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What’s the difference between Service and Therapy Dogs? 

Article by Dee Hoult, MBA, CPDT, CTDI

Canine Behavior Expert, Service Dog Trainer and Certified Professional Dog Trainer in Miami, Florida

Dog owners often call our office to ask how they can get their dog’s certified as either a therapy or service dog. In our experience, we’ve found that many individuals are confused by what type of training they’re actually looking for. In this article we’ll outline for you the difference between service and therapy dogs, as well as give you an overview of what is required to have your dog task-trained as a service dog or certified as a therapy dog.

What is a Service Dog? 

A Service Dog is specially task-trained for a disabled person’s specific needs.  There are many different types of service dogs, some of the most common include:

  • Seeing Eye Dogs for the blind
  • Seizure Alert Dogs who alert their handlers to oncoming seizure activity
  • Diabetic Alert Dogs who alert their handlers to either high, or low blood sugar
  • PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Dogs) who are trained to provide assistance in medical crisis, coping during emotional overload scenarios, and preforming security assistance tasks
  • Mobility Assistance dogs who are trained to retrieve fallen objects, push and pull a wheelchair, open doors, turn on and off lights switches, retrieve medication and much, much more!

Because a service dog is NOT A PET but in fact is considered medical equipment, service dogs are allowed public access; they can go anywhere that their handler goes. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service dogs and their access to public spaces. Because a service dog is NOT A PET but in fact is considered medical equipment, service dogs are allowed public access; they can go anywhere that their handler goes. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service dogs and their access to public spaces.

A service dog is an animal that is trained to preform at least three tasks that mitigate the handler’s disability. The below chart clearly explains who is qualified to have a dog “task-trained” in order to preform service. Many people ask if suffering form anxiety makes them qualified to have a service dog for emotional support. The answer is NO.

Since 2010, dogs who provide emotional support to their handlers are no longer considered service dogs under the ADA. Unfortunately people trying to pass off their pet dogs off as service dogs ruined this for those who legitimately need an ESA (emotional support animal).

An emotional support animal (ESA) is a pet which provides therapeutic benefit to its owner through companionship and affection. Emotional support animals are not “task-trained” to mitigate a disability and are therefore not considered service dogs nor are they protected under the ADA. ESA’s require only as much training as an ordinary pet requires in order to live peacefully among humans without being a nuisance or a danger to others.  ESA’s do not have public access like a service dog, but they do have the right to live with and travel with their handler. ESA’s are protected under the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988.   Again, an ESA is NOT a Service Dog.

People’s motivation to have their dog task-trained as a service dog is to mitigate their disability as to improve the quality of their life where major life activities are concerned.

What is a Therapy Dog? 

A therapy dog is someone’s well-behaved pet. Therapy Dogs are invited into facilities or events to provide companionship and joy to people other than their handler.  Often times they go into nursing homes, hospitals, pediatric facilities and schools to provide therapy and education to the patients and students. Therapy dogs are welcome wherever they are invited.

Unlike Service Dogs, it is important to note that a Therapy Dog has no rights to enter an animal restricted area (grocery store, public transportation, etc), and are only allowed where they are invited to visit.  Therapy Dogs are not protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, or the Fair Housing Amendments Act of a 1988.

People’s motivation for having their dog certified as a therapy dog should be to share their wonderful loving animal with others.  People have their dog’s certified as therapy dogs so they can do volunteer work in their community and give back to others.

It normally takes 5-6 weeks to train a therapy dog, and an additional 4-6 weeks to have your pet tested and it’s paperwork processed through a registered therapy dog organization.  Your dog must already be at least one year old and have a suitable temperament (calm, friendly, free of aggression) for therapy work.  Below is a link to see what items your dog must be able to pass in order to become certified as a Therapy Dog.


 Is it legal for someone who does not have a disability to have a service dog in public?

The short answer is no. It is illegal for someone to have a “fake” service dog.  The Americans with Disabilities Act protects the rights of the individual with the disability.  A service dog is legally considered an extension of that individual and that is why they are permitted into public establishments.  If the person using the service dog does not actually have the disability for which the dog is task-trained then the dog no longer falls under the definition of “service dog.”

There are criminal penalties for falsely claiming a pet as a service animal. These penalties can range from a small fine, to one over $1,000 or a few days in jail up to a year in jail, depending on how the offense is committed and where. In some cases, the dog is confiscated and the owner may have a lengthy court battle to get the dog back. So if you’re thinking of passing your pet off as a service dog, think again. Not to mention that if you are considering passing your dog off as a service dog you should really consider the ethical and moral implications of your actions. People do not have service dogs for convenience. People have service dogs because they legitimately need those animals to preform tasks for them that they otherwise couldn’t. Service dogs create independence for otherwise disabled individuals. Service dog trainers on the same token take a lot of pride in the amount of time and talent that is invested in producing legitimate service dogs. Pretending that your dog is a task-trained service dog would be like someone pretending to be a doctor. It’s unethical, immoral, and lastly insulting to those trainers and disabled handlers who work tirelessly to produce a real service dog.

We hope you found this to be a useful document. This is not an original document as much of the information was borrowed (yet re-organized!) from our fellow service dog trainers. We of course added in our own flare but we believe in giving credit where credit is due. Below is a list of organizations whose websites allowed us to formulate this article combined with our own experience and knowledge in the field of service dog training:




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