ESA, Therapy, and Service Dogs: What’s the Difference?

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Dogs play a significant role in the lives of many. For as long as dogs have been a part of our society they have performed many important jobs such as seeing eye dogs and search and rescue dogs and have carried out various other vital roles. Three such prominent roles include Therapy Dogs, Emotional Support Animals, and Service Dogs.

Sometimes these roles can get confused. On the surface these titles can seem a little confusing, each animal helper assists people in some way. Yet each position is unique and comes with its own set of rules and regulations. In fact, regulations play an important role in the distinction between Therapy Dogs, Emotional Support Dogs, and Service Dogs.

Therapy Dogs

A Therapy Dog, as the name implies, provides a form of therapy for other people. Therapy dogs and their owners traditionally volunteer in settings that include schools, hospitals, nursing homes, public libraries, and wherever their presence is needed. It should be noted that therapy dogs and comfort dogs, or crisis response dogs, are not the same thing. Therapy dogs will be present in the locations listed above whereas crisis dogs will only be present at natural and manmade crises to offer comfort to those in need.

Therapy Dogs can sometimes be called in for serious incidents; such was the case with Calie, a Therapy Dog in Moore, Oklahoma who visited first responders after a severe tornado tore through town. Another example would be the kind-hearted Therapy Dogs who brought comfort to those of West Columbia, SC at the West Columbia Disaster Recovery Center after severe flooding.

Therapy Dogs are not the same as Service Dogs and Emotional Support Dogs and as such do not have the same rights. For the most up-to-date rulings and statutes on the rights of Therapy, Service, and Support Dogs consult the ADA for further information. 

Therapy Dogs go through training to become a certified Therapy Dog. Most frequently, trainer will strive for an AKC Therapy Dog™ title. All dogs are eligible to earn AKC Therapy Dog™ titles from purebreds to mixed breeds. Size, shape, and breed doesn’t matter when it comes to a Therapy Dog – it’s all about personality, temperament, and trainability. According to the ACK, the purpose of the AKC Therapy Dog™ program is to:

  • The AKC Therapy Dog™ program awards official AKC titles to dogs who have worked to improve the lives of the people they have visited.

  • AKC Therapy Dog titles can be earned by dogs who have been certified by AKC recognized therapy dog organizations and have performed the required number of visits.

  • AKC does not certify therapy dogs; the certification and training is done by qualified therapy dog organizations. The certification organizations are the experts in this area and their efforts should be acknowledged and appreciated.

Key legislator highlight for Therapy Dogs: Therapy Dogs are to be allowed on public transportation while commuting to or from a therapy engagement.

Emotional Support Dogs (ESA)

Up next are the Emotional Support Dogs. In reality, almost any animal can be an Emotional Support Animal, but for this blog, we’ll focus on dogs. Emotional Support Dogs provide comfort and support in the form of affection and companionship for any individual suffering from mental or emotional conditions. Such conditions may include:

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Bipolar disorder

  • Mood disorder

  • Panic attacks

  • Fear/Phobias

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

  • Suicidal Thoughts/Tendencies

Emotional Support Dogs need to be prescribed to an individual by a doctor or mental health professional for an existing medical condition which would otherwise keep the individual from performing daily tasks. In the eyes of the law, an Emotional Support Dog is not a pet; they are viewed as companion animals that provide therapeutic benefits to an individual with a mental or psychiatric disability. Put simply, all of this means that someone has to need an Emotional Support Dog for a verifiable disability as opposed to simply wanting a dog for companionship.

Under the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHA) Emotional Support Dogs classify as a “reasonable accommodation” meaning that they must be allowed residence in “no pet” buildings and loadings. The FHA ruling does not allow for Emotional Support Animals to accompany their humans everywhere they go such as grocery stores, restaurants, or to the movies. Emotional Support Dogs do not require any special training or certification but are expected to behave properly in all settings.  


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