People often confuse therapy dogs with service dogs or emotional support animals. While people sometimes use these terms interchangeably, they are all completely different. I thought it might be helpful to clarify the differences so that people can gain a better understanding of these terms.
I have many clients who currently have or are working toward their dogs becoming therapy dogs. Therapy dogs need to be well-behaved in public and responsive to their handlers. They are trained to provide comfort to many people. They do not provide comfort to only their handler and they are not trained for any specific tasks to help mitigate an individual's disability. Therapy dogs who have passed a therapy dog evaluation are only allowed in locations where therapy work is approved. Therapy dogs serve in many different areas, but some of the most common are hospitals, long term care facilities, or reading programs for children (at local libraries, for example). These dogs visit with their handler to bring comfort to patients and sometimes their families. Therapy dogs sometimes are also used in locations such as at court cases for victims who are having a difficult time testifying. Or they might help provide comfort after a traumatic event such as a mass shooting or a natural disaster.
Therapy dogs are NOT allowed to go anywhere in public. If stores, hotels, or other locations do not allow dogs, then therapy dogs are also not allowed there. They do not have any special privileges for being out in public, for flying on airplanes or for special exceptions in housing. Depending on the requirements for the location where therapy work is being provided, dogs will typically need to pass an evaluation to demonstrate they and their handlers are able to successfully and safely provide therapy work. Pet Partners is the largest nonprofit registering therapy dogs in the United States.
Service dogs are trained to help mitigate the disability of a specific person and are protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). These dogs must be well-behaved and responsive in public as well as be trained to perform specific tasks for the individual. These dogs ARE allowed access to public locations where other dogs are not allowed, as long as they are not disruptive to the environment. People are probably most familiar with guide dogs for the blind, but service dogs can also provide many other tasks such as helping deaf individuals. Service dogs can also provide diabetic alert or seizure alert services. Psychiatric service dogs can help individuals with psychiatric issues that prevent them from functioning in public places. There are many areas in which service dogs are helping individuals to lead more independent lives. However, these dogs must be trained to perform specific tasks to help mitigate the individuals' disabilities. Providing comfort is not enough to qualify as a service dog.
Emotional support animals provide comfort to a specific individual. ESA's are allowed to fly on airplanes and to live in housing that might not otherwise allow animals, but are not otherwise allowed in public places where dogs are not allowed. ESA's are not trained to perform any specific tasks and are therefore not considered service dogs nor are they provided any of the rights or protections of service dogs.
While there are many places that will “certify” your dog as a therapy dog, service dog or emotional support animal, you need to do your research. Service dogs, for example, are not required to be certified or licensed. There are some organizations who will “certify” a dog through their program, but certification is not required under law.
I will discuss each of these designations further in future articles. For now, I hope this helps to clarify the differences among the three designations so that you can better discuss with your friends and family.