What's the Difference Between a Service Dog and a Therapy Animal?

There is no national licensing capability or requirement for service or therapy animals that are typically dogs. However, there are rules for taking animals into public places and claiming that the presence of them is necessary to assist with some form of disability. There are three general classifications that apply mainly to dogs that have been professionally trained to provide some sort of assistance to human beings that include service, therapy and emotional support. Other professionally trained dog categories include guard, bomb and IED detecting, drug and contraband interdiction, search and rescue, and law enforcement. Here is how you can know the differences between a service animal and a therapy animal.

Service Animals

Though there are some animals other than dogs that are being utilized in a capacity that provides a service to a human being with disabilities, most service animals are canines. Service animals are trained either professionally or even by the disabled handler to do tasks directly related to a person's disability such as alerting diabetics of impending hypoglycemia or those with epilepsy of an impending seizure. Other service dogs may alert when the phone rings or when someone is at the door to a hearing-impaired person, or they may pick up objects, open doors or pull the wheelchair of a person who cannot walk. The key is that the animal performs a specific task or tasks directly related to the person's disability.

Therapy Animals

This class of animal still typically involves canines, but there is more latitude in the type of animal you may find that is certified to be a therapy animal. Therapy animals are specifically trained to be very social and friendly in order to be able to safely interact with a variety of different personality types and ages of people. You are likely to see therapy animals visiting hospitals, nursing homes and schools. Since they do not provide a direct service to their handlers and are utilized to help calm anxieties and promote good feelings in the people they visit, they are not directly covered under the Americans With Disability Act (ADA) Titles II and III that deal with service animals to allow them unrestricted access to public places. Therapy animals are allowed into places based on agreement. Though a great deal of public exposure is needed for their training, it has to be by agreement. For example, a seeing-eye dog could not be legally prevented from entering a restaurant if the animal was behaving as it should, but a therapy dog could be denied entry.

Service Dog Registration

If you have a disability and utilize a service dog to perform tasks to help you with your disability, there is no legal requirement for your dog to have any sort of certification or licensing nor is there a requirement that your dog wear a special identifying collar or harness. However, dog registration and wearing of identifying gear may provide some assistance in situations where you encounter uninformed people in public such as a restaurant manager wanting to deny you access because of your dog. Some companies, like USA Service Dogs, know how important it is to register your service dog because of these sort of things. Also, if your dog does wear identifying materials, this can help avoid any resistance while out in public in the first place as well as help dissuade people from wanting to pet and therefore distract your service dog from its tasks.

Emotional Support Animals

These animals cover all species from reptiles to mammals. An emotional support animal falls into a gray area, where in some cases it may seem to meet the requirements of a service animal and in other cases may be much closer to just being a companion animal. There is no training requirement for this class of animal, and protections under the law can vary. Those who rent and those who take an emotional support animal into public places may find some leeway in the part of the ADA concerning service animals where it mentions "psychiatric service”. Otherwise, emotional support animals are not considered service animals but are still covered under the federal act, and in addition, there may be individual state rights that could also be of help.

Service dogs are not supposed to be distracted by people in public, and it is up to those who have service animals to help educate them. It is important for the public to understand that service animals should not be petted, called, interacted with or distracted from their duties in any way while interaction with therapy animals is encouraged. Sometimes it is hard for the public to know the difference, so handlers taking the time to educate can make a difference.

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