The Ultimate Guide to Service, Emotional Support & Therapy Dogs

According to government statistics,  43 million Americans have a mental or physical disability. As many as 4,000 service dogs are placed annually to help the disabled hear, see, and assist with mobility and motor function.

In addition, the roles of service dogs are rapidly expanding as they are increasingly helping with psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety and PTSD.

Service dogs are only one type of canine involved in helping people. Therapy dogs and emotional support dogs are also doing their part.

However, there are wide public misconceptions about these different classifications and what they mean.

We are here to set the record straight!


What is the difference between a service dog, an emotional support dog, and a therapy dog?

Service Dog

Emotional Support Dog

Therapy Dog

The Basics

Service dogs help with performing a function for a person that is limited by a disability.

Emotional support dogs help individuals with emotional problems by providing comfort and support.

Therapy dogs provide affection and comfort to individuals in hospitals, nursing homes, and other facilities.

Partial List of Disabilities Covered

Mobility issues, visual impairment (blindness), heading impairment (deafnes), seizures, diabetes, PTSD, autism, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis (MS), and other physical/mental disabilities.

Anxiety, depresion, bipolar/mood disorders, panic attacks, and other emotional/psychological conditions

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Laws Protecting this Type of Dog

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Fair Housing Amendments Act Air Carrier Access Act

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Breed/Age/Sex of Dogs

Any is acceptable

Any is acceptable

Any is acceptable

Fly in airplane for free

Yes

Yes

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Allowed in all housing regardless of pet policy

Yes

Yes

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Potected in All 50 States

Yes

Yes

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Before we get into each of these different categories, let’s take a quick look at what they mean and how they are different from each other.


Service Dog

This classification of assistance animals is the most restricted group because it is specifically defined and protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

In order to qualify as a service dog, a canine must have individual training to perform an important task for someone with a physical or psychiatric disability.

Service dogs enjoy federal protection to access places that their person goes including restaurants, shopping malls, hospitals, classrooms, housing, and public transportation.

Fun Fact: 
Did you know that the only other animal that enjoys federal protection by the ADA as a potential service animal are miniature horses? And yes, they must be housebroken to qualify for protections!


Emotional Support Dog

Unlike a service dog, emotional support animals (ESA) do not have to perform specific tasks related to their handler’s disability. However, they are also NOT afforded the same protections that service dogs enjoy under the ADA.

Businesses, in general, have the right to refuse entry to ESAs with two major exceptions.

Airlines and housing entities must make reasonable accommodations for ESAs, although they are allowed to require special documentation that verifies the need for the emotional support animal.

Fun Fact: 
ESAs do NOT have to be dogs (or miniature horses). In fact, they can be any domesticated animal to include cats, ferrets and even hedge hogs!


Therapy Dog

A therapy dog is a canine that is invited to visit with clients in places such as nursing homes, hospitals, schools, assisted living facilities, women’s shelters, and other places where people may benefit from the unconditional love, patient understanding, and calming presence of dogs.

These dogs are not protected by any federal or state laws and are always subject to the specific rules and guidelines of the institutions that invite them and their handlers to participate in special programs.

Fun Fact: 
​Since they are not regulated or protected by any government authority, therapy animals are by no means limited to our canine companions. In fact, there is even an organization devoted to promoting the responsible training of Therapy Pot Bellied Pigs!


How to make your dog a service dog?

Let’s start by taking a look at the specific laws that govern service dogs.


What federal laws govern service dogs?

There are several federal regulations that involve the definition, accessibility, and freedom from discrimination for people with disabilities and their service animals.

Lays out the general definitions, protections, accommodations, and reasonable exceptions for service animals.

This law also defines service animals, grants them public access, and lays out what kinds of inquiries are allowed by law with regards to service animals.

Specifically protects people with disabilities and their service and assistance animals in the pursuit of public housing.

Federal provisions that articulate rules regarding disability, service and emotional support animals, and air travel.


State by state laws for service dogs

The ADA provides federal protection for service dogs and actually makes it illegal for states to impose additional restrictions such as mandatory registration on what constitutes the definition of a service dog or denial of access for any reason not already specified in the ADA.

However, the states do have some differences in terms of how the details are worked out, special laws regarding how and when such animals can be surrendered, and increasingly, the criminalization of cases when a dog is fraudulently passed off as a service dog in order to gain access to ADA protections.

Because of the complexity of state by state laws regarding service animals, you should consult a lawyer if you believe you have been discriminated against as a result of your service dog. If you want to learn more about the specific laws in your state, here is a good resource to get started doing the research.


Do I need to get my service dog registered?

No.

To qualify as a service dog by ADA guidelines, you need to have a disability and your dog needs to be trained to perform vital tasks that are directly related to mitigating your disability.

If you are questioned by a person or business, the only two legal questions that they can ask are:

  • Do you require this service dog because of a disability?
  • What specific task(s) relative to your disability is this dog trained to do?

You are NOT required to produce documentation, official registration, or disclose your disability in order to enjoy the ADA protections granted to service dogs and their handlers.

Unfortunately, due to the complicated and conflicting state laws, some companies offer (legally unnecessary) services promising legitimate service dog certification for a fee.

While you may decide the fee is worth paying to get help voluntarily registering your service dog with a state agency to have an official document to avoid hassles, such services are simply not necessary in the United States in order to enjoy protection under federal ADA provisions.

In fact, we want our readers to be aware that most of these so called “registration programs” are nothing more than unscrupulous scams.

While some states do have VOLUNTARY registration procedures which could offer a convenience for disabled people and their service animals in terms of less hassle from businesses, the truth is that the federal ADA laws prohibit mandatory registration efforts by state or local authorities or businesses.

If you want to participate in a voluntary state registration program, you can do so directly through your state government without paying any fees.


What kinds of tasks do service dogs do?

Examples of specialized tasks include:

  • Opening and closing doors
  • Pulling a wheelchair
  • Carrying a backpack with supplies such as medications or emergency medical information
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    Alerting caretakers to a variety of issues including unconsciousness, breathing problems, low or high blood sugar
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    Alerting handlers to dangers such as the presence of an allergen, fire alarms, moving vehicles, or obstacles
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    Block disoriented handlers from exiting a building or guide them home if they become lost
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    “Tactile Grounding” for people that suffer from PTSD or autism
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    Help maintain a routine including waking a client up at a certain time or reminding them to take medications
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    Assist with mobility by providing a brace to sit, stand, climb stairs, or get in and out of the bathtub
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    Clear a room of potential threats and triggers for people with PTSD
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    Call emergency services with specialized K9 phones

The list goes on and on.

The point is that loyal and dutiful service dogs are providing a huge resource for people with disabilities every single day.

Although traditionally associated with physical disabilities such as mobility impairments, blindness and deafness, the modern service dog is capable of a wide range of specialized tasks that are completely tailored to the individual needs of the people whom they serve.


Types of service dogs

It is important to understand that categorizing different kinds of service animals is something that helps trainers classify different kinds of task training.

The different types are not “official” in terms of which ones count for protection under the ADA—if a disabled person has a canine that performs important tasks related to their disability, regardless of the type of disability, then it’s a service dog.

Examples include:

  • Guide dogs
  • Hearing dogs
  • Diabetic, Seizure, and Narcolepsy alert dogs
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    Psychiatric Service dogs
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    Mobility Assistance dogs
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    Autism Support dogs

How to make your dog a service dog for anxiety?

Psychiatric Service Dogs are those canines that have been individually trained to do certain tasks for those suffering from disabling mental illnesses. Common examples can include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and anxiety.

You may need a letter from a doctor verifying your disability to take advantage of some of the protections afforded to service animals, such as flying on a plane or attaining fair housing.

Examples of the kinds of tasks that qualify a dog as a Psychiatric Service Dog for mental disabilities such as anxiety and PTSD include:

  • Complete a systematic home search so someone with PTSD feels safe entering a building
  • Call for help in the event of a panic attack
  • Bring emergency medication in the event of symptoms from a panic attach such as disorientation, dizziness, or nausea
  • Clear hallucinations by being trained to greet real people and signal if there is no person present

How to qualify for a service dog?

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a dog must be trained to perform work or tasks for a person with a disability. The work or task must be directly related to the person’s disability.

  • The training does NOT need to be done by a professional dog trainer or certified organization.
  • Official certification of service dogs is NOT a requirement for federal protection by the ADA.
  • A person with a disability DOES NOT need any formal documentation, such as a doctor’s note, to qualify for a service animal.
  • An airline may require you to provide a doctor’s letter of your disability to allow your service animal (or emotional support animal) to fly in the cabin with you.
  • “Emotional support” does NOT (on its own) qualify as a service animal task. (See emotional support dog.)
  • Public access may be denied for service animals only in two circumstances:
    • If the animal is out of control and the handler can’t get them under control, or
    • If the animal is not housebroken.
  • It is illegal to:
    • Deny access to establishments that sell or prepare food
    • Charge additional fees or segregate based on the use of a service animal
    • Deny access based on other people’s allergies or fear of dogs
  • The only questions an establishment is permitted to ask with regards to service animals are:
    • Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
    • What work or task has the dog been trained to perform relative to the disability?

How to get a service dog?

If you have dog training skills, you can train your own service dog. However, many disabled people find that service dog training programs offer a valuable and useful service.

These programs often use a combination of volunteers and professional dog trainers using positive reinforcement-based methods.

In addition to learning basic manners, socialization and exposure to a large variety of real life situations, these specially trained dogs are taught specific tasks tailored to the client to whom they will serve.


Where to find a trained service dog?

There are hundreds of organizations that train service dogs in the United States. These dogs are available for purchase or, in some cases, donation to qualifying individuals.

One very helpful tool to find such training programs is the accredited member search provided by Assistance Dogs International, an organization dedicated to raising the bar when it comes to setting standards for the training of these vital helpers. You can find their international search tool here.

You should also do some searching on your own to learn about other service dog organizations that may not be members in Assistance Dogs International.

Many programs focus on specific types of disability or certain classifications of recipients such as veterans. Some programs offer financial assistance for those that qualify.

Want to get involved?

Many organizations that provide free or low-cost service dogs work closely with volunteers who provide homes for puppy candidates.

“Puppy Raisers” play a vital role in the service dog pipeline. In many cases you do not need special training, although you will need to meet certain criteria to be eligible.

To find out more about how to get involved, search online to find out what organizations are active in your state and reach out to find out more about their volunteer programs.


How to make my dog an emotional support dog?

As discussed above, Emotional Support Animals (ESAs), sometimes also called assistance animals, are not officially recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and thus accommodations such as access to public spaces like restaurants, retailers and hospitals are not protected.

However, two important areas where ESAs are protected include airline travel (thanks to the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)) and housing (thanks to the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA)).

In both cases, documentation from a licensed psychiatric professional may be required to be afforded accommodations. A psychologist, physician, psychiatrist, or a social worker can provide the necessary documentation if you qualify.

The person may also need to provide information regarding why the support animal is needed to mitigate the symptoms of a disability, although the disability itself does not need to be disclosed.


Public controversy about abuse of ESAs

The use of emotional support animals has been rapidly increasing in American society, and concerns about the lack of regulation, unclear psychological guidelines for their prescription, and rampant fraud, have grabbed the headlines.

Part of the problem is being driven by a cottage industry of online business that offer registration of emotional support animals for a fee. In some cases, they also provide bogus documentation or fraudulent letters from “psychologists” that buyers can use to “document” their need for such animals.

Not only are these services pretty much a scam, they are encouraging and enabling abuse of the system. 

Such fraud is extremely unethical because it makes it harder for people that have legitimate disabilities to take advantage of important protections to both travel and live with the dogs that truly improve their quality of life and ability to function from day-to-day.


How to fly with an emotional support dog?


Recently, there has been some controversy surrounding ESAs and airline travel. Some airlines are starting to become stricter with their policies and requiring more specific documentation including veterinary health records for the animal and documents certifying that comfort animals have been trained to behave in public.

To be fair, the concerns are not trivial. Since 2016, the use of ASAs on support animals has increased 40% according to American Airlines.

In fact, they have gone so far as to ban specific animals from being accepted as qualifying emotional support animals including insects, spiders, goats, hedgehogs, ferrets, chickens, and hawks.

If you have an emotional support animal, be sure you plan your flight well in advance and find out the specific requirements for the airline you plan to travel with to avoid any last-minute denials of your travel.


How to get an emotional support dog?

There are a lot of websites out there offering services that promise so-called legitimate emotional support dog certification, however, there is no official certification process for these types of animals.

Save your money and avoid these scams.

If you want to know how to qualify for an emotional support dog, you should talk to your psychologist/psychiatrist to get the process started.

Not all mental health professionals are supportive of emotional support animals since, of the three classifications covered in this article, ESAs have the least amount of research as to their efficacy from a psychological treatment standpoint.

Some of the organizations that offer specialized training for service dogs also offer some options for emotional support dogs. However, these services are often expensive and difficult to qualify for.

Since specific training has not been standardized for ESAs, most people elect to instead enroll their puppy or dog in basic manners classes followed up with regular exposure to public venues to give their dogs plenty of opportunities for socialization.


Emotional support dog training

Unlike service animals, ASAs don’t need special training to do specific work or tasks. However, they do need to be housebroken and have basic manners in public. They should be comfortable around other people (of all ages) and know how to behave in stressful situations.

You can decide what form of training your ESA will take. Consider enrolling in a basic manners class at your local pet store or doggy daycare facility.

If you are looking for a low-cost option, be sure to check to see if your local animal shelter offers free training classes to the community.  You can also hire a professional dog trainer to help you craft a personalized training program for your dog in the comfort of your home.

Be sure to find a trainer that uses positive reinforcement-based methods (and run from anyone that says you need to “dominate” your dog).

Or, consider enrolling in the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen program. This program is widely recognized as the gold standard in doggy manners and it will go a long way towards demonstrating your dog has the basic skills needed for the behavioral requirements required for fair housing and flying with your emotional support dog. 


How to make your dog a therapy dog?

There has been a ton of research that demonstrates the health benefits of the canine-human bond. Time spent with dogs can:

  • Reduce blood pressure and heart rates
  • Decrease levels of depression, anxiety, and feelings of social isolation
  • Alleviate the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and other forms of Dementia
  • Increase social activity and sense of community
  • Positively impact healing and rehabilitation from surgery
  • Help with pain management

If you have a calm canine companion who has great manners and appreciates getting to meet new people, then perhaps you might consider becoming a therapy dog handler. This volunteer work is incredibly rewarding!

The best way to get involved as a therapy dog handler is to do some internet searching for groups and clubs that are active in your area.

If you think your dog has a particular fondness for folks with certain kinds of disability such as autism, or you have a preference for working with certain populations, such as veterans with PTSD, include those terms in your search.

You can’t just walk into a nursing home with your dog and expect to do some petting therapy with the senior residents. Local groups have relationships with the institutions in need of canine therapy services.

In addition, they often have training programs as well as testing to help make sure you and your canine companion are a great fit for the clients you will be serving.


Different types of therapy dog

Visitation

Probably the most common type of therapy dogs are those that visit with people who are in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, mental health wards, classrooms, prisons, rehab facilities, and other institutions.

They play an important role in helping to lift spirits, build a sense of connection, and can help motivate patients to be more active in their own recovery.

Rehabilitation

Some therapy canines play a specific role in recovery from physical or mental illness. They are sometimes integrated into a rehabilitation program to improve fine motor coordination or reach patients struggling with dementia.

Another population served by animal assisted therapy are at risk youth. Often victims of abuse and neglect, such children can struggle to trust adults and these dogs can provide a vital bridge to professional care.

Finally, the CDC reports that 1 in 59 children is born with autism spectrum disorder and that these numbers continue to rise. It seems that many affected children are able to form bonds with animals that they are unable to form with other people.

Although the reasons are not entirely understood, dogs are playing an increasingly important role, both as service and therapy dogs, in helping autistic people have a higher quality of life by improving social interaction, keeping track of their clients, and mitigating emotional breakdowns.

Residence

In some cases dogs take up residency as permanent members of the community at an institutional facility.

This type of canine therapy allows residents to share the responsibilities of ownership which can be a major boost to helping them keep schedules, feel a sense of purpose, and increase their physical activity.

In addition, such dogs can dramatically improve the sense of community among both patients and staff, promoting social interaction and improving quality of life.


How do I get legitimate therapy dog certification?

There is no nationally recognized official certification for therapy dogs. There are, however, plenty of online companies that will take your money in exchange for a pretty meaningless piece of paper.

Skip the online programs and find a club near you that is active in your community. They can point you to the right resources, including how to qualify your therapy dog to work with the populations you are most interested in helping.

Along the way, you will get a chance to meet other folks that share a passion with you to explore the human-animal bond and participate in the awesome healing power of the oldest inter-species bond.


Therapy dog training

Each organization has their own specific requirements for certification in their therapy dog programs. However, the general consensus includes three basic features:


Lots of Socialization

If you have a puppy that you hope to shape into a great therapy dog one day, make sure that they get plenty of socialization when they are young and as they grow.

They should be rewarded as often as possible for being calm and receptive around other dogs, people (of all ages), and in as many situations as possible.

Take them out to public places that allow dogs such as the pet store, parks, and pet-friendly cafes. Bring a bag of treats that they can earn by quietly accepting pets from strangers and continue obedience training as you are out and about.


Great Personalities

Not all dogs have the right personality for being a therapy dog, and unfortunately, sometimes training just can’t fix this problem. Some canines are just naturally high-strung or hypervigilant. They may be nervous around different triggers (such as children or people in wheelchairs) or they may have strong guarding instincts.  

These dogs can make EXCELLENT athletes because of their superior drive…but if they don’t have an “off” switch, they might never become a great therapy dog.

In addition, a good therapy dog genuinely enjoys meeting new people and spending time with them. Some dogs just seem to have a knack for opening up our hearts and putting us at ease. These canine compadres are the super-stars of the therapeutic scene.


Basic Obedience

Therapy dogs need to be responsive to basic commands including sit, stay, down, come, off, drop it, and leave it. Again, different clubs set their own standards so check with your local pet therapy organization to find out the kinds of behavior they are looking for in more detail.


Consider going for the AKC Therapy Dog™ Title

One fun way to get some recognition for your therapy dog is to go for a title through the AKC Therapy Dog Program. It’s a fun way to set some goals for yourself and your furry friend. You don’t need to have a purebred dog to qualify either.

You will need to register your dog by filling out an application form as well as participating with one of their accepted therapy dog organizations.


Conclusion: The Many Ways Dogs Improve Our Lives

Although the origins of the domesticated dog remain a matter of scientific controversy, we do know that they were the first animal that human beings tamed and invited into our communities.

In fact, we owe at least part of our evolution as a species to this relationship since both dogs and humans biologically changed in ways that made use of the partnership.

Whether classified as a service dog, emotional support dog, or therapy dog, canines continue to make a tremendous impact on our quality of life.

Do you have an inspirational story about your helpmate?

We would love to hear from you. Please feel free to tell our readers about your special canine companion in the comments below.

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Yoshiko Flora - October 20, 2018

Knowing that every year there are 4,000 service dogs that help disabled people hear, see, and assist to assist them in day-to-day activities, it reminds me of my mother. She is losing her sight every day due to her old age and I want to make sure she can still walk around the park to keep her fit. I will find a pet store that can get her a service dog. That way, she can be protected from getting injuries while walking around but also keep her emotional well-being as she takes care of him.

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DonEast - November 8, 2018

Wow this is totally astonishing, because you know most of the dogs I know or pets from friends and family and even in the neighborhood really love to explore and wander and I’m kind of scared that my dog will also runaway if there’s a food or something, but this is very beautiful. just wow!

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