Young girl in hospital hugging therapy dog

Emotional Support, Therapy, Service Dogs, Oh My!

by Ariel Wolf

Dogs are often referred to as “man’s best friend”. This is with good reason; dogs are steadfast helpers and dutiful companions. In the many millennia since humans domesticated canines, dogs have been working with us so we can be healthy, hearty, and protected, and in turn, we give the same to our four-legged friends. To further this effort, humans have been selectively breeding dogs to be skilled workers in a synergistic partnership. Dogs are capable of happily performing work that could be done by a human, but perhaps not as quickly or reliably.

Our collective breeding efforts have resulted in dogs born with instinctual qualities intrinsic to hunting, herding, drafting, guarding livestock, protecting the property and family, and being a companion. Dogs can provide helpful and meaningful work to humans. Although most people have heard the term “Service Dog” before, few really understand what it means. Unintentional misnomers like “Helper Dog”, “Emotional Therapy Dog”, or “Support Service Dog” further add to the confusion. So, what is a service dog, and how do they differ from other dogs whose job is also to help people?

So, what is a service dog, and how do they differ from other dogs whose job is also to help people?

What is a Service Dog?

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a Service Animal as “a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability”. This definition allows for a very broad interpretation, which can occasionally lead to confusion or misunderstandings. Service Dogs can be any breed or mix, and can be trained to assist with a myriad of disabilities. Service Dogs can be trained by an organization, a professional trainer, or by the disabled person themselves.

The commonality between all Service Dogs is their training to perform specific behaviors or tasks that will mitigate the disability of their person. A Service Dog is an accommodation to allow people with disabilities to have greater independence and function, not a benefit. It can be harmful when non-disabled people take advantage of this and purchase vests or useless ID kits to “make” their dog a Service Dog.

Note: Any online registration, certification, or identification kits are scams that steal your money and hurt disabled people. No certification or other form of ID is necessary for a service dog, as there is no federal registry or nationally recognized and administered Service Dog test or certification requirement.

Service Dogs should have a stable temperament and be well-trained and obedient enough to follow commands and perform tasks in a variety of difficult environments such as an amusement park or a busy mall.

The Rights of Businesses

Every business has the right to ask two questions to anyone with a dog: 1. Is this a service dog required because of your disability? and 2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform? A business cannot inquire as to the nature of the person’s disability but may ask about tasks. If the handler can answer those two questions, they must be given access with their service dog.

Given the loose parameters of the ADA Service Dog definition, sometimes people really do have a Service Dog that is trained to do a task or two, but their dog pulls heavily on leash, is barking, sniffing people, or is even acting threateningly. A handler may be asked to remove their Service Dog if the dog has inappropriately toileted, is acting aggressively, or is out of control and the handler cannot (or makes no attempts to) control the dog.

A handler may be asked to remove their Service Dog if the dog has inappropriately toileted, is acting aggressively, or is out of control and the handler cannot (or makes no attempts to) control the dog.

Service Dog Tasks

Because a Service Dog must perform tasks to mitigate disability, the dog’s tasks must be directly related to the person’s disability. It would make no sense for someone without a visual impairment to require their dog to guide them as a task. This is why any task behavior a service dog is trained to do must help the person accomplish something they cannot do, or cannot do easily or well on their own due to the nature of their disability.

Some examples of tasks may be (but certainly are not limited to) guiding someone who is blind, alerting to low and/or high blood sugar, leading a disoriented handler to an exit, finding the car in a parking lot for a handler with memory impairment, standing as a passive physical buffer to allow handler space, retrieving medicine or medical supplies, and finding a person to help the handler in a medical crisis.

Service Dogs are Only for the Disabled

Because of the specific training, a Service Dog is only a Service Dog if working for a disabled person. If a person does not have a disability, no dog that person owns can legally be a Service Dog, even if the dog is very well-behaved and well-trained. If a trained Service Dog were to be sold or rehomed, unless the dog went to another person with a similar disability who could use the tasks the dog had been trained for, the dog would then be a very well trained pet, no longer a Service Dog.

Service Dogs in Training

A Service Dog In Training (SDIT) may or may not be treated like a pet regarding access with the handler dependent on the state. The ADA is a federal law, so all states must allow task trained Service Dogs to accompany their disabled handlers. Handlers having access to train with their SDIT falls under state law. Some states allow all handlers choosing to owner train, as well as professional trainers and programs public access with an SDIT. While others only allow accredited programs to bring their SDITs to do “public access training” in stores and areas that are not pet friendly. A person may still be asked to remove their SDIT if the puppy or dog is toileting inappropriately, out of control, or acting aggressively.

The Natural Intuition of Dogs

Because dogs are naturally quite in tune with their people, many dogs will notice changes in the behavior of their owner. It is not uncommon for a dog to go out of their way to interact with their owner if the person is feeling tired, upset, or sick. Some dogs may naturally offer some medical alert and response behaviors. Roughly 15% of dogs will be able to notice some kind of medical change in their owner’s body. They may be able to detect changes such as migraines, blood sugar spikes and drops, seizures, among others, before the owner becomes aware this is a problem.

Pet dogs are included within that 15%, however not all dogs that can alert and whose alerts are helpful would be good service dogs. Any dog who is a Service Dog prospect or in training, needs these natural responses to medical changes and fluctuations to be “shaped” to a more desirable behavior, or a more reliable response. Otherwise the behavior may be helpful, but legally not a task. An example would be training a paw touch to the leg if the dog is a natural seizure alerter rather than barking frantically, as this may present issues in public.

Emotional Support

Emotional support and comfort are also not trained tasks, but benefits. If the answer to the latter of the previously mentioned two questions that businesses may ask is about “making me feel better”, “calming me”, or any other benefit of having an animal, that would fall under comfort, and the ADA specifically denies emotional support as a task. Just about every dog lover will find the presence of a dog as being soothing or healing.

People who have a diagnosed disabling psychiatric condition may get a letter from their doctor prescribing an Emotional Support Animal (ESA). Emotional Support Animals can be pretty much any species of animals. Dogs and cats are the most common, though guinea pigs, rabbits, and other typically cuddly or playful animals can be also. People with ESAs do NOT have access rights to take their ESA into places where pets are not welcome.

People with ESAs do NOT have access rights to take their ESA into places where pets are not welcome.

Psychiatric Service Dogs

Since someone must have a psychiatric disability to qualify for an ESA, that person also qualifies for a task trained Psychiatric Service Dog (PSD). The two differ in that an ESA is often very in tune to the owner’s emotions, and is often described as “velcro”. A PSD is often a very emotionally sturdy, fairly “bombproof” dog who is going to be able to task but not get sucked into the handler’s anxiety, panic, or other psychiatric fluctuations.

ESAs are treated as pets and are not covered by the ADA, but are covered by two other laws. These two laws are the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Air Carriers Access Act (ACAA). The FHA only covers some types of housing including rentals and Section 8 housing. An Emotional Support Animal letter is only necessary to request accommodation in housing that is not pet friendly. This letter is unnecessary if the person with an ESA owns their own home or lives in the home of someone who does not mind them having an ESA or pet. The ACAA allows people with psychiatric disabilities to have their ESA accompany them in cabin on a plane, the same as a Service Dog would do. Trains, busses, and other public transit are covered by the ADA so a Service Dog can travel with their handler, but not an ESA.

Therapy Dogs

Therapy Dogs are pets and often must pass a test and be accredited by a Therapy Dog organization before being allowed to do visitations in places like hospitals, nursing homes, schools. Like Emotional Support Animals, Therapy Dogs are meant to elicit comfort, and evoke joy and happiness. Unlike ESAs, Therapy Dogs spread the love to many people, not just their owner.

Therapy Dogs, like Service Dogs, have a training requirement that ESAs do not. Most Therapy Dog organizations create their own test a dog must pass before they can become a certified Therapy Dog. Although Therapy Dogs do go into some places that are not pet friendly, the handler of the Therapy Dog does not have public access rights with their dog. Hospitals or schools may set up programs that invite one or several Therapy Dogs to come visit or do a demonstration. While the Therapy Dog has permission to visit, the handler may not bring the dog around town. Therapy Dogs are encouraged to be pet and interacted with, whereas it’s necessary to ask to pet a Service Dog first, though many handlers prefer their Service Dogs not be petted. Therapy Dogs are supposed to spread love, Service Dogs need to focus on their jobs.

Helper Dogs

Service Dogs, Emotional Support Animals, and Therapy Dogs all fall under the same umbrella. Each is a “Helper Dog” with their own job title and their own job description. Not every dog is right for every job, and what may be the right dog for one position may be wrong for another! A three-legged Chihuahua may be a very good ESA and possibly a good Therapy Dog, but not a good Mobility Service Dog. A Labrador may not make it through training as a Guide Dog from an organization because he had too much prey drive. That same dog may make an excellent Service Dog in another area, or as a Therapy Dog. All dogs with these jobs share some overlap, but are each distinctly different, though all important. Each deserves respect, because in their own way, each dog is working hard!

Ariel Wolf
Ariel Wolf is a writer and active member of the service dog community. She has successfully owner trained her two year old German Wirehaired Pointer, Jubilee, as a mobility and medical response service dog.