What is a Therapy Dog?

by Anne Martinez

Many people confuse the terms Therapy Dog and Service Dog. In actuality they are quite different things, both legally and functionally. A service dog performs tasks and work for its owner to help with a disability. A therapy dog, on the other hand, provides affection and comfort to other people. Often a therapy dog is taken to visit settings such as hospitals, nursing homes, or disaster areas to provide furry love and support to people who are under stress.

A therapy dog provides affection and comfort to other people.

A therapy dog is also different from an emotional support animal (ESA). While both provide emotional support, ESA’s deliver it to their owners, while therapy dogs provide it to other people.

Therapy Dog Functions & Temperament

Therapy dogs can participate in formal, animal-assisted therapy settings or perform individual visits to places with people in need of comfort. They may take part in physical or occupational therapy or even reside at an in-patient facility to provide affection and comfort to residents. Colleges and universities sometimes bring in therapy dogs to help students de-stress.

Therapy Dog Visiting Senior Female Patient In HospitalIt takes a special dog to become a therapy dog. Temperament is crucial. Most importantly, therapy dogs must be affectionate to everybody and calm in all situations. They must be comfortable in many different environments, including places with wheelchairs, walkers, children, and loud noises. Like a service dog, they must also be well-trained in obedience. It’s important that they are able to tolerate petting and hugging that’s less than perfect. A child or a person with severe tremors, for example, may have trouble petting gently and smoothly.

Therapy Dog Certifications

Another difference between therapy dogs and service dogs is the need for certification. There is no formally recognized certification for service dogs, but there are several for therapy dogs. Though no certification is legally mandated for a therapy dog, many teams pursue certification through a recognized program. Such certifications help demonstrate their legitimacy as a therapy dog. They can also aid in obtaining insurance, which some places that therapy teams visit require. A few of the best-known programs for certifying or registering therapy dogs include:

  • Therapy Dogs International (TDI) – This is the most widely known therapy dog certification program. Unfortunately, they do not allow a dog that is a service dog to become certified as a therapy dog under their program.
  • Alliance of Therapy Dogs (formerly Therapy Dogs Incorporated) – While their website is currently a bit of a mess due to a transition, this organization has been assisting and supporting therapy teams since 1990.
  • Love on a Leash – Started in the 1980s in San Diego, this organization now has chapters in nearly every state.
  • Pet Partners – Originally founded in 1977 as the Delta Society, this organization reports a membership of over fifteen thousand volunteers.
  • The American Kennel Club (AKC) – The AKC program doesn’t specifically exclude service dogs, but it relies on the dog earning certification from another, approved organization first. Then AKC therapy titles can be earned based on the number of visits the team completes.

Most therapy dog teams work through an organization such as one of these, though there are many more. These organizations provide support, often insurance, and help connect therapy teams with facilities that need them.

Legally Speaking

While service dog handlers receive legal protection and public access rights through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), therapy dogs do not. There aren’t any U.S. laws that require businesses or other establishments to allow therapy dogs inside, and they aren’t afforded any special rights to travel in an airplane cabin with their handler. It is unethical to try to pass off a therapy dog as a service dog or emotional support animal to utilize the privileges service dog teams and ESA’s receive.

Therapy dogs and their handlers bring loads of love, comfort, and smiles to the world. A dog of any breed can do this wonderful work, as long as they have an appropriate temperament, solid obedience training, and a handler who wants to share the love.

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Anne Martinez
Anne is a freelance writer who specializes in health and technology. Her book Saved by the Dog: Unleashing Potential with Psychiatric Service Dogs is available on Amazon.com, or through the companion website, Servicedogspot.com.