

  • Multiple Sclerosis

  • Autism

  • Epilepsy

  • Asthma

  • Osteoporosis

  • Arthritis

Service Dog Training

This training doesn’t happen overnight either. Some dogs can go through training for upwards of 2 years! In addition, some might think only specific breeds can be trained as service dogs and the training must begin from when they’re a puppy. This is not true. Canines with a Cause, for example, adopt dogs from high-kill shelters with specific traits to train and assist individuals with various disabilities.

When it comes to training a service animal there are many tests a dog must pass in order to qualify. The first step is the CGC (Canine Good Citizen) test – the CGC is a fairly common test that any dog can take to certify a dog as well-mannered at home and in the community. As dogs move through the training there are more difficult tasks they must pass. For example; controlled entry through a doorway, prompt responses to commands, no reaction to nearby noises, and more. After a qualified trainer is confident in the dog’s ability, the dog must pass a Public Access Test which is basically the final test that qualifies your dog to access airports, restaurants, hospitals, etc.

How to Identify a Service Dog

The best way to spot a true service dog is usually by their behavior. It is important not to assume someone is simply putting a service dog vest on their dog because they have no visible signs of a disability. Many of the disabilities I mentioned above can’t be detected simply through visual observation. Service dogs must always be on a leash, harnessed or tethered, they must also be controllable and very well-behaved responding to all verbal and/or hand signals from their handler.

Qualifying for a Service Dog

If you fall under the ADA definition of a mental or physical disability AND you believe your disability could be supported by a service animal, it is likely that you would qualify. However, it is important to first see a medical professional so they can assess your needs and ultimately determine if a service animal would be helpful for you in your situation. If the conclusion is that a service animal will be of great assistance to you, with a medical professional’s referral, the next steps would be to contact a trusted trainer to pair you with the right dog. After you’ve found the perfect companion, you will both be required to go through extensive training so you may have a successful relationship understanding each other’s needs and cues.

Therapy Dogs

Okay, now we’re getting into an area that seems to raise a lot of questions. We hope to clear up some of those questions right now. First off, Therapy Dogs are not trained to do specific tasks like Service Dogs however, they should still be well-trained, respond well to commands, be naturally calm, and friendly with strangers. It is important to still go through extensive training with your dog for them to acquire the “Therapy Dog” title. After you feel confident in your dog's training and behavior, a Therapy Dog Certification can be achieved through

Roles of Therapy Dogs

While you may simply be training your pup as your own Therapy Dog, Therapy Dogs often have many other roles. The dogs you see on site after natural disasters comforting people, dogs cruising the airport with a vest on them that says, “Pet Me”, or dogs visiting patients at the hospital are all qualified Therapy Dogs.

Emotional Support Dogs

Now we’re entering a gray area… For example, have you heard of people claiming ducks, bearded dragons, pigs, miniature horses, squirrels, and more as emotional support animals? I’m sure you have because it sounds just a bit bizarre! However, I don’t want to discredit those individuals so we’ll focus on dogs as emotional support animals here.

What qualifies a dog as an emotional support animal?

Emotional Support Dogs must provide some sort of comfort to their owners and have a calming presence both at home and in public situations. Emotional Support Dogs CAN fly with their owner and they can qualify for no-pet housing. However, it is important to acquire a letter from a medical professional to validate your claim because the use of emotional support dogs have and continue to be abused.

We hope our article clarified some questions you may have about Service, Therapy and Emotional Support Dogs. Please let us know if there is anything you think we missed and should include or what you learned and found interesting. In addition, if you have a story about how a Service, Therapy, or Emotional Support Dog has changed your life for the better, we are dying to hear it!


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"The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man."

- Charles Darwin

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