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Therapy Dog vs Emotional Support Dog vs Service Dog. What Are the Differences?

Brooke Billingsley

By Brooke Billingsley

Vet approved

Dr. Paola Cuevas Photo

Reviewed & Fact-Checked By

Dr. Paola Cuevas

Vet, MVZ

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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There are a lot of questions about the differences between the various types of therapy dogs, emotional support dogs, and service dogs. There’s also a lot of misinformation out there, which can negatively impact people who require the assistance of these animals.

When people pass off pets as service dogs or attempt to get the same rights for their ESA as those that are provided for service dogs, it makes it more difficult for people with service dogs to get fair treatment in the future. It can also lead to poorly behaved animals setting working dogs back in their training. Let’s talk about the differences between these dogs to clear up some misinformation out there.

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Overview of Therapy Dogs

Pet Therapy dog visiting hospital
Image credit: Monkey Business Images, Shutterstock

Therapy dogs are an excellent resource for many people, but they are provided few protections. These dogs are well-trained dogs that go to various places to provide support to people. They can visit workplaces, schools, nursing homes, and even hospitals to provide support to people who need it.

How Can I Get My Dog Registered as a Therapy Dog?

While there is not a national therapy dog registry, there are organizations that are certified to provide therapy dog certifications. These organizations require dogs to pass stringent testing for things like obedience and fear response to ensure they are safe to enter into public places to provide support.

Who Do Therapy Dogs Help?

Therapy dogs are not prescribed or assigned to any particular person, so they are able to help just about anyone. They can visit multiple types of locations and simply provide support through their presence, affection, and companionship.

dog and owner in the grass
Image Credit: Jan Steiner from Pixabay

Where Can Therapy Dogs Go?

Therapy dogs can go anywhere that pets are allowed to go. For certified therapy dogs, they may be allowed into places like hospitals and other locations where pets usually are not permitted. However, a handler can’t just walk into one of these locations with their therapy dog and expect to be allowed. Typically, the business itself will set up the therapy dog’s visit.

Are Therapy Dogs Given Housing Protections?

No, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) doesn’t extend housing protections to therapy dogs since they are not performing a service or specific support to their handler. Dogs can be both a therapy dog and ESA or service dog, in which case certain housing protections would extend to the dog.

Pros
  • Can help many people.
  • Can be registered through certified organizations.
  • Provide emotional support and companionship.
  • May be allowed into places that pets typically are not.
  • Can also be an ESA or service dog.
Cons
  • Typically, not allowed in places where pets aren’t allowed.
  • Not provided housing protections.

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Overview of Emotional Support Dogs

dog owner with her pet
Image Credit: Piqsels

Emotional support animals (ESA) are a great resource to people who struggle with their mental health, but they are often very misunderstood. They are not service dogs and function more like therapy dogs for a specific individual.

How Can I Get My Dog Registered as an Emotional Support Dog?

There is no registry for ESA in the US. However, if you have a diagnosis of a mental illness or emotional disability, your doctor will be able to provide you with a letter stating your need for an ESA and how they believe an ESA will be able to make a difference in your life. There is no way to have your dog considered an ESA without a letter from a doctor or other medical professional whose scope of practice covers this.

Who Do Emotional Support Dogs Help?

ESA provides therapeutic support and companionship to an individual. They function very similarly to therapy dogs, but they only help one person. They don’t require special training and don’t even require basic training, but having an untrained ESA can lead to the handler losing some of the protections offered to ESA.

man holding his pet dog
Image Credit: _Piqsels

Where Can Emotional Support Dogs Go?

ESA is limited to only going places where pets are allowed to go. They cannot enter grocery stores, restaurants, hospitals, or other areas where having pets is a public health concern.

Are Emotional Support Dogs Given Housing Protections?

Yes, the FHA does provide protections for ESA. These protections include allowing an ESA and their handler to live in a home that does not otherwise allow pets. Documentation from a doctor is necessary for these protections to be put in place. The exceptions to this are if the dog is a hazard, nuisance animal, or isn’t under the control of the handler. If someone feels they and their ESA have been discriminated against in looking for housing, they can file a complaint with the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and an investigation of discrimination will be performed.

Pros
  • Help a specific individual.
  • Can be a resource to anyone with a mental illness or emotional disability whose doctor feels they’ll benefit.
  • Don’t require specialized training.
  • Provided housing protections through the FHA and HUD.
Cons
  • Cannot enter places that pets are not allowed in.
  • Can lose protections if not well behaved.

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Overview of Service Dogs:

service dog
Credit: Africa Studio, Shutterstock

Service dogs are the most commonly misunderstood of the bunch. These dogs perform tasks that make life easier and safer for their handler, making them extremely important.

How Can I Get My Dog Registered as a Service Dog?

There is no service dog registry in the United States, although unscrupulous websites would have you believe otherwise. Service dogs do not have to be professionally trained and can be trained by their handler. The requirements of having a service dog are that the handler must have a documented disability, and the dog must perform specific tasks for the handler to aid in managing their disability.

Who Do Service Dogs Help?

Service dogs are considered a type of medical equipment, and they perform tasks for an individual to help them manage their disability. There are multiple types of service dogs, including seeing-eye dogs, psychological service dogs, diabetic alert dogs, seizure alert dogs, and hearing dogs. They can perform a variety of tasks to make life easier and safer for the handler.

service dog
Image credit: Africa Studio, Shutterstock

Where Can Service Dogs Go?

Service dogs can go just about anywhere, even places where pets are not allowed. There are some limits on this for the sake of public health concerns, though. Although service dogs can accompany their handler in their hospital room, for example, they cannot accompany them into an operating suite. They can enter swimming pool decks but cannot enter the water. They can visit places like restaurants but cannot sit in chairs or eat at the table.

Are Service Dogs Given Housing Protections?

Yes, the FHA does provide protections for service dogs. Service dogs can live anywhere, even in areas where pets are not allowed. Concerns about allergies and cleanliness are not enough to get a landlord off the hook if they refuse housing to a service dog and their handler. Like with ESA, a service dog’s handler can file a complaint with HUD, and an investigation will be undertaken to determine if the person was discriminated against or not. It’s worth adding here that a handler of a service dog cannot be charged pet fees, cleaning fees, or other additional fees for having a service dog in the living space.

Pros
  • Make life easier and safer for individuals with disabilities.
  • Can perform a variety of tasks.
  • Are allowed to enter most places.
  • Provided housing protections.
  • Handler cannot be charged additional housing fees for having a service dog.
Cons
  • Do have some limits on the locations they can visit.

Finding More Information

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the primary resource for information regarding service animals. They do discuss ESA as well, but to a lesser extent due to the lessened protections offered to ESA. For information about housing rights, FHA and HUD are fantastic resources with lots of information on their websites concerning your rights with an ESA and a service dog being provided housing.

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Conclusion

Therapy dogs, ESA, and service dogs are all wonderful options to help maintain the mental and physical health of people. However, they do each serve slightly different purposes, with service dogs being the most well-trained of the bunch. Therapy dogs and ESA provide emotional support to either multiple people or an individual, encouraging better mental health, and in turn, physical health, simply by being a present companion.

See also:


Featured Image Credit: Left: Therapy Dog: Monkey Business Images, Shutterstock | Center: Emotional Support Dog: Piqsels | Right: Service Dog: Africa Studio, Shutterstock

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