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How Does a Therapy Dog Differ from a Service Animal?

Therapy animals, service animals and emotional support animals, what’s the difference?  There are three distinct categories with different laws applying to each.  While this article will deal mainly with therapy dogs, it is worth taking a minute to explain the differences.

Service animals:  By statute, service animals are either dogs or miniature horses who assist a disabled person by performing a specific function. A seeing eye dog is the most common example.  Service animals may also assist by performing such tasks as pulling a wheelchair or warning an epilepsy patient of an impending seizure. The Americans with Disabilities Act affords service animals legal rights that pets do not have.  They are generally permitted to accompany their owner in most public places and can fly for free on commercial flights with their owner.  Service animals are also permitted in all housing units regardless of the housing unit’s pet policy.

Emotional Support animals: These animals help with emotional and psychiatric disorders by providing comfort and support. Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and panic attacks are some of the conditions where emotional support animals are helpful.  These animals are protected under the Fair Housing Amendments Act and the Air Carrier Access Act.  Like service animals, they can fly on an airliner with their owner for free and are permitted to live in an apartment or housing complex regardless of the pet policy.

Therapy animals:  Unlike service animals and emotional support animals, therapy animals are considered pets who are trained to be of comfort to people who are hospitalized or who live in a nursing home or other institution. Therapy animals are not permitted to accompany their owners in public places like restaurants; they are not permitted to fly on commercial flights for free; and they are subject to the same pet policies in housing units as any other pet.

Not Every Dog Can Be a Therapy Dog.

Therapy animals can be dogs, cats, birds or a host of other animals, but most of the therapy animals we see are dogs. Therefore, the discussion in this article will be limited to therapy dogs. The most important characteristic for a therapy dog is its temperament. The dog must be friendly and at ease with strangers.  It must be gentle, quiet and patient. Therapy dogs need to be comfortable with excessive petting and handling by strangers. The dog must be focused and not easily distracted. A therapy dog who spots a therapy cat and gives chase may not have the proper temperament for the job. They must be able to tolerate noisy healthcare equipment without becoming alarmed. Nervous or skittish dogs that bark at every loud noise or sudden movement do not make good therapy dogs.  The dog must be obedient and respond to commands.

The handler should have many of the same traits required of the dog. The dog handlers are volunteers who donate their time to hospitals, group care facilities and nursing homes.  The handler must be a friendly person who enjoys interacting with people of all ages.  The handler must be someone with the time and energy to volunteer on a regular basis.  The handler must commit to keeping his dog well-groomed and up to date on vaccinations.

Requirements for Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs and their handlers are volunteers with a desire to help people in need of comfort or motivation. There are two types of therapy dogs. The most common type visit patients who are confined or hospitalized. The patients may include the mentally handicapped, the elderly, people in hospice, and children. Their job is to provide companionship and comfort. The second type of therapy dog assists physical therapists or occupational therapists to help patients meet their goals. This second type of therapy dog and handler work with stroke or trauma patients. They assist therapists working with motility and agility equipment.  The dogs are used to motivate patients to work hard and recover more quickly. For instance, a game of fetch may help a stroke patient improve muscle strength and control. A post-surgery patient, who is struggling with walking, may be motivated to overcome the pain and endure the therapy if there is a dog walking with them at a steady pace.

Most hospitals and nursing homes require the therapy animal to be certified and insured for liability. Therapy dogs undergo training and conditioning. There are some cheesy on-line certifications that purport to certify therapy dogs.  You pay the money and they send you a certificate.  But, most institutions using therapy dogs know which certifications require the dog to be well trained and which are just worthless pieces of paper. Hospital and Nursing Home Protocols may dictate which certifications they accept.  They need to know that animals coming into the institution will be helpful and reliable.

There are a number of training organizations that offer therapy dog training. You can contact the American Kennel Club (AKC) for a list of AKC approved trainers. Other organizations you may want to contact are Therapy Dogs United and The Good Dog Foundation. To qualify for therapy dog training, your dog must already have basic obedience training; the dog must be up to date on all vaccinations; and it must be comfortable on a leash that is 6 feet or shorter with no linking metal parts. The Good Dog Foundation does offer basic obedience training which includes: sit, stay, walk on loose leash, relaxation and control.  

The dog then moves on to therapy dog training where it learns socialization with other dogs and with people. The training usually includes meet and greet exercises for the dog, familiarization with hospital equipment, role playing for the handler that teaches about working in a hospital environment, and coaching on safe dog handling in a healthcare setting. At the end of the training, the dog is tested.  Not all dogs will pass the test for certification. Once your pet is certified, you will most likely need to purchase liability insurance for the animal. Then, you make inquiries to determine which facilities work with therapy dogs, present your certification and insurance paperwork, and start volunteering.  

As you can see, transforming your family pet into a therapy dog requires a real commitment in time and money. You must evaluate both your temperament and the dog’s.  You must spend the time and money to get both you and the dog trained for this new role.  You must keep your dog’s vaccinations up to date and keep the animal well groomed. You may be required to purchase liability insurance.  Lastly, you must be prepared to commit regular blocks of time each week to volunteering at the hospital or institution of your choice.  It takes a dedicated and compassionate person to undertake the role of therapy dog handler, and that person needs a patient and loving dog by his or her side.


McPherson, Rachel, Sonberg, Lynn. “How Do Therapy Dogs Get Certified?” Petfinder, 2010, www.petfinder.com/dogs/dog-training/training-therapy-dog. Accessed 11 Apr. 2017.

“AKC Therapy Dog Program.” American Kennel Club, 15 Oct. 2015, www.akc.org/dog-owners/training/akc-therapy-dog-program. Accessed 11 Apr. 2017.

“Join Your Therapy Dog.” Therapy Dogs United, www.therapydogsunited.org/join_your_dog. Accessed 11 Apr. 2017.

“Pedigreed Assistants: Dogs are Physical Therapy’s Best Friend.” Jobs.net, www.jobs.net/Article/CB-43-Talent-Network-Healthcare-Pedigreed-Assistants-Dogs-are-Physical-Therapys-Best-Friend. Accessed 11 Apr. 2017.

“Therapy Dogs, Service Dogs, and Emotional Support Dogs.” TherapyDogInfo.net, www.therapydoginfo.net. Accessed 11 Apr. 2017.

“United States Dog Registry.” US Dog Registry, www.usdogregistry.org. Accessed 11 Apr. 2017.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) allows service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas where members of the public are allowed to go. Members of the public are generally allowed to go into state and local government offices, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that serve the public.

The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendment Act 0f 2008 (“ADAAA”) states employers must recognize service animals as a form of reasonable accommodation.  This article discusses the rights and responsibilities of the employer and disabled employee when a disabled employee requires a service animals while at work.

This website has been prepared for general information purposes only. The information on this website is not legal advice. Legal advice is dependent upon the specific circumstances of each situation. Also, the law may vary from state-to-state or county-to-county, so that some information in this website may not be correct for your situation. Finally, the information contained on this website is not guaranteed to be up to date. Therefore, the information contained in this website cannot replace the advice of competent legal counsel licensed in your jurisdiction.

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