US Service Animals – Service Dogs vs. Therapy Dogs

Dogs have been assisting mankind since the early days of civilization, and today it’s very common for dogs to help people who have mental, physical or intellectual disabilities with every day life. You may have heard the terms “service dog” or “therapy dog” when referring to dogs that assist people with disabilities. But what is the difference between these two types of dogs?  There are vast differences between a service dog and a therapy dog, mostly regarding their training and assigned tasks.

Therapy Dogs

Therapy Dogs are animals that assist their owners mainly with emotional support. Therapy dogs are more like pets that receive training to help their owners with various disabilities. Therapy dogs often visit hospitals, nursing homes or schools. To have a therapy dog, an owner must receive a note from a doctor stating that the dog can benefit them in some way related to a disability. Many different animals can become certified to be a therapy animal besides dogs. Some common therapy animals include dogs, cats, horses and hamsters.

Service Dogs

Service dogs are animals that provide a service to people with more debilitating physical, mental or intellectual disabilities. Service dogs receive rigorous training in order to perform specific tasks. Service dogs are not thought of as pets, as they are providing a service for a client and trained to take their roles extremely seriously. Many owners of service dogs have a life threatening disability and rely on their animals in times of crisis or distress, so it’s important that service dogs do not falter in their performance.

One of the main differences between therapy dogs and service dogs is the level of training. While therapy dogs are also required to receive training to become certified, service dogs undergo longer and more intensive training, and must pass a difficult assessment before being placed with a client. The standards are so high that as many as 50% of dogs in service training programs fail to complete the program and pass the final assessment. The training for service dogs is much more expensive, and usually must start at an early age. However, animals that are currently pets can often be trained as therapy dogs as long as they meet certain requirements regarding temperament, and the ability to learn commands and be controlled in a public place.

There are various laws regarding animals that assist their owners, and some of these laws cover both therapy dogs and service dogs. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 states that individuals with disabilities cannot be discriminated against due to factors regarding their disability. The Federal Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) states that individuals can not be denied accommodation or housing due to factors such as race, gender, heritage, or disability. This law allows tenants to appeal a “no pets policy” as well as a pet deposit. As these laws are focused on individuals with a disability, they cover both service dogs and therapy dogs. The Americans with Disabilities Act states that a person with a trained and certified service dog can bring their animal to any public place. However, this law does not apply to therapy dogs, so public places such as restaurants reserve the right to deny entrance of a customer with a therapy dog.

Airlines are required to allow service dogs to accompany their owners on flights, as long as the owner provides documentation that the animal is certified and the animal is not a danger to other patrons on the airplane. Therapy dogs (and emotional support dogs) don’t have the same protection, and will be charged a pet fee. If the dog is too large to be accommodated, it will also have to ride in cargo–unlike with service dogs who will always be able to stay with their owner.

If you have a disability, you may benefit from a service or therapy dog. It’s up to each individual to decide if a therapy or service dog is better for his or her situation. There are many factors to consider such as the level of severity of your disability, how much money, time and training you are willing or able to invest in your animal, and the types of tasks you need your animal to perform. It’s important to talk to your physician to discuss options and decide what type of animal is best for you.