What’s The Difference Between Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs, and Emotional Support Dogs ?!

There seems to be so much confusion around this subject! Let’s talk about the difference between these types of dogs to ease the confusion.

Service Dogs

Service dogs have been trained to do a task (or tasks) that specifically help their owner with his or her disability. There is a wide variety of tasks that a dog could do. There are many different types of Service Dogs. Just a few examples are:

  • Diabetic Alert Service Dogs – Can sense changes in the persons’ blood sugar level and alert them or another person to an upcoming diabetic episode, they do this by using scent (which humans aren’t able to do themselves)
  • Seizure Alert Dogs – This is a somewhat controversial subject, but some people believe that a dog can recognize when a person is about to have a seizure and alert that person or another person to get help
  • Mobility Assistance Dogs – The dog can assist people who have mobility issues by helping them to do such tasks as pressing the button on automatic doors, bringing objects to people, or to serve as a brace for unsteady people, or even to pull a wheelchair up a ramp
  • Service Dogs for the Blind – The Dog can help people to safety cross busy streets and to navigate other areas
  • Service Dogs for the Deaf – When the dog hears a noise, he will touch his owner and lead the person towards the noise
  • Psychiatric Service Dogs – Help people with issues such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD to feel more safe and perform such tasks as entering an area before the person, or creating a physical barrier between the person and a crowd
  • Autism Support Dog – Can help in a social setting, can ensure a person does not wander off or run away, and/or they can track a person if they do wander off
  • FASD Dog (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders) – can help people similarly to Autism support Dogs, they can be trained to interrupt a repetitive behaviour
  • Allergy Detection Dog – These dogs are trained to sniff out allergies such as peanuts or gluten

Service dogs do have public access rights under the ADA – Americans with Disabilities Act, and must be very well behaved in public. This means they are allowed with their owner to almost all places where the general public is invited. If the dog is disruptive or aggressive, it can be asked to leave.  The ADA does not require Service Dogs to be certified or registered. 

So the thing to remember about an actual Service Dog is that in order to be one, it must be specially trained to perform a specific task or tasks for a certain individual person. The task must be related to the person’s disability and the dog must help to mitigate the disability.

ADA – Service Dogs FAQ

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional Support Animals (ESA’s) are different from Service Dogs in that they do not perform a specific task. Their mere presence brings comfort to a person. They do not need to have any specialized training. They do not have public access rights like Service Dogs under the ADA.  This means they are not allowed/invited into stores and restaurants and other public places.

The good news for people who have these types of dogs is that they do have housing rights and can also be in the cabin of an air plane with their person. While the ADA does not require these dogs/pets to be registered or certified, the person may need a letter from their doctor or other professional for housing or flying situations as proof the animal is an ESA.

Therapy Dogs

Okay, a Therapy Dog is basically most usually someone’s pet who is very well behaved and friendly, and enjoys going with their owner who typically volunteers their time at a place like schools, libraries, hospitals, nursing homes, cancer centres, etc. where a wide variety of people can benefit from interacting with the dog, as it provides comfort to them.

Therapy does do not have any public access rights or housing rights. They may or may not be certified. Some establishments have their own therapy dog on site.

There are several legitimate Therapy Dog organizations that people can join. One of the benefits of this is being provided with insurance in case of any accident that may happen during visits.


Service Animals and Emotional Support AnimalsOpens in a new tab.

ADA Service Animals FAQOpens in a new tab.

Therapy Dogs InternationalOpens in a new tab.

Sam Nelson

Sam Nelson is an experienced writer, advocate for people with disabilities and mental health, dog lover, artist, philosopher, and generally complicated human being.

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