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  • Molly Weinfurter

Service Dog vs Emotional Support Dog vs Therapy Dog

Updated: May 27

Service dogs, emotional support dogs, and therapy dogs all differ from pets, but they’re also very different from each other. While they all help people in some way, they don’t have the same rights and requirements. So, if you’ve ever wondered what the definitions for a service dog vs emotional support dog vs therapy dog are, keep reading to find out more.

The reason I think this topic is so important to cover is because I have seen and heard stories about people faking service dogs and emotional support dogs many times. In those cases, the dogs are often disruptive and out of control, causing some people to think negatively about service dogs. When people pretend their dogs are service dogs or support dogs, it only makes it harder for people who actually need the dogs to take their dogs places, which is what I've seen in many news articles lately.

Service Dog vs Emotional Support Dog vs Therapy Dog: What's the Difference?

Even though these three types of dogs all assist humans, they're not the same. In general, a service dog is trained to perform a specific task to assist their handler, an emotional support animal provides comfort to their handler, and a therapy dog provides comfort to lots of people. A service dog is typically allowed in all public places while the other two are only allowed at certain places under certain circumstances.

Service dog with bag

What is a Service Dog?

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the service dog definition is “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” Some common tasks include guiding the blind, alerting people who are deaf, calming a person during a panic attack, pulling a wheelchair, alerting of a seizure, and reminding someone to take medications.

Service dogs are incredible animals that behave calmly in public so they can focus on their human and properly perform their task. As cute as they are, you can’t pet service dogs when they’re working because it could distract them from helping their humans.

While Labrador Retrievers are one of the most popular service dog breeds, lots of other breeds can be service dogs if trained properly.

Where are Service Dogs Allowed?

Service dogs are allowed anywhere their humans go, even if that place doesn’t typically allow pets. They’re welcome at hotels, at rental properties, and on planes for free because they need to be there for the safety of their humans.

If staff members at a business suspect the service dog may not be a real service dog, they can ask two questions: 1. Is this dog required because of a disability? 2. What task is the dog trained to perform?

Service dog handlers don’t have to provide any paperwork to prove their dog is a legit service dog. The dog should be leashed unless a leash would prevent them from performing their task.

Staff members cannot ask a person with a service dog to leave unless the dog is out of control and the handler isn’t doing anything to control the dog or the dog isn’t housebroken. Both are signs that the dog isn’t a real service dog.

How Does a Dog Become a Service Dog?

To become a service dog, a dog must go through specific training to be able to assist that person with their disability. Service dog training typically takes one to two years, but it varies based on the specific tasks. A service dog must also meet local laws related to licensing, registration, and vaccinations to be a valid service dog.

In many places, it’s illegal for someone to fake a service dog. Punishments could be jail time or a hefty fine. Plus, it’s harmful to pretend your dog is a service dog because it makes daily life harder for people who actually need their service dogs with them.

Guide dog with blind person

What is an Emotional Support Dog?

An emotional support animal is an animal that provides a therapeutic benefit to their human. They typically help people cope with mental health conditions. These animals don’t go through any specific training like a service animal would, which is why they don’t have as many rights as service dogs.

Where are Emotional Support Animals Allowed?

Contrary to popular belief, emotional support animals aren’t allowed in public places where pets aren’t allowed. So, for example, you cannot take an ESA to the grocery store with you. However, landlords must allow ESAs in rental properties, even if that property is normally pet-free. People with ESAs also can’t be charged pet fees at rental properties. So, if you need an emotional support animal, you never have to worry about not finding a housing situation that allows them.

Other than that, an ESA’s rights are the same as a pet’s. ESAs used to be able to fly for free, but so many people kept pretending their dog was an ESA, causing airlines to stop allowing ESAs on planes for free.

How Do Emotional Support Animals Get Registered?

If you want to get your pet registered as an emotional support animal, all you need to do is get a letter from a certified mental health professional indicating that you need one. So, if you think you could benefit from an emotional support animal, ask your doctor about it.

Unfortunately, there are lots of phony sites out there that claim to get your pet certified as an ESA for a fee. With a legit ESA, you shouldn’t have to pay anything because you only need your doctor’s approval. If you pay for an ESA letter when you don’t really need one, you’re only hurting the people who genuinely need an emotional support animal.

Trust me, I wish I could take my dog everywhere. In college, I even considered buying a certificate through an ESA site before I learned that those sites are fake. Yet, after doing more research, I realized that ESAs can't go to non-dog-friendly places. Also, I now know that just because I wanted my dog to be registered as an ESA didn't mean it was the right thing to do.

So, if you're planning to buy an ESA certificate when you don't need an ESA, please reconsider for the sake of people who do need them. And if you think you could benefit from an ESA, talk to a medical professional.

Emotional support dog comforting human

What is a Therapy Dog?

Like emotional support dogs, therapy dogs provide comfort to people. However, instead of only helping their humans, they help lots of people. Therapy dogs typically visit places like schools, nursing homes, and hospitals to help cheer people up.

Where are Therapy Dogs Allowed?

Therapy dogs aren’t allowed in public places unless they’re there specifically to provide therapy. So, they normally have the same rights as pets unless they’re signed up to visit a public place like a school or hospital. Unfortunately, therapy dogs don’t usually get any rental benefits like a service dog or emotional support dog would.

How Does a Dog Get Certified as a Therapy Dog?

For a dog to be certified as a therapy dog, they need to pass the Canine Good Citizen Test. The test evaluates the dog’s temperament by seeing how they behave around people and dogs in different situations. To get your dog properly trained to be a therapy dog, talk to a local trainer.

Also, you’ll want to ensure your dog does well in a variety of public settings. Take them out to parks or dog-friendly stores as much as you can to make sure they’d behave well as a therapy dog. I know a few people who have registered their dogs as therapy dogs, and they're usually relaxed, well-socialized dogs.

Once your dog has been trained and you’re confident they’ll behave well in public, you can get them certified. Here’s a list of AKC-recognized therapy dog organizations so you can find one near you. When your dog is certified, you can sign them up to provide therapy to lots of people. It’s heartwarming to see your dog bringing joy to others.

Therapy dog wearing vest

Frequently Asked Questions

Are Service Dog Vests Required?

No, service dogs aren’t required to wear specific vests, harness, or ID tags. They just need to be well-behaved in public settings and able to perform a specific task for their human.

Can Service Dogs Bark?

Service dogs will never bark unless they’re trained to bark in certain situations. For example, a service dog may bark to alert their handler of fluctuating blood sugar levels or a seizure.

Why Can’t Service Dogs Be Pet?

Petting a service dog could distract them from properly doing their job. A distracted service dog may not be able to effectively assist their human, so don’t try to interact with service dogs in public.

How Much Do Service Dogs Cost?

A fully trained service dog could cost $15,000 to $30,000. Some organizations will raise money to provide service dogs for free because many people who need service dogs cannot afford them. Health insurance plans rarely cover the cost of a service dog.

Are Service Dog Expenses Tax Deductible?

Service dog expenses can be tax deductible because they’re considered medical expenses. The service dog must be a legit service animal to quality.

Are Therapy Dog Expenses Tax Deductible?

No, therapy dog expenses aren’t tax deductible since therapy dogs aren't necessary for a person’s well-being the way a service dog is. Emotional support animal expenses usually aren’t tax deductible either.

Are Emotional Support Dogs Allowed in Hospitals?

No, emotional support animals typically aren’t allowed in hospitals because they don’t have the same rights as service dogs.

Service dog walking on leash

Service Dogs Get More Privileges

While service dogs, emotional support dogs, and therapy dogs all help people, service dogs get the most privileges because they go through intense training and are necessary for their humans to live normal lives. All three of these dog types provide amazing benefits for humans, but they’re all very different at the same time.

Remember, if your dog is a service dog, they need to go through intense training. ESAs don't, but they still need to be recommended with a doctor's note. If you don't need either of them, never pretend your dog is one. As for therapy dogs, you just need to make sure your dog has a good temperament for them to pass the test.


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