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  • Drew Webster

Therapy dog, emotional support dog, service dog... what's the difference?

Animals have a profound impact on human life. Now more than ever we are seeing examples of the way animals are integrated into our homes, recreation activities, transportation, as well as health and therapeutic services. The language around groups of dogs associated with human health gets jumbled together. Let’s define some terminology so we can all understand the differences between companion dogs, service dogs, emotional support animals and therapy dogs.


Companion dogs are pet dogs who live with alongside humans in their environment. The complex relationship that is the shared experience between humans and non-human animals can have mutual benefits for both species involved.


Service Dogs are highly trained dogs for an individual to perform task based works and provide assistance to someone in need. Service dogs are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and have rights for public access. They may accompany a human handler to places where companion dogs are restricted. Even public spaces with “no pet policies” must allow service dogs access.


Emotional Support Animals (ESA) do not participate in specialized training. Therefore, a companion animal is eligible to become a ESA if a mental health practitioner has provided a letter of recommendation for a person to obtain ESA status for their animal. The ADA does not cover ESA and they do not have special permissions and public access rights. ESA animals can accompany a person on an airline or live in housing where “pets are not allowed” because they are protected by the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act.


Therapy Dogs are dogs of sound temperament with adequate training to participate in association with human health programs with a qualified handler. Therapy dogs typically participate in visitation with their handler to sanctioned events and facilities. These might include but are not limited to libraries, schools, hospitals, therapy offices and senior care facilities. Therapy dogs do not have special permission for public access and can be denied entrance into facilities where pets are not welcome if it is not sanctioned for therapy dog visitation. Dogs are not typically titled as “therapy dogs” alone but rather a dog and handler are certified as a team and must follow the policies and procedures of the individual recognizing organization including but not limited to regular re-certification and participation to keep their status.


These definitions of dog types are often confused and get bundled together. Understanding the differences may help clear up misunderstandings and confusion about dogs in public spaces. The recent surge in dogs (and other species) obtaining both legitimate and fraudulent ESA credentials has led to numerous encounters between highly trained service animals who are working and untrained animals with consequences ranging from minor incidents of distraction to animals being attacked and injured. In some cases of these encounters some service animals have developed problems and were no longer able to perform their working tasks. This is devastating if you consider the amount of time, money and training that goes into raising a service animal, not to mention the loss for the person in need of the animals’ ability. This has become a real and frequent problem for the service dog community as well as the legitimate ESA community. Those who have obtained legitimate permission to travel with their animal for emotional support who are conscientious of service animals and the rules for ESA are very careful not to over-step the boundaries.




When people obtain false service dog or emotional support animal credentials they typically are doing so to gain more public access for their animal. This is one example of the dark side of the human-animal bond, where someone’s desire to be near their companion animal leads them to take advantage of those who really do have a need. This has also caused a lot of blow-back of public opinion for allowing dogs into public spaces. More and more business are having to post signs and change their policies to clearly state only service dogs are allowed on the premises. The individual airline carriers are constantly changing their rules trying to find the right way to allow those with a legitimate need to benefit and discourage those who are merely taking advantage of a loosely defined system. All while adhering to the Air Carrier Access Act, which requires them to allow service animals and emotional support animals into the cabin of the planes.


In this culture clash it is the disability community which often suffers the most. Not only are people making the environment much more challenging for them to navigate with their service animals but business owners are becoming more skeptical of the legitimacy of their animal (especially in the case of “unseen” disabilities if it is not obvious what task the animal is performing). Businesses and transportation officials are walking a thin line and have to worry about not allowing someone access becoming a case of discrimination.


In the spirit of inclusion and education let’s look at what you are legally allowed to ask someone if you are unclear of the need for an animal in a public place. There are two questions you are permitted to ask a person with a service animal according to the ADA National Network, “is the animal required because of a disability?” and “what work or task has the animal been trained to perform?” (https://adata.org/publication/service-animals-booklet). If someone is trying to pass of a therapy dog or emotional support animal as a service animal, they should be asked to leave and depending on the state this can be criminal offense.


When it comes to traveling with your animal, not only whether you can do it, but should you do it? Training a service or emotional support animal to be well behaved and to be confident and relaxed in these complex scenarios takes time and thoughtful training. Not all dogs have the resiliency to tolerate these types of environmental conditions. There is a major ethical issue with taking dogs to places where they have not had enough positive, incremental exposure. Dogs can easily become frightened, overwhelmed and uncomfortable in these crowded, loud, vibrating spaces. People spend time considering how to get the dog to be in these places, yet regularly overlook the question of should the dogs be in these spaces? It’s important to also consider the well-being of the animal. Many of these environments are chaotic and sometimes dangerous for animals. It is not always in the dogs best interest to tag along. Please be considerate of those in need of an assistance animal and be mindful of each animals’ agenda when deciding how and where to travel with your animal.

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