The Differences Between Service Dogs, Emotional Support Animals and Therapy Dogs
Sep 09, 2020
(Originally Published 5/25/2020)
Approximate reading time: 8 minutes
Service Dogs provide an individual with aid in everyday tasks. Service dogs are most commonly associated with helping to mobilize the blind. They can also accompany the deaf or hard of hearing. In fact, hearing dogs are in their own category of service dogs! They are specifically trained to notify their owner of sounds such as smoke alarms, oncoming traffic, guests and more. Service dogs can provide mobility to their partner by pulling a wheelchair, picking up items, opening and closing doors, and bringing snacks. They can detect when a diabetic’s blood sugar is getting low, or warn someone with a major peanut allergy not to go into a certain area because peanuts have been detected. Some can even detect a seizure or anxiety attack before it happens! They will stay by their owner’s side, or lie on them until they have been stabilized.
It tears me up to talk about these amazing dogs. They certainly deserve our respect!
Service dogs are rigorously trained to perform specific tasks, based on their owner’s needs, from puppyhood. A lot of dedication goes into training these dogs to perform tasks for their owners amongst distractions.
What defines a service dog is their ability to perform a task for their owner, also known as “Partner”.
Service dogs are not required to be registered, certified or professionally trained, as not everyone can afford an already trained dog. This means that an owner can train their own dog, and the dog is still recognized by law as a service dog, as long as the dog performs specific tasks for the owner.
Service dogs are granted all public access, within reason. For example, a service dog has rights to come into a restaurant with their owner, but is not allowed in the kitchen. Another example: a service dog is allowed in a hospital, but not in the operating room. Service dogs are allowed in hotels, but must accompany their owner; they cannot be left alone in the hotel room.
Landlords, airlines, hotels and other such entities are not allowed to charge you additional fees because of your service dog.
A service dog may be denied access to a public space if he or she is a danger to the health and safety of others, is not housebroken, does not obey owner’s commands or is a major liability to the entity, for example: the dog is destructive. This is why it is imperative that a service dog be trained not to jump on people, bark excessively or show aggressive tendencies. A service dog must be focused on their owner/partner at all times when in public spaces. The service dog should be vaccinated in accordance with state and local laws, and must wear a leash or tether, unless it interferes with the service dog’s ability to perform their work. The owner is responsible for picking up after their dog, not the entity.
Depending on what State you live in, there may be penalties for interfering with a working service dog. The owner needs the services their dog provides; therefore the dog should not be petted, talked to, intentionally distracted, or harmed in any way.
When entering a public space with your service dog, such as a grocery store, there are only two questions people are allowed to ask you: Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? & What work or task has the dog or service animal been trained to perform? They may NOT ask you personal questions regarding your disability.
Service dogs cannot be discriminated against for their breed, size or weight. If they are under control, well-behaved, and can perform a task for their owner, they are allowed public access by law. However, an entity may assess the type, size, and weight of a miniature horse in determining whether or not the horse will be allowed access to the facility.
Service dog owners are not required to show documentation or animal ID to entities.
Next, we’ll address emotional support animals, and you’ll see that a service dog can serve the same purpose as an emotional support animal, but an emotional support animal is not a service dog, and therefore does not have the same public access rights.
Emotional Support Animals
Emotional support animals, also known as ESAs, provide people with peace when they start to panic. They provide companionship for people with emotional traumas, such as PTSD, and mental disorders.
Emotional support animals are allowed in pet-free housing and on airplanes, but are not granted the same public access as service dogs. ESAs are protected by two Federal Laws: The Fair Housing Act (FHA) & The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA).
The ESA Housing Letter and Airlines Letter are two different things. The latter needs to be renewed (typically yearly), but the Housing Letter will last your pet’s lifetime. Once your ESA has passed away and you get a new animal, you will need a new ESA Housing Letter, because the ESA certification is specific to your animal, as well as your disability.
To obtain one or both of the types of ESA Letter, you must see a Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP) (in person or online through a video chat) who will verify that you have a need for an emotional support animal, and will write a letter stating your need for an ESA.
Can I have two Emotional Support Animals? Yes, but you will likely have to pay for a whole new evaluation if you’re obtaining certification online, since it is specific to the animal. You must answer this question for yourself: is it worth the cost? If you have no problem with paying to get another ESA Letter, there are currently no restrictions to having more than one! If you have a letter stating that you require more than one ESA, then your landlord must let them stay, for no additional fee.
No training is required for your pet to become an Emotional Support Animal, accept they MUST be friendly towards humans. However, it is important to make sure your ESA is well-behaved in public where dogs are allowed, because by bringing an unruly dog (or other animal) into public spaces in the name of an emotional support animal creates a poor reputation for ESAs everywhere. So do your part, and make sure your emotional support animal is well trained and obedient.
Is there any circumstance in which an ESA could be rejected on airlines or housing? Yes. Landlords are permitted to reject an ESA if they cause a financial burden, such as the animal destroying the property, or if the ESA is a threat to the health and safety of others, for example, the animal is aggressive. Airlines may reject an ESA for the same reason, in addition to exotic animals such as snakes, rodents, spiders, etc. Airlines may also request that you contact them at least 48 hours before the flight to ensure you have all necessary airline forms submitted. They may also request that your veterinarian complete a form regarding your ESA’s health (for the safety of other passengers).
Landlords and airlines are not allowed to deny a reasonable accommodation based on the animal's breed, weight or size since there is no restriction for an Emotional Support Animal. Furthermore, they are not allowed to charge additional fees for housing or accommodating your ESA, or request medical information.
Vests are an optional accessory – they are not required – but they make things easier by reducing the number of conflicts with people asking you questions. For example, you may take your ESA out to pee and a neighbor from the apartment complex gives you a hard time about keeping pets in the pet-free apartment. This is an avoidable issue if your animal is wearing a vest. Remember, it is no one’s business what your disability is and vests are not required.
You can also get special Velcro badges to stick on your dog’s vest that say “I’m working, don’t pet me” or “DO NOT PET”. This should help reduce the number of requests to pet your animal.
While your pet may be acting or functioning as an ESA, they cannot be deemed an ESA in the eyes of the law until you have obtained an ESA Letter written by a Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP).
Next, let’s look at therapy dogs…
Therapy dogs are dogs that have completed a specific test by a Therapy Dog Organization to go into nursing homes, schools, hospitals, prisons, libraries – you name it – and allow people to pet them. Science has shown that petting a dog reduces cortisol levels, a stress hormone, and releases a feel-good hormone called oxytocin.
Therapy dogs must be very docile, not become over-exuberant, and never jump up when meeting new people. A dog that jumps on people could cause injury to children and the elderly, who have especially thin skin, and result in major liability for the therapy dog’s owner/handler. For these reasons, a dog must undergo rigorous training to become a certified therapy dog.
It helps if a dog can pass the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test.
While titles are not required, they are a way to celebrate you and your dog’s achievements. To earn a therapy dog title through AKC, a dog must be “Certified/registered by an AKC recognized therapy dog organization, and perform the required number of visits for the title for which you are applying.”
There are different titles a therapy dog can earn, including:
- AKC Therapy Dog Novice (THDN)
Must have completed 10 visits.
- AKC Therapy Dog (THD)
Must have completed 50 visits.
- AKC Therapy Dog Advanced (THDA)
Must have completed 100 visits.
- AKC Therapy Dog Excellent (THDX)
Must have completed 200 visits.
- AKC Therapy Dog Distinguished (THDD)
Must have completed 400 visits.
For complete rules, visit the AKC website and search “therapy dog”.(I am in no way affiliated with the AKC)
Therapy dogs also do not have the same public access as service dogs. In the words of the AKC: “It is unethical to attempt to pass off a therapy dog as a service dog for purposes such as flying on a plane or being admitted to a restaurant.”
Author: Heather Smith, ABCDT
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