Service Dogs: 101

Before we go any further in a series about service dogs, we want to clarify the basics. So the first important question we will answer is:

What exactly is a service dog and how is that different from a therapy dog (or other dogs who help people in public)?

Service dogs and therapy dogs are the two types of dogs most frequently seen helping people in public. Sometimes, they do similar types of work so often the terms "service dog" and "therapy dog" are used interchangeably. However, usually the dogs have very different purposes and are considered distinctly different in the eyes of the law, so it is important to clarify what we mean when we say "service dog".

We've listed some basic information about service dogs and therapy dogs below, but we'll address many of these topics in a little more detail during the following posts. Have a question you didn't see answered below? Follow the link at the bottom to send it to us!

Service Dogs

What are they? Service dogs are dogs which have been highly trained to do specific tasks for an individual with a disability. The dogs have been trained to work with one specific person and what type of work they do depends on what type of disability the individual has. Common disabilities which service dogs help with are: physical disabilities (that may or may not require the person to use a wheelchair), visual impairment (guide dogs), hearing impairment (hearing dogs), autism, diagnosed psychiatric disorders (such as post traumatic stress disorder), or medical conditions causing seizures. In the United States there is no required certification for a dog to become a service dog, however due to the significant stress put on a dog in public, it is highly recommend to work with a professional organization or trainer to be sure any particular dog is up to the task. It should be noted that other countries do require certification, so speak with a professional trainer to get more information if you plan to travel with your service dog.

How are they legally defined? "Service animal means 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... the work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual´s disability " (quoted from the revised American with Disabilities Act found here:

What kind of public access rights do they have? Federal law states that service dogs are granted full public access (per the American with Disabilities Act). This means that a service dog is allowed to enter any public area which the individual with the dog is allowed to go. (We'll go into more details about this topic later) Dogs who are being trained are not federally granted public access, however most (but not all) state laws allow dogs in training into the same public areas as working service dogs.

What do they do? Because a service dog has been trained to meet the unique needs of a particular person, the type of work they do can vary greatly. A few of the common tasks the dogs have been trained to do are:

- opening doors - turning on lights

- pulling a wheelchair -alerting to medical or psychiatric emergencies

- responding to a medical or psychiatric crisis

- retreiving items such as medication, a telephone, or assistance from a nearby person

- providing physial support to individuals with balance issues

Therapy Dogs

What are they?Therapy dogs are dogs which have been trained to provide therapeutic assistance to a variety of people with a different types of disabilities or injuries. They are often handled and owned by volunteers who will periodically bring the dog into therapy facilities, schools, or hospitals. These do not have to have been trained to do specific tasks, however they can be used in a variety of animal assisted therapy programs. Many different of organizations and training programs have been created to certify a therapy dog, however each facility or program the dog participates with will set their own requirement for training or certification.

How are they legally defined? There is not a legal definition of a therapy dog, however federal law indicates that therapy dogs are NOT considered service dogs (because they have not been trained to do multiple tasks for a specific individual).

By default a therapy dog will be legally considered a pet, unless state law indicates otherwise.

"...the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship do not constitute work or tasks for the purposes of this [service dog] definition"

(quoted from the revised American with Disabilities Act found here:

*It should be noted that per the above definition by the ADA, emotional support animals (which often peform therpeutic work similar to therapy dogs, but for one particular individual) are, like other therapy dogs, not considered a service dog.

What kind of public access rights do they have? Therapy dogs are not granted public access, however particular facilities and locations will allow certain trained therapy dogs into their facility. Often dogs are trained through a non-profit organization which facilitates the relationship between the volunteers handling the dogs and the specific facilities they are allowed to visit. State laws will determine if therapy dogs are allowed into other public spaces.

What type of work do they do? They provide therapeutic support largely by relieving anxiety. This may be through physical contact, deep pressure, or simply the calming presence an animal can have. Some dogs may also support occupational or physical therapy programs by promoting physical interaction such as petting, grooming, or playing.

Questions about service dogs? Send them our way, and we'll answer them in an upcoming post!

(No worries, we'll keep your question anonymous and won't use your contact information for any further correspondence unless you ask us to! )


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