The Difference Between Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs, and Emotional Support Dogs

rottweiler wearing a service dog vest

Just because a dog has a vest doesn’t mean they are a service dog. Service dogs are working dogs as are therapy dogs and emotional support dogs, but these categories are not the same. It’s important to understand the difference. Here’s the difference between service dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support dogs:

Service Dogs

Service dogs have a specific job to do. They are specifically trained as an assistance dog to someone who is living with a disability and are trained for that person’s specific needs. The American Disabilities Act does not require service dogs to wear anything that defines them as such. However, most owners/handlers do outfit their service dog with a vest, bandana, or harness while working so that others know they are a service dog and that they are currently working.

This matters because it is imperative that you do not distract or interfere with a service dog while they are working. Service dogs have a specific job to do and distracting them can cause injury to their owner/handler who is relying on them to stay focused on their job. Yes, dogs are adorable and it’s natural to want to pet them. However, make sure you leave working service dogs alone so they can do their job and protect their owner/handler.

As an important note, if a service dog approaches you without an owner/handler and tries to get your attention, do not ignore them! It’s possible they have been trained to find help if something happens with their owner/handler. Pay attention to them, follow them, and be prepared to call for assistance in case of a medical emergency.

Fake Service Dogs Cause Real Problems for Real Service Dogs

The ADA allows public access for service dogs while they are working, which means they are allowed in public areas where dogs are normally prohibited. This perceived freedom has resulted in a rise in “fake service dogs” from irresponsible and entitled dog owners who want to be able to bring their dog with them everywhere they go regardless of their needs, consideration of others, or their dog’s behavior, ability to interact with others, or level of training.

These are often emotional support dogs parading as service dogs or owners who have bought a vest somewhere online and put it on their dog. There are also organizations that sell service dog certification or registration documents online – these are not valid and the ADA and Department of Justice do not recognize them. This is illegal – full stop. In addition, as it has become more common, it has made things more difficult for actual service dogs to do their jobs and for their owner/handler to live their life without harassment.

A service dog is trained to assist someone with a disability to help their owners complete tasks they would have difficulty completing on their own. If you do not have a disability, you do not meet the ADA requirements for a service dog – end of story. Service dogs are thoroughly trained; they have to be in order to do their jobs to the best of their ability. They are trained to be well-behaved, quiet, and focused while working. This means they are not to be disruptive, unless they are trained to do so in order to alert their owner/handler of a specific issue or to get help.

What Business Owners Should Know About Service Dogs

As a business owner, it’s important that you familiarize yourself with ADA regulations so you can support actual service dog teams when they enter your business and protect yourself in case you are confronted with a potential fake service dog. It is illegal for you to ask for documentation of a service dog team, especially since the ADA does not require service dogs to have certification or documentation. As a side note, service dogs are required to adhere to local dog licensing and registration laws.

One of the biggest indications of a service dog, regardless of a vest, badge, or harness, is overall behavior and manners. A service dog will be well-behaved, exhibit impeccable manners, will be glued to their owner/handler, and will be within their owner/handler’s control at all times. The only time a service dog is disruptive is if they are alerting their owner of danger or are seeking help for their owner due to a potential medical emergency.

A dog that is not well-behaved or is out of the owner/handler’s control in public is likely not a service dog. As a business owner, you cannot refuse service to a service dog and their handler. However, if the dog is disruptive, out of the handler’s control, or posing a threat to the health and safety of others, you can request for it to be removed from the premises. As an important note, you cannot refuse services or goods to the person if they stay and the animal is removed.

Make sure you are up to date on the latest ADA regulations and fully understand what you can and cannot do and can and cannot ask under the law before you take any actions.

Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs provide psychological or physiological therapy. They also have an owner/handler, but instead of providing their service to their owner/handler, therapy dogs offer their services to others. They are commonly found working in schools, nursing homes, hospitals, and more. Where service dogs are trained to focus only on their owner/handler while working, therapy dogs are trained to interact with a variety of people while working in order to provide benefits to them. Therapy dogs are meant to engage with others while service dogs are only meant to engage with others in order to alert them of an emergency with their owner/handler.

Although therapy dogs also often receive extensive training, they are not considered service dogs and do not fall under the ADA. This means that they do not have the same rights as service dogs and should not be brought into public places where dogs are prohibited. They do a different job than service dogs and do not have the same legal designation.

Emotional Support Dogs

Emotional support dogs provide comfort and support to their owner/handler who suffers from a mental or emotional condition. These are sometimes referred to as comfort dogs or companion dogs. They are not required to be trained to perform specific tasks to assist their owners like service dogs are. They are solely meant to provide affection, companionship, unconditional love, and emotional stability.

They are not protected under the ADA, but they are protected under the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). This means that emotional support dogs are not considered to be service dogs and, therefore, they are not permitted in public areas where dogs are prohibited. However, it does mean that an emotional support animal is allowed to live with their owner/handler even if there are “no pet” policies in place and allows for them to fly with their owner/handler in the cabin of an airplane.

As a note, a medical recommendation letter from a doctor or licensed mental health professional is required for an emotional support dog, people are allowed to ask you for this documentation, and the emotional support dog should be identified as such by a vest, harness, or tag if working in public. Although an emotional support dog may provide a service for you as the owner/handler, it is important to remember that your emotional support dog is not a considered a service dog under current law. This means that you cannot bring them into public places where dogs are prohibited and demand they are allowed access as this is illegal.

As a dog owner, a business owner, and a member of the public, it’s important to know the difference between service dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support dogs. As a dog owner, this ensures you know what is and is not allowed with your own dog. As a business owner, this helps you and your staff interact better with your customers while also being prepared to protect your business under the law. As a general member of the public, this informs you on how to interact, or not interact, with certain types of working dogs. This makes things easier for service dog teams when they are out in public and provides more informed, better experiences for everyone.