Service, Emotional Support, PTSD, Therapy Dogs: What’s the Difference?

Three calls from last week went like this:“Where can I buy a vest so I can take my dog places?”  (And by “places,” she meant anywhere she wanted.) “I want my dog to be a therapy dog so he can fly on the plane with me when I go on trips.”

I started explaining the differences in therapy and service animals to a third caller. I said, “And then there is an Emotional Support animal,” at which point she said, “I know all about that. Those are PTSD dogs and I haven’t been in a war.”

Here are some clarifications related to service animals. The information below on service dogs and ESAs (Emotional Support Dogs or animals) can be found in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Canine Good Citizen- CGC gives a dog (or the handler/owner) no special access privileges. CGC is a test of good manners.  While passing the CGC test is a prerequisite for many therapy dog organizations, CGC is not a therapy dog test.

Therapy dogs- Therapy dogs (along with their owner/handlers) have no special access privileges in public places. These are dogs that with their human teammate (usually the dog’s owner) volunteer in settings such as hospitals, assisted living schools, etc. to help other people.

Service Dogs-  Service dogs have full public access rights. Actually, to be technically correct, the rights are given to the person–the service dog user who has a disability. If the dog were being handled by a non-diabled person, public access rights don’t apply.  Service dogs are dogs that are individually trained to work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Service dogs have specialized training. Examples include guiding people who are blind or alerting a person who is deaf to a sound.

PTSD dogs are service dogs.   There is a category of service dog that is gaining a lot of attention and that is the PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) dogs who are working with people with PTSD.  PTSD can result with any major trauma; this is not only military veterans as the caller above thought. PTSD can be the result of war, rape, witnessing a violent crime, being the victim of  a violent crime or abuse, etc.

bald & dogEmotional Support Animals (ESAs)- ESAs do what their title suggests. They give emotional support in the way of comfort, the ability to calm the person, and to provide company.  ESA’s do not have full public access rights. They have only two legal protections which are 1) to fly with a person who has an emotional or psychological disability, and 2) to qualify for no-pet housing.

Airlines and housing authorities may request a letter from a physician or mental health professional that prescribes the ESA for a specific mental disability that limits one or more life activities.

The guidelines for ESAs have become more restrictive because so many people  abused the ESA category by alleging their pet dogs were service dogs.  As time goes on, an increasing number of agencies are requiring letters from a doctor or mental health professional stating that the person with an Emotional Support dog  has a diagnosis.

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About Canine Good Citizen

AKC Canine Good Citizen Director, Author of the AKC's official CGC book, "CITIZEN CANINE"
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20 Responses to Service, Emotional Support, PTSD, Therapy Dogs: What’s the Difference?

  1. leah nosack says:

    Very clear and accurate definition. Would love to post it on my fb page with permission if granted.
    Leah Nosack
    AKC CGC Evaulator

  2. Carmen Schwitzer says:

    How are dogs certified as Service, Emotional Support, PTSD, Therapy Dogs? What type of paperwork and tests are involved to legally gain certification. Where can I find more information on the legal aspects of each of these titles? Thank you.

  3. Skye says:

    Don’t forget about animal assisted activities dogs, animal assisted therapy dogs, psychiatric service dogs, animal assisted crisis response dogs, . . . and Jane Miller’s book Healing Companions is an excellent resource in the final third of the book.
    Great definitions, Mary!

  4. YES. Perfect definition! May I use this as well as a hand out (and on my facebook) to those who express their desire to get their dog to Service Dog Status?

  5. puppyjackpot says:

    Best definitions I have seen! Vivian (standard poodle, therapy dog with TDI) and I volunteered are a local health fair a few weeks ago and I spent a lot of time answering questions about the differences between a therapy dog and a service dog.

    • Mary Burch says:

      Thanks, I find when you tell a lot of people who want a “therapy dog” that they actually have to go and volunteer, they have a look that says that is not what they had in mind.

      • puppyjackpot says:

        I get that too. I was asked how often I to go to our local nursing home where we volunteer and when I tell people that I go once a week, they seemed surprised. I also spent a lot of time talking to them about CGC and that basic good manners and obedience are necessary prior to even considering therapy dog work. I shared your post on my Facebook page!

  6. Janet Mines Krings says:

    Here are two organizations that have very useful websites with information about training and certifying service dogs and making clear the legal and practical differences between service and therapy dogs. There is a LOT of confusion!! These two sites include information about what kinds of specific TASKS a psycholgical support dog may be expected to do to qualify as a service dog. In general, any service dog should be expected to do at least three specific TRAINED tasks to qualify. Just being cute and cuddly does not qualify. IAADP.org is the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners. There is information on each state’s definition of Service Dog–they vary from state to state. AssistanceDogsInternational.org is the other one. The second one has a Public Access test that is very reasonable and can be administered by a trainer. I have been working with some dogs that will be assigned to live with children with Autism, and we are using the ADI test as a public access guideline in our training program.

  7. Kathleen says:

    I guess we need to inform the public that our dogs have been highly trained, certified, and insured. I was a little put off to hear that some think that we just bought a vest!

    • Mary Burch says:

      Did you understand what I was saying was that some people with untrained dogs want a vest so they can take the dog everywhere….

  8. d.w.daniels says:

    Therapy dogs are certified through a group such as Therapy Dogs International, these groups also provide insurance for the team while working. Service Dogs are NOT required to be certified in accordance with the ADA. “Program” dogs that are trained by a organization such as guide dogs for the blind, or canine companions for independence are “certified” by those groups to those groups standards. This is a critical point as service dogs are allowed to be owner trained to perform tasks to assist their handlers. The ADA gives owner trained dogs full access, the same access as program dogs because it is not the dog that is granted the rights by the ADA, it is the disabled handler. There is no certification required by the ADA but it is illegal to impersonate someone with disabilities.

  9. Tonia says:

    Excellent and improtant point that d.w.daniels reports. Service Dogs are NOT required to be certified in accordance with the ADA. A perfect team fit specific to the disabled person means there is no “one size fits all” service dog or training. There are many resources for the serious owner/handler/trainer if you are diligent in your search. Also, it is a life-style not to be envied. Your dog is a prosthetic, not a pet.

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