Understanding the Differences: Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs, and Emotional Support Dogs

Understanding the Differences: Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs, and Emotional Support Dogs

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Understanding the Difference in Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs, and Emotional Support Dogs

Service Dogs

Service dogs are highly trained animals that are specifically trained to perform tasks and assist individuals with disabilities.They undergo rigorous training to learn tasks that are directly related to the person’s disability, such as guiding individuals who are visually impaired or alerting individuals with hearing impairments to sounds. Service dogs have full public access rights and are allowed to accompany their handlers in places where animals are typically not permitted, including stores, restaurants, hotels, and hospitals. They are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Service dogs can provide various types of assistance, such as search and rescue operations or explosives detection.

For example, a service dog trained to assist a person with mobility impairments can fetch items, open doors, or provide stability and balance support while walking.

Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs, on the other hand, are not considered service dogs under the ADA. They are trained to provide comfort, affection, and emotional support to individuals in clinical settings, such as hospitals, nursing homes, and schools. Unlike service dogs, therapy dogs do not have the same legal rights and access to public places. Their presence in public areas is by courtesy or invitation only. This means that therapy dogs may visit these establishments to provide emotional support to individuals, but their access is not guaranteed by law.

For example, a therapy dog may visit a hospital and interact with patients, providing comfort and companionship during their stay.

Emotional Support Dogs

Emotional support dogs, also known as emotional support animals, offer support to individuals with psychological disorders.These animals provide comfort, companionship, and emotional stability to their owners. Unlike service dogs, emotional support dogs are not trained to perform specific tasks related to a person’s disability. They are prescribed by mental health professionals and require a letter of diagnosis to qualify as an emotional support animal. However, as of January 2021, emotional support animals are no longer required to be accommodated by airlines. The legal rights and protections for emotional support dogs may vary, and their access to public areas is more restricted compared to service dogs.

For example, an emotional support dog may provide comfort and alleviate symptoms of anxiety or depression for its owner.

Differences in Access and Privileges

Service dogs have full public access rights and can accompany their handlers in various public places, including businesses and establishments where animals are typically prohibited. This is because service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks for individuals with disabilities, and denying their access would impede their ability to provide assistance. On the other hand, therapy dogs have limited access to public places, and their presence is usually by courtesy or invitation only. Emotional support dogs have restricted access to public areas, and their legal rights can vary depending on local laws and regulations.

For example, a service dog and its handler have the right to enter a restaurant or store together, while a therapy dog may only be allowed in a hospital or nursing home with the permission of the facility.

Training and Certification Requirements

Service dogs require specialized training to perform tasks that aid individuals with disabilities. The training is tailored to the specific needs of the handler and their disability. However, the ADA does not require service dogs to have specific documentation or certification. While some establishments may ask for verification or documentation, such as proof of training, it is not legally required under the ADA. Therapy dogs, on the other hand, do not require specific training but should exhibit certain qualities, such as being calm and friendly. Certification processes for therapy dogs exist and can be obtained through organizations like the American Kennel Club (AKC).

For example, a service dog may undergo extensive training to learn tasks such as retrieving medication or alerting to an oncoming seizure. A therapy dog, on the other hand, may simply need to be well-behaved and comfortable around people.


Understanding the differences between service dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support dogs is vital for individuals with disabilities or mental health conditions. Service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks for people with disabilities and have full public access rights. Therapy dogs provide comfort and affection in clinical settings but do not have the same legal rights as service dogs. Emotional support dogs offer support to individuals with psychological disorders and have limited legal rights. Each type of dog serves a unique purpose and has distinct access and privileges. Proper training and certification are essential for service dogs and therapy dogs. Emotional support dogs provide companionship but may have restrictions on public access. By understanding these differences, individuals can make informed decisions about the type of dog that best suits their needs. Reach out to our team at Boston Off Leash K9 Training to help us guide you into the program that is a best fit for you to achieve your training goals with your pup!

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