Many people are confused by the terms Service Dog, Assistance Dog, Emotional Support Dog, and Therapy Dog. These terms are thought by many to mean the same thing. Often by people who should know the difference. Like mailmen, firemen, policemen, servicemen, all these dogs wear a uniform – a vest – which I suppose adds to the confusion. All of these dogs perform a job. A distinctly different job.
I receive at least one call or email a week from a person asking to get his or her dog certified as a Service Dog. When I explain to the person making the inquiry that Bright Spot Therapy Dogs is a Therapy Dog organization and we can’t help them with a Service Dog, the reply invariably is, But aren’t they the same thing? One caller said she had just read through our entire website and it was all about becoming a Service Dog. She was very confused, was seeking help for her son with autism, and was grateful for the time I spent on the phone explaining the difference to her.
Grouping Service, Assistance, and Emotional Support Dogs together, these dogs are all trained to help the person they live with. Therapy Dogs stand alone. These dogs are trained with their handler to go to health care and educational facilities to help others in need. Hospitals, nursing homes, hospice, mental health units, Alzheimer’s units, schools – both public and private, and colleges are commonly visited by a trained certified Therapy Dog Team.
Wikipedia offers a clear explanation for each of these terms:
An assistance dog is a dog trained to aid or assist a person with a disability. Many are trained by a specific organization, while others are trained by their handler (sometimes with the help of a professional trainer).
A service dog is a type of assistance dog specifically trained to help people who have disabilities including visual difficulties, hearing impairments, mental illness, seizures, diabetes, autism, and more.
An emotional support animal (ESA) is a companion animal that provides therapeutic benefit, such as alleviating or mitigating some symptoms of the disability, to an individual with a mental or psychiatric disability.
A therapy dog is a dog trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices, disaster areas, and to people with learning difficulties.
The American Kennel Club makes a clear distinction on their website between Therapy Dogs and Service Dogs:
Therapy dogs are dogs who go with their owners to volunteer in settings such as schools, hospitals, and nursing homes. From working with a child who is learning to read to visiting a senior in assisted living, therapy dogs and their owners work together as a team to improve the lives of other people.
Therapy dogs are not service dogs. Service dogs are dogs who are specially trained to perform specific tasks to help a person who has a disability. An example of a service dog is a dog who guides an owner who is blind, or a dog who assists someone who has a physical disability. Service dogs stay with their person and have special access privileges in public places such as on planes, restaurants, etc. Therapy dogs, the dogs who will be earning the AKC Therapy Dog™ title, do not have the same special access as service dogs. It is unethical to attempt to pass off a therapy dog as a service dog for purposes such as flying on a plane or being admitted to a restaurant.
I am very pleased that the American Kennel Club piece ends with the following statement: It is unethical to attempt to pass off a therapy dog as a service dog for purposes such as flying on a plane or being admitted to a restaurant. Hard to believe? I have witnessed people doing this, and I find it appalling. I can guarantee that a person legitimately entering such places with a service dog would love to trade places with anyone able to walk in freely, unassisted. Would the impostor like to make the trade?