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Service Dogs, Emotional Support Dogs & Therapy Dogs

From his origins as a hunting dog, the Labrador Retriever has arguably emerged as one of the most able, intelligent and useful animals ever to work with their human companions.  As well as being a wonderful hunting companion, Labrador Retrievers are the gold standard for service dogs, emotional support animals (ESA), and Therapy Dogs. Smart, strong, active, and trustworthy, they're easy to train and bond deeply with their humans. 


Let's take a look at the difference between a Service Dog, an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) and a Therapy Dog. 


What Is a Service Dog?

A service dog helps a person with a disability to lead a more independent life. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act  (ADA), a service dog is “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.” 

“Disability” is defined by the ADA as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, including people with history of such an impairment, and people perceived by others as having such an impairment. The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications. 

A service dog is trained to take a specific action that helps an individual with a disability participate in daily life more fully. The task theog performs is directly related to the person’s disability. For example, guide dogs help blind and visually impaired individuals navigate their environments. 

Our dogs are extremely important parts of our daily lives. They follow our commands, work with us in various capacities, and act as faithful companions. Studies have shown that dogs provide health benefits. Service dogs have these abilities, combined with training to perform specific tasks for individuals with disabilities. 

During the last decade, the use of service dogs has rapidly expanded.

The ADA does not require service dogs to be professionally trained. Individuals with disabilities have the right to train a service dog themselves and are not required to use a professional service dog trainer or training program. 

What Are Emotional Support Animals?

An emotional support animal is any animal whose presence helps provide emotional comfort and support to someone with a mental or emotional disability. This animal also must be prescribed, by a licensed mental health professional in the individual's state, to be part of their treatment plan.

While an ESA isn't trained to perform specific tasks to help with a disability, unlike a service animal, their simple presence can help reduce feelings of isolation, help motivate their handlers to perform daily tasks, and can provide an overall sense of mental wellness. Since they're deemed medically necessary, an ESA must be allowed to live with their handler, regardless of a property's pet policy, and is exempt from all breed or weight restrictions, as well as pet fees, deposits, or pet rent.

ESAs provide support through companionship and can help ease anxiety, depression, and certain phobias. 

Their jobs include providing solace to those in need, helping to reduce stress and create a welcoming environment. The therapeutic presence of a loving dog like Oakley (pictured here) has been well-documented, with crime victims often finding comfort in the company of such a caring companion

The key difference between a service dog and an emotional support dog is whether the animal has been trained to perform a specific task or job directly related to the person’s disability. 


What Is a Therapy Dog?

From working with a child who is learning to read to visiting a senior in assisted living, therapy dogs and their owners work together as a team to improve the lives of other people.

Therapy dogs are not service dogs. Service dogs are dogs who are specially trained to perform specific tasks to help a person who has a disability. An example of a service dog is a dog who guides an owner who is blind, or a dog who assists someone who has a physical disability. Service dogs stay with their person and have special access privileges in public places such as on planes, restaurants, etc. Therapy dogs, the dogs who will be earning the AKC Therapy Dog title, do not have the same special access as service dogs.

There is no single certifying organization for therapy dogs, so the requirements for certification varies by the type of skills the dog will perform, whether that be sitting quietly while a child reads or accepting petting from senior citizens.   Pet Partners has a successful program.  

Therapy dogs need a pleasant temperament and should be friendly with strangers. Most therapy dogs have to pass an exam by the certifying body.

Although therapy dogs provide an important type of beneficial support, they are not afforded any special rights or access under the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

AKC Recognized Therapy Dog Organizations 

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