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What's the Difference? Service, Therapy, Emotional Support...

I can't tell you how many times I've been asked to write someone a letter so that they can take their dog with them all over the place. I'm always asked for "Emotional Support Animal" letters because my clients think that this letter will magically allow them to take their animal anywhere they go. I think this is in part due to misinformation combined with the media's portrayal of emotional support animals. Although the three types of functions that dogs can perform can seem similar to the untrained eye, these three categories serve very specific functions, as well as come with their own legal rights and liability protections.

Dogs have been used in multiple environments, with multiple populations, and for multiple reasons. I'm going to try my best to differentiate between all of these, however, if you want more information, you can check out the specific requirements for service, therapy and emotional support dogs by visiting

Service Dogs

Service Dogs are dogs that have been specifically trained to perform a task for a human being that has a disability. These tasks are designed to assist the human with every day tasks, or alert of a life threatening condition. Service dogs can be trained to lead blind individuals, detect low blood sugars, detect panic attacks, assist with PTSD symptoms and more! Service dogs are often the most legally protected, and are allowed at practically any location.

Service dogs are usually trained by organizations from the time that they are puppies, and then are matched with an appropriate human. These dogs are so specifically trained, that they receive special paperwork designating them as a service dog. It is typically not enough just to slap a vest on your dog and take him or her into different buildings. It is likely that you will be required to provide proof that your dog is a service dog.

Another thing most people don't know about service dogs, is that strangers are not allowed to approach the dog or try to pet him or her. This is because the dog needs to be focused on its owner at all times in order to do the job he or she was trained to do. So, if you are out and about, and see a service dog with its owner, ALWAYS ASK the owner if it is appropriate to say hi to the dog.

Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs are dogs that are accompanied by an adult into public settings to provide the public with therapeutic benefits. These dogs can visit nursing homes, hospitals, schools, libraries and other facilities whose members could benefit from interacting with a dog. It has been shown that regular visits to these facilities can really improve a patient's mood or can help students cope with school stressors.

These dogs typically undergo basic obedience training first, then have to pass as a canine good citizen. After that, they have to pass a practical test to be certified as a therapy dog. This usually involves the dog and its owner being observed multiple times at different facilities. The dog must be observed interacting with other humans, and showing appropriate behaviors. Typically aggressive dogs or dogs who are overly anxious or energetic do not make good therapy dogs. Of course, there is no fool proof guarantee on a dog's behavior, so they must be covered by liability insurance, and inappropriate behavior is taken very seriously.

Emotional Support Animal (ESA)

Emotional support animals are not necessarily just dogs. It can literally be any animal that someone can claim is therapeutically beneficial. The only problem is that most people think that just buying an ESA letter online will allow them to take their animal anywhere they want. Here's the thing: an emotional support animal is allowed on airplanes and in "no pets allowed" residences (typically apartments). These animals are not protected by liability insurance, nor do they have the same rights as service and therapy dogs do.

In order to obtain an ESA letter, the clinician has to be confident that the animal is actually being therapeutically benefitting the individual. The clinician also needs to be confident that the animal is being adequately taken care of and being treated humanely.

Once the clinician writes the letter, it is up to the client to use it appropriately. If it is to be used to allow the client to have an animal in an apartment that does not allow pets, it must be approved by the landlord.

So hopefully this clears things up a bit. There is a benefit for each type of dog, and if used appropriately can be very beneficial to helping humans deal with their daily struggles. My hope is to incorporate the use of therapy dogs in my practice one day. But, small steps. Be sure to subscribe to keep getting updates and fun info!

Till next time,

Keep your tails waggin!

Much Love,