Assistance Dogs vs. Therapy Dogs – What’s The Difference?

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There is often confusion between Assistance Dogs vs. Therapy Dogs. I’m embarrassed to say that me…your resident expert has gotten them confused in the recent past. In addition you have many other designations including Service Dogs, Hearing Dogs, and Guide Dogs. It can all get a little confusing if you don’t have the exact definition handy. That’s why this article was spawned, to help clarify the differences between these dogs.

What Is An Assistance Dog?

Stetson on the Grass

As defined by Wikipedia – “An assistance dog is a dog trained to help a person with a disability in daily life. Many are trained by a specific organization, while others are trained by their handler (sometimes with the help of a professional trainer)”

These are the three types of assistance dogs:

  • Guide Dog – A guide dogs is trained to assist the blind or visually impaired.
  • Service DogADI Website Definition – ” Service Dogs assist disabled people by retrieving objects that are out of their reach, by pulling wheelchairs, opening and closing doors, turning light switches off and on, barking for alert, finding another person, assisting ambulatory persons to walk by providing balance and counterbalance and many other individual tasks as needed by a disabled person.”
  • Hearing Dog or Signal Dogs – Hearing or Signal Dogs are trained to assist the deaf or hard of hearing.

What Is A Therapy Dog

As defined by Wikipedia – “Therapy Dog refers to a dog trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, mental institutions, schools, and stressful situations such as disaster areas.”

What Rights Do These Dogs Have?

Therapy Dogs are not Assistance Dogs. Assistance dogs are used to assist humans and are allowed in most public areas. Assistance Dogs are legally protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. However, Therapy Dogs do not provide direct assistance to humans and are not mentioned in the Americans with Disabilities Act. An institution may invite or prohibit a therapy dog from entering their facilities and usually have rigorous requirements for therapy dogs who are allowed to enter.

Stetson The Guide Dog Puppy In Training

Stetson is my Guide Dogs of America puppy in training. My hope is that Stetson will pass all of his training and be partnered with a blind or vision impaired person as a full fledged guide dog. However, if he does not make it as a guide dog my plan is to certify him as a Therapy dog. I’ve already taken my first step in preparation by working on Stetson’s training and passing the Canine Good Citizen Test. Either way, whether Stetson becomes a Guide Dog, a Therapy Dog, or just a pet I’ll be proud of him.

So to sum up Guide, Service, and Hearing dogs are types of Assistance Dogs and are trained to help people with a disability in daily life. A Therapy dog provides affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, etc. Assistance Dogs are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act and can go most places the public can go. Therapy Dogs are not protected by any federal laws and must be invited in order to enter an institution.

Hopefully this article helps clarify the difference between Assistance Dogs and Therapy Dogs.

Do you currently own an Assistance or Therapy Dog? Please tell me about your experiences in the comments area.

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53 Comments

  1. A therapy dog DOES NOT ASSIST YOU WITH A PHYSICAL DISABILITY! If you need a dog with you 24/7 just to cope then you have big problems that should be fixed, not bandaided with a cute affectionate animal. What will you do when the animal dies? Do you shower with the animal as well? You are not fit for society if you have to look at puppy eyes every 10 minutes.

  2. I believe that if the dog has done the training to be a therapy dog then they should be allowed to go anywhere just like service dogs. I say this because I had cancer at the age 31 and I got my dog during my treatments and have been going through training with her as well. I want her with me all the time and thought that as a therapy dog she would be allowed to go with me for my emotional support but also for the service she would be providing others as well…honestly a well trained therapy dog should behave and listen as well as a service dog anyways. I have seen the “emotional support dogs” and didn’t want to go that route because my dog is going to be more than that to me and others but I don’t know how to be able to take her everywhere with me without her being classified as a service dog…what should I/can I do?

  3. Well …..as a graduate of the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides and a certified service animal handler……..we where drilled for 3 days in class the difference between service animals and therapy animals. Its very clear in the Canadian Legislation; cut and dry. Here in Canada, there are only 3 places a service animal CAN NOT enter. Those are ANY restaurant kitchen of any type, any place that is sterile (meaning a operating room, and includes xray areas) and in a private home ( pending if the owner says yes/no to allowing you to enter). Therapy dogs are NOT allowed in public places as shopping areas, theaters, doctors offices, restaurants) things of that nature. It is up to the owner as to allowing therapy dogs in. But as for the law end of it, it is very clear in this matter. Halo is a SSD service dog and I have had her for a year now. She was also featured on the rick Mercer show. Again .its up to the facility to allow the enter of therapy animals. But by law they can refuse them to enter under the Service Animal act.

    1. Thanks for sharing the Service Animal laws in Canada. We just had an expert in Service Animals and accessibility stop by our recent Guide Dog puppy raiser group meeting. I have a few notes and links and I hope to update this page as well as create an updated blog post. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I am a manger at a resort and this is a new trend that people with dogs are doing to bring dogs where they are not allowed. I have a blind man that comes to my resort with a service dog every year. His dog is well trained and does not shed. we have had three other people bring in therapy dogs, one was a dog that blows it’s coat and it was everywhere. Another brought in two small dogs and they bark all the time and peed the throw rugs. It is a law that all businesses except a SERVICE DOG but not the law on THERAPY DOGS. We are now charging anyone that brings a Therapy Dog a service charge. But still accept all Service Dogs no charges. There is a difference.

  5. ‘Read the prior posts and found an area of question’
    Therapy or Assistance?
    The change comes when a personal therapy dog is providing service in the capacity of one on one emotional need for “special needs person”, then we enter a grey area this is the point the dog is more a service dog than therapy dog. (Training required)
    This case is more assistance dog than therapy dog.
    He still needs to be clean well groomed, properly socialized and trained; to meet the requirements of a furry companion in public.
    please: pardon may spelling
    Case of meeting the physiatric needs of an individual. Not sure if it meets the legal requirements for assitance dog.
    -: Trained, socialized, clean, washed, brushed, teeth brushed, all shots up to date, flea and tick treatment like advantage.

  6. The change comes when a personal therapy dog is providing service in the capacity of one on one emotional needs for those with special needs; then we enter a grey area this is the point; this case is more assistance dog than therapy dog.
    He still needs to be clean well groomed, properly socialized and trained. See prior comment/post on our dogs grooming prior to going out to work.
    To meet the requirements of a fury complain in public.

  7. We have as certified therapy dog he in fact goes into nursing homes, community living, has been to fairs, and more at request. They also work in children’s reading programs and other areas.
    Our therapy dog was tested and passed for obedience, temperament. He is to behave not beg for food or take treats unless given permission; also as an official handler we are tested and have an extensive police check.
    Before each visit he is bathed, hair brushed, and teeth brushed, then dressed with uniform scarf collar and leash handler has also oficial dress shirt and/or idenification pins. In this capacity they by definition are not service dogs or assitance dogs.

  8. Recently. I was having lunch at a small restaurant that was white table cloth clean. When an older couple came in with their dog and sat at the table next to us. The dog was an old, over weight poodle that was filthy dirty. The dog did not respond well to commands.
    The dirty condition of the dog caused me to lose my appetite . . Especially when the man feed the dog out of his hand and then wiped the slim from his hand on the white table cloth.
    I ask the owner of the restaurant about this and he said they showed him the animals service papers. I can’t imagine that poor old poodle ever being a service dog. The owner was being held hostage and felt he would get into trouble if they were asked to remove the dog. How inconsiderate of the og owners who were not all that clean themselves.
    The health department might have closed the restaurant as well.

    1. We always do our best to keep our guide and service dogs in training clean and well groomed. This older couple should have done the same with their own service dog.

      One of our commenters may have brought this up before, but I was just reviewing the Americans with Disability Act Revisions and thought I’d share a little excerpt:

      When it is not obvious what service an animal provides, only limited inquiries are allowed. Staff may ask two questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform. Staff cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.

      A person with a disability cannot be asked to remove his service animal from the premises unless: (1) the dog is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it or (2) the dog is not housebroken. When there is a legitimate reason to ask that a service animal be removed, staff must offer the person with the disability the opportunity to obtain goods or services without the animal’s presence.

      Establishments that sell or prepare food must allow service animals in public areas even if state or local health codes prohibit animals on the premises.

      If you’re interested you can read more here: http://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm.

      Thank you for sharing your story.

  9. I have pitbull and i am bipolar
    i wouldnt know what to do if i didnt have them theyre my comfort bipolar is a uncontrolable disease and they know something is going on with me they come to comfort me what are they if they do that ?

  10. Dear Colby,

    I don’t know why you are ignoring that I’m posting, when I posted information about the 5 different types of service dogs and then you thanked the lady under me for providing the same information. And then when I posted that the person above me was incorrect, I was just “over looked.” Well, I decided to write this ridiculously lengthy comment with all of my situations to prove that I am correct since I don’t want everyone just telling the wrong information.

    Here is the correct law updated as of March 15, 2011: http://www.militaryhomefront.dod.mil/12038/Project%20Documents/MilitaryHOMEFRONT/Troops%20and%20Families/Special%20Needs%20EFMP/Service_Dog_Law_Change_2011.pdf
    (This was the best link to prove it all in one place since ada.gov provides it in a more shattered version and a bit more dumbed down)

    The reason why the person is wrong above is wrong because of the new proposed sections that clarify what a service animal is and what is does.

    “The Department?s final rule defines ??service animal?? as ??any dog that is individually
    trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a
    physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Other species of animals,
    whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this
    definition. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the
    handler?s disability. Examples of work or tasks include, but are not limited to, assisting
    individuals who are blind or have low vision with navigation and other tasks, alerting individuals
    who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of people or sounds, providing non-violent
    protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, assisting an individual during a seizure,
    alerting individuals to the presence of allergens, retrieving items such as medicine or the
    telephone, providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to individuals
    with mobility disabilities, and helping persons with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by
    preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors. The crime deterrent effects of an
    animal?s presence and the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or
    companionship do not constitute work or tasks for the purposes of this definition.??

    It is clearly stated above that “emotional support” is not in the definition of a task and therefore is not a service animal. It says above that they must “prevent” or “interrupt” the behaviors they can’t just be there for emotional support they must be tasked to do something.

    “One service dog user stated that, in some cases, ??critical forms of assistance can?t be
    construed as physical tasks,?? noting that the manifestations of ??brain-based disabilities,?? such
    as psychiatric disorders and autism, are as varied as their physical counterparts. The
    Department agrees with this statement but cautions that unless the animal is individually
    trained to do something that qualifies as work or a task, the animal is a pet or support animal
    and does not qualify for coverage as a service animal. A pet or support animal may be able to
    discern that the handler is in distress, but it is what the animal is trained to do in response to
    this awareness that distinguishes a service animal from an observant pet or support animal.”

    “The NPRM contained an example of ??doing work?? that stated ??a psychiatric service dog
    can help some individuals with dissociative identity disorder to remain grounded in time or
    place.?? 73 FR 34508, 34521 (June 17, 2008). Several commenters objected to the use of this
    example, arguing that grounding was not a ??task?? and therefore the example inherently
    contradicted the basic premise that a service animal must perform a task in order to mitigate a
    disability. Other commenters stated that ??grounding?? should not be included as an example of
    ??work?? because it could lead to some individuals claiming that they should be able to use
    emotional support animals in public because the dog makes them feel calm or safe. By
    contrast, one commenter with experience in training service animals explained that grounding
    is a trained task based upon very specific behavioral indicators that can be observed and
    measured. These tasks are based upon input from mental health practitioners, dog trainers,
    and individuals with a history of working with psychiatric service dogs.”

    “For example, if a service animal senses that a person is about to have a psychiatric episode and it is trained to respond, for example, by nudging, barking, or removing the individual to a safe location until the episode subsides, then the animal has indeed performed a task or done work on behalf of the individual with the disability, as opposed to merely sensing an event.”

    There is more and more information on emotional support animals through out this link. You should read it all. As I explained before they can’t merely go on instinct and react to your situation they have to observed it and be trained to do the act.

    “Most animals, including but not limited to those labeled Companion Animals, Emotional Support Animals and Therapy Animals or pets are NOT service animals according to ADA’s Definition, as they have NOT been individually trained to perform disability mitigating tasks. Thus their handlers do not legally qualify for public access rights. Typically these animals also lack the months of training on obedience and manners needed to behave properly under challenging conditions in places of public accommodation.”

    “IAADP appreciates the role that an emotional support animal or therapy companion animal may play in the life of a disabled individual. Such an animal can provide unconditional love, comfort, serve as a crime deterrent or perhaps in some way enhance someone’s physical or mental health by their presence. While these benefits will not qualify a disabled handler for public access rights, other laws may apply insofar as housing or travel by air.”

    This is from: http://www.iaadp.org/iaadp-ada-training-requirements.html

    Which is what I was saying before but this is more dumbed down as it is not the exact law or department.

    And finally from the ADA themselves say:

    “Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”

    http://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm

    If the person above instead stated “Psychiatric Service Dog” his statement would have been correct. With all of the information I have stated, there are three types of animals you should be talking about:

    *Assistance/Service Dogs
    *Therapy Dogs
    *Emotional Support Animals

    Some people don’t understand that an “Emotional Support” animal is not a service dog and should not be treated as such. It is in the law. Therapy dogs is also covered in the IAADP link as well. Just because I don’t have Dr. in my name or I can’t compose beautifully written comments doesn’t mean that I am not correct or that I should be overlooked.

    Thank you.

    1. Hi Christi,

      Thank you for all of the information you supplied on this thread. I’m not ignoring you it’s just difficult for me to respond to every comment on the blog. I receive 100’s of comments, emails, and questions on my blog every day and it’s very difficult to keep up. This is not my day job and I often stay up until 3am trying to respond to as many comments as possible.

      I really do appreciate the time people take to read, comment, and participate in discussion on my blog. Thank you!

      By the way, I believe comments often catch my attention when I see my name. Just like this one and the comment you mentioned.

      Thanks,
      Colby

    2. I have PTSD and have some really bad episodes I had it all my life. I have a fear f being around men . And not even anxiety meds can make y daily anxiety go away. I am annorexic have depression I am epileptic but that’s not an issue. I have a dog and three living cats would a therapy dog really help? Would a dog be benificial ? I also have people attachment disorder , and aspergers

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