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. To Everyone: (Colby)

    Kindly do not listen to so called “dog experts” rather, lawyers who actively deal with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Read the below very carefully.

    http://www.equipforequality.org/resourcecenter/ada_serviceanimals.pdf

    Under the ADA, a “service animal” is 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. Under the new DOJ
    regulations, “other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained,
    are not service animals for the purpose of this definition.” 28 C.F.R. § 36.104 and 28
    C.F.R. § 35.104 (emphasis added).

    Emotional Support Dogs fall under the A.D.A. and are in fact deemed a “service animal” since they “perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.. psychiatric .. or other mental disability.

    Service Dogs may do some of the following:

    ?? 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. 28 C.F.R. § 36.104; 28 C.F.R.
    § 35.104. ********

    1. Actually you are not completely correct if you are calling it an “emotional support dog” when an animal only provides emotional support it is NOT an psychiatric service dog. A emotional support animal can be any type of animal and it only falls under The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 and The Air Carrier Access Act. An emotional support animal is NOT trained and does not do any tasks. I have both an emotional support animal and a service animal. They are two different things. An emotional support animal give support for a persons with a disability, but is NOT trained to preform tasks. “Helping persons with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or
      interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors” has to be task driven and not by the animals instinct. This is all in the ADA.

    2. Hi Dr. Al S,

      Thank you for sharing this information and thank you for posting the link.

      Do you know if there’s been any updates to the ADA since that November 2010 letter (the one you provided in the link)?

      By the way, I’m reading through the letter as I write this. Thanks gain for sharing.

      Take care,
      Colby

  2. Hi, great article, but you may want to consider revising it because you have not listed all the types of assistance animals. I am a service dog trainer, and for me the term assistance/service dog encompasses:

    Guide Dog
    Mobility Assistance Dog
    Hearing Dog or Signal Dogs
    Medical Alert Dog
    Psychiatric Service Dog

    … you can’t leave out the medical alert doggies or the PTSD doggies! 🙂 Cheers.

    Dee

  3. To comment on the article, it’s nice to help people that really don’t know the difference. However, a service dog can also pass a therapy dog test and dog both. Normally in this situation the service dog wears a vest and the therapy dog wears a bandana. But in either situation the dog should not be begging for scraps if it is a service dog. Another thing is that there are 5 categories and not just 3. There are: Guide Dogs, Hearing Dogs, Mobility Assistance dogs, Psychiatric Service dogs, and Medical Alert/Seizure Alert Dogs. So that would clarify to some that service dogs can have to do with mental disabilities. Service dogs also require no registration or certification they just have to preform 3 tasks for their owners disability. (However people do expect them to be trained in basic obedience first) Therapy dogs have to pass a test and be certified to be considered a therapy. Most places won’t allow therapy dogs in unless they are certified. Emotional Support Animal the third type of animal needs nothing at all just a doctors note saying you need the animal for emotional support. (As the name suggests) I hope that clarified it for some. 🙂

    1. So well explained about the types of service and assistance dogs and thankyou for noting therapy dogs are certified and have:
      Been trained, socialized, are required to be clean, washed, brushed, teeth brushed, all shots up to date, with flea and tick treatment e.g. Advantage or other treatment and have certified handlers.
      No begging, barking or inappropriate behaviour.

  4. FIRST IS FIRST, ALL RESPECT TO ALL OWNERS OF SERVICE DOGS AND THERAPY DOGS.
    WE HAD AN INNCEIDENT AT THE RESTRAUNT WERE I WORK THE PEOPLE HAD LET THE DOG SIT IN A BOOTH {NOT ALLOWED} AFTERHEARING SEVERAL COMMENTS FROM OTHER GUEST THAT WERE FEELING UNEASY, I HAD APPROACHED THE TABLE AND KINDLY ASKED THE GUEST TO PLACE THE DOG ON THE FLOOR.TO MY SURPRISE THE GUEST FLIPPED OUT STATING HER DOG NEVER GOES ON THE FLOOR. WELL THAT WAS A NO BRAINER THAT WASNT A SERVICE DOG.I DIDNT TELL HER TO WATCH THE VIDEO OF HER COMING INTO THE STORE WITH THE DOG WALKING ON ITS 4 LEGS OR HOW IT WAITED IN LINE FOR 15 MIN. ON THE FLOOR,NOR DID I EVEN WANT TO ASK WHERE THE DOG DOES ITS BUISNESS WHICH DID RUN THREW MY MIND, I KINDLY TOLD HER BY LAW NO DOG IS ALLOWED ON CHAIRS, BOOTHS OR ANY FURNISHING AND REPEATED THAT THE DOG NEEDS TO GO ON THE FLOOR.WELL THEY DECIDED THAT THEY WOULD LEAVE AND MADE A HUGE STINK ON THE WAY OUT. THERAPY DOGS ARE CONSIDERED PETS. SERVICE DOGS WORK. LATER I FOUND OUT THE THE DOG WAS THERE DUE TO RESPITORY ISSUES, WHICH AGAIN IS NOT A SERVICE DOG. NOW IF SHE WOULD HAVE PLACED THE DOG ON THE FLOOR SHE WOULD HAVE GOTTEN AWAY WITH IT, THERE ARE SO MANY WAYS TO GET A SERVICE DOG COLLAR WHICH SHOULD BE ISSUED TO A SERVIVE DOG NOT A THERAPY DOG. ITS SAD THAT DAY I HAD TO PUT DOWN MY DOG A BRILLANT GERMAN SHEPARD WHO I BELIEVE COULD HAVE BEEN A GREAT SERVICE DOG AN HAD MORE EDUCATION THEN ALOT OF PEOPLE. THAT TRULY CRUSHED ME THAT THERE ARE PEOPLE OUT THERE AND MY I REPEAT OUT THERE THAT BELIEVE THAT THING ARE FOR THEM SELFISHLY. I WAS THREATEN BY THIS GUEST THAT THE GOVERMENT WAS GOING TO GET INVOLVED ETC ARE YOU FOR REAL? THEY EVEN CALLED CORPRATE AND GAVE THERE NAME ADDRESS ETC AND IM CONSIDERING TO CONTACT AN ATTORNEY.

  5. I’m OFFENDED, that people find it OFFENSIVE, to see a therapy dog out and about in public areas.

    Yes, I am a therapy dog owner, and my dog does go everywhere with me. He is calm and well behaved, as any true therapy dog should be (what therapy dog begs at a table?). I expose him to as many environments as I can, taking him around the States, Canada and now China. I am not physically disabled, nor do I personally have close friends whom are disabled. While I am healthy and able bodied, I feel a strong need to contribute to society on my free time. I do know many persons, young and old, with problems interacting socially, a need to feel loved or a need love, to feel that despite their medical ailments they can still be responsible for causing joy in another – even if it’s just throwing a ball or a scratch behind a dog’s ear. A person may be bed bound and feel useless but they can be responsible for putting that smile on a dog’s face.

    We have worked hard (and spent lots of money too) certifying and preparing to bring joy and comfort to others. Our services are NEVER compensated for financially but rather with twinkle in the eyes of those we meet. My dog is an ambassador for all canines. In public, I can’t tell you how many times people, who tell me they are afraid of dogs, bend down to gingerly pet my dog, smile growing. His quite disposition puts people at ease, whether a toddler in a stroller or senior in a wheelchair. He has helped people free themselves from animal anxiety EVEN when we’re not “on the clock.”

    If my therapy dog stayed home alone watching birds, he may get startled or bark in a different environment. Always being around people leaves him at ease to accept anything that comes his way, with a wag of his tail.

    He’s also a dog rescued directly of the street, with a budding modeling career. Something that would not have happened if he weren’t out and about in public places.

    1. Myself and my daughter train and use therapy dogs in hospitals, nursing homes and in a program called the read program to help children with reading, in schools.. I agree 100% How is it that so many people can not recognize that these dogs are trained and give comfort to many instead of one person only… they help many… also if we are unable to go into public facilities how are we to prepare one for testing…
      Obviously there are people out there just wanting to take their pets with them everywhere but I feel if you are a member of an accredited org. that therapy and comfort dogs should have the save rights as service dogs. There will always be people that should not even have pets.. let alone a therapy dog, in public or otherwise…. I do think that therapy dogs should have to wear badges to address that they should meet certain qualifications… and be with an org.

  6. I was the last post. I came to check for updates. Looks like I stopped the topic. I wish more would chime in….

  7. I find that the comments regarding therapy dogs are very ignorant. My spouse is a Vietnam Veteran who has PTSD. Among other ailments. This dog, is very well behaved trained, quiet and meets the NEEDS of my spouse. If any of you know what ptsd as well as parkinsons, I would excpect more understanding for his PAIN for figiting for your country. He is unable to go out, without anxiety attacks, and more. This dog has been a saving grace, and for all of you to state that this dog does not belong in restaurants, or anywhere else is very insensiteve. The only way HE can leave the home is WITH the dog. I think that the laws need to be changed. There is NO abuse in how he and his dog interact. Nor does this dog “annoy cause disruptuion”. This dog should be able to GO anywhere with this Vietnam Veteran. And I DO take him everywhere. I am not abusing anything. The depression suffered from PTSD and Parkinsons is so severe, how can any of you say this is abuse? If others do not train their dogs properly that is one thing, but I TOTALLY DISAGREE. If it were not for this dog, my spouse was on the verge of suicide. Due to the parkinsons, there is a balance issue. This dog who is only 5lbs, when he was 6 months old, after my spouse fell into the pool, came and found me and brought me to him. Again, the law should be changed. I am sorry for the blind, the hearing impaired. But, this dog has saved my husbands life litterly in more ways than 1 and more times than I can count BEFORE training. He was/is a natural.

  8. You know, I’m a landlord that manages a senior / disabled building and believe me when I say most of my residents have legitimate service dogs. However we do have a non service dog policy that states the animal must be 12+ months of age, fixed and utd on shots. We have a resident who has involved HUD because she has a bischon that did not meet the pet requirements, so all of a sudden she was “disabled” and the dog was a service dog. Please understand that I’m a pet lover and a disability advocate so it really burns me when someone is abusing the system. But not only that I have many many units that see the abuse and think we are a bum landlord because they see that the person is not disabled nor is the 6 month puppy a “service” dog. For our state law, the dog must be capable of performing the 3 tasks, not certified through the state, but not behave in a pet manner. This dog barks incessantly at all hours, does not perform any tasks and asks for petting at all opportunities. So please keep in mind that like with anyone else that there are frauds out there that are ruining the opportunities that so many of you desire just because they want to bring their pets into a places that are normally not allowed. That, is what is causing a wall of resentment, not your disability. No different than someone who lives on welfare because they are too lazy to get up and go get a job. And yes, that does happen. I manage a section 8 multifamily housing building as well. Peace out.

  9. We adopted a Staffordshire/Pitbull mix two years ago. She is such a wonderful dog wth people of all ages that we got her certified as a therapy dog. Granted, it does annoy us that people will bring animals into public places with no training but we do have papers and went “by the book”, checking with the local mall management before taking her for walks there with the restriction that any store must approve before we take her in. Jersey has become quite a celebrity and gives a lot of smiles to shoppers and workers – children especially love to be given kisses! It’s been great for me and my husband as well. The dog loves the glass elevator, is fine on the escalator, and hangs out with us at Starbucks (of course, we got their permission first) and we get lots of favorable comments about how well mannered she is. It’s quite amusing how when we are by ourselves we always get asked “How’s the dog?” or “Where’s the dog?”.

  10. I think that certain people here need to get their facts straight. Mental disabilities are just as bad as physical disabilities. Many times mental illness is over looked as something a person can change and perhaps they should just deal with it. Would you tell someone that is blind to just get over it or deal with it. I think not. I have several illnesses including Bi Polar disorder depression anxiety PTSD. All of these are controlled with a ton of medication and therapy. It doesnt go away. There is no cure! So if a therapy dog is needed to keep someone from having a severe panic attack or other problem (like the inability to get out of bed because depression is so bad) then I think the state needs to implement a training program for these dogs! I also think that people that don’t understand what a mental disability does to someone should learn the facts before they judge

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