9 min read

The Difference Between Therapy Dogs, Service Dogs And Emotional Support Animals

These hardworking pups each have a very important — and unique — job to do 🐕

A dog does not need a special title to make a difference in his owner’s life — he or she will happily offer companionship and comfort without asking anything in return. But sometimes making it “official” can help.

Service dogs, therapy dogs and emotional support animals are all types of hardworking canines with very different responsibilities. Some of these dogs are faithful pets, while others have spent years training to perform tasks. While the names of these helpful pups can get confusing, their roles aren’t exactly interchangeable.

So what is the difference between therapy dogs, service dogs and emotional support animals?

Service and assistance dogs

Meet Finnegan McNeil, a toy schnauzer and hearing alert service dog. He helps his dad navigate the world safely by alerting him to important sounds such as sirens, alarms, doorbells and cell phone rings with physical cues, such as pushing his nose to his dad’s hand.

Finnegan’s owner has hearing loss associated with Meniere's disease, and he relies on his service dog to keep him safe both in public and private spaces.

Finnegan spent two years training to perform his special task, and when he is on the job, he must stay focused. Service dogs like Finnegan can aid with a wide range of disabilities, from the physical to sensory, psychiatric, intellectual and mental. They help their owners in many critical ways — by retrieving objects, pulling wheelchairs, turning on light switches, pushing elevator buttons, opening and closing doors or finding help.

One of the most important distinctions between service dogs and other types of working animals is that dogs like Finnegan are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Under the ADA, service dogs are not required to wear a special vest or sign (though they often do), nor do their owners have to provide proof of training.

Finnegan can go anywhere his dad goes, even if dogs typically aren’t allowed. According to the ADA, service dogs can enter libraries, supermarkets, schools and churches — so his dad knows he will always be protected.

While these vigilant pups may look cute, never try to pet a service dog while he’s working. Dogs like Finnegan need to stay alert so they can help keep their best friend safe.

Emotional support animals

Meet Apollo, a corgi and emotional support animal. Apollo helps with his dad’s anxiety disorder simply by being … himself. He goes everywhere he can with his dad, often riding around in a special backpack and giving plenty of kisses.

Like other emotional support dogs, Apollo is a companion animal whose purpose is to provide comfort and support to a person suffering from a mental or emotional condition or disorder. These dogs are not required to have any special training as their very presence can minimize their owner’s symptoms. As such, emotional support animals are not covered by the ADA, and do not have the same access to public places as service dogs.

With a note from a therapist, certain exceptions can be made when it comes to pet-restrictive environments. Housing covered under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) must permit an emotional support animal, even when pets are not usually allowed. Additionally, emotional support animals are permitted to fly in the cabin of the airplane with their handler. Occasionally, these dogs may wear a vest or special ID tag, but most of the time they look just like normal pups.

Therapy dogs

Meet Lady Darci, a relaxed Cavalier King Charles spaniel and therapy dog who has been visiting hospitals in New South Wales, Australia, for four years. Lady Darci takes pleasure in hopping on the beds of convalescing patients (after receiving permission, of course) and brightening their mood with her expert puppy cuddles.

She doesn’t have an incredibly taxing job compared to service dogs, but it’s an important one, and she seems to have a natural knack for it. “Lady Darci is a very skilled dog, very intuitive and seems to know what any patient needs,” Nicole Celeban, Lady Darci’s handler, told The Dodo. “Most often when she’s placed on the bed, she’ll reach up to the patient, touch nose-to-nose, without licking. Once she’s said hello in her way, she’ll lie down next to the patient and snooze.”

Nepean Therapy Dogs

Like Lady Darci, therapy dogs are typically calm, well-behaved, people-loving dogs who visit high-stress environments such as hospitals, nursing homes and airports to provide comfort. Therapy dogs can come from anywhere, and begin training at any age — it’s all about temperament. Because therapy dogs are technically pets, they do not perform any specific tasks, besides allowing everyone and anyone to pet them — and they must always receive permission before visiting an institution.

Therapy dogs, like Lady Darci, give those they meet a break from their daily routine and help make their worries disappear, even for just a short time.

All three of these working dogs have unique skills that help them do their jobs — and each one has an important part to play in making life just a little bit easier for the people who love them.