Today, service dogs, emotional support dogs, and therapy dogs fill many roles. From working alongside first responders and veterans to helping calm veterans with PTSD, these dogs are truly incredible.1 The number of different service dogs and the impact they can have on the lives of veterans is wonderful.
This article covers:
- The difference between service animals, emotional support animals, and therapy animals
- Which type of dogs can fulfill each of these roles
- How to register a dog as a therapy, service, or emotional support animal (and whether it’s even necessary)
At first glance, these three roles may sound like different words for the same thing. In reality, the three roles are very different.
According to The United States Service Dog Registry, a service dog is defined as one that is trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities. These service animals are working animals, not pets.2 Most service dogs undergo a training process from a young age. However, if you wish to train your own service dog, you can. Service training teaches your dog to perform tasks such as:
- Leading blind handlers
- Alerting those with hearing impairments
- Pulling wheelchairs
- Protecting individuals who have seizures
Legally, service dogs can accompany their handlers anywhere they go. There is no legal requirement that service dogs be officially certified, though it is possible to register your dog with the United States Service Dog Registry.
Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) provide comfort to their owners.3 Typically, ESAs have not been trained to perform a specific service. Rather, they provide support through companionship. These dogs also provide comfort to individuals with mental illnesses.
Emotional support dogs do not have the same rights as service dogs. Unlike service dogs, ESAs are not permitted to accompany their owners everywhere they go. However, they do have more permissions than a normal pet would. For example, an ESA may be allowed to travel on an airline. To qualify, the owner of an emotional support animal may be required to present a letter from their doctor or therapist explaining how the dog assists with their mental illness or disability. Aside from this, no official registration or certification is required for ESAs.4
The rules and regulations regarding ESAs also vary depending on state and local laws.
Military veterans can return from duty with emotional trauma, PTSD, or anxiety. Programs such as K9's for Warriors link military veterans with emotional support dogs based on personality, age, and need. Veterans who have been physically disabled in combat or non-combat related incidents can apply for a service dog. Service dogs can help military members and veterans complete daily physical tasks such as getting the mail, walking around, or climbing stairs. If you or a loved one is a veteran who may qualify for a service dog, applying with the Veterans Affairs Administration is a good place to start.
Therapy dogs offer support to people other than their handlers. These dogs may visit hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, schools, and other locations to provide emotional support.
Any dog can become a therapy dog. However, these dogs must typically be warm, good-natured, calm, and non-reactive.5 Many therapy dog handlers train their dogs themselves. Then they work with them as part of a larger organization such as the Therapy Dog Alliance.
Therapy dogs do not have special permissions like service dogs or emotional support dogs. They can only go where a pet dog would be permitted to go. Of course, they are invited into additional spaces, such as hospitals.
Any dog can be a service, therapy, or emotional support animal. There are no requirements for these roles. Calm, non-reactive dogs are the best fit, since these dogs are often working in public spaces.
Some breeders specialize in breeding dogs to be used as service animals, but there is no guarantee that these dogs will be successful service animals.
There is no legal requirement that your dog is certified for any of these roles.
Service animals have been providing support to individuals with disabilities for many years. However, the concept of emotional support animals and therapy animals is newer. As a result, the rules affecting these animals are constantly evolving. Checking your local regulations can help ensure that you understand how you and your dog can follow the correct guidelines.
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