Important Differences Between Service Dogs, Emotional Support Dogs, And Therapy Dogs

Do you know the difference between a service dog, an emotional support dog, and a therapy dog? Can they all get into the same places? Do they all have the same rights? These 3 types of helpful pets have different roles, rights, and responsibilities in the lives of the people they help. Here are the differences between the designations.

Service Dog

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Service dogs are trained to do certain tasks to help a person with a disability live a more independent life. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): “Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities…The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”[2]

Service dogs might lead the blind, alert a deaf person to sounds such as an alarm clock, open doors for a person in a wheelchair, or calm a veteran suffering a PTSD-related panic attack. The ADA allows service dogs to accompany their human everywhere, even into establishments where pets aren’t allowed. The only reason a service animal may be asked to leave the premises is if the dog is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it or if the dog is not housebroken.

Emotional Support Animal

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Emotional support dogs provide comfort and support in the forms of affection and companionship for an individual suffering from various mental and emotional conditions. An emotional support dog is not required to perform any specific tasks for a disability like service dogs are. They are meant only for emotional stability and unconditional love.

Emotional support dogs do not have the same access to public places that service dogs do. With a doctor’s note explaining the need for the emotional support animal, they can accompany their owners on airplanes and into housing that is usually pet-restricted. They generally aren’t allowed in any place where food is served.

Therapy Dog

IMAGE SOURCE: Army medicine via flickr

Therapy dogs are usually calm-demeanored dogs that should be well-trained and love people. They may either visit patients in nursing homes, hospitals, or similar environments or may be trained to work with therapists in a clinical setting to provide comfort for patients seeking treatment for mental health issues.

Therapy dogs do not have any more access than regular pets. They generally must get permission to enter hospitals and nursing homes. They don’t get to accompany their owners for free on airplanes and they aren’t allowed in pet-restricted housing.


It’s important to understand and respect these differences. Poorly-trained pets masquerading as service dogs give actual service dogs a bad name and may even distract them from doing their job.

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