Service/Assistance, Emotional Support, and Therapy Dogs

Service/Assistance, Emotional Support, and Therapy Dogs


Submitted by Dawn Sherman-Ireton

I am writing this to clarify service/assistance dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support dogs specifically to the US. Other countries have their own laws. So it is important to do your research when traveling abroad.

Service/Assistance Dog - the term is interchangeable through various laws at the state and federal level. Under the ADA - a service animal is a dog or miniature horse that has been specifically trained in tasks that mitigate the handler's disability. This can be anything from being trained as a guide dog, to a diabetic alert dog, to a psychiatric service dog. The last should not be confused with an emotional support dog. Under the ADA, the handlers of a service dog has right to public access and under the law and the IRS, they are considered medical equipment. They have a very high standard of training.

Emotional Support Dog - these are dogs that comfort their owner. They do not need any specific training. They do not have public access rights. The only laws that apply to them are under HUD for housing and the ACAA under the Department of Transportation for flying. In both cases proof of need is required by a letter from a doctor or mental health professional stating that the dog is needed for therapeutic reasons.

Therapy Dog - These dogs are specifically trained to provide comfort and therapy in various institutions. This could be dogs that visit patients in a hospital or hospice. Dogs now being used in court rooms to help witnesses testify. In airports to help stressed travelers. Or in disasters or traumatic situations like a mass shooting or as devastating as 9/11. These dogs must be given permission to enter locations to provide their services and are usually certified by groups like Therapy Dogs International. As an FYI, TDI does not allow Service Dogs to also be therapy dogs in their organization.

Each state has its own laws as well and come mostly into play regarding penalties for faking a service dog or if a service dog in training as the same rights as a service dog. When travelling or deciding to get a service dog, please also check with each state and their laws. Some are a bit behind on psychiatric service dogs and that is being remedied slowly through the state legislatures.

Websites that claim they can certify your dog by paying x amount are scams. A vest does not make a service dog. It's the training that does. If ever faced with having to go to court over the dog, training must be proved. This can be done in various ways including logs of training, canine good citizen and advanced canine good citizen status, and videos of training.

For further information: I highly recommend visiting It's a great nonprofit that keeps up to date with the changing rules and laws. They are advocates for the community. And they provide some really great resources.

I hope this helps to clarify the differences. Not all dogs are cut out to be a service or therapy dog. My Yorkie will never be an SD. He is not suited for it. My Lab Mix thrives on working and thus one of the reasons he was chosen.  Good luck to any who wish to go down any of these roads.

Here are some other useful sites (added by Yorkies United):


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