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

Therapy, service and emotional support dogs all help their owners, but not all of them are allowed on planes or inside public buildings.



Louie, who works with Project Puppy Love in Phoenixville, PA.

Courtesy of Project Puppy Love

Dogs are great, but for some people they are much more than pets.

Because of their willingness to be trained and their natural calming influence, dogs are increasingly used to aid children with a wide range of developmental and physical disabilities, including autism, epilepsy and impaired balance.

These helpful canines come in two forms — therapy dogs and service dogs.

What is a therapy dog?

Therapy dogs are often handled by professionals, usually in settings like a school or therapist’s office. Because petting a dog can release endorphins and lower blood pressure, the presence of a therapy dog can make the child’s treatment easier.

Phoenixville, PA family therapist Kelly Raudenbush started Project Puppy Love to work with her golden retriever, Louie, during therapy sessions.

“Beyond mutual enjoyment, Louie gives us lots to talk about that always seems
 to align well with what we need to talk about,” says Raudenbush, “things like impulse control, giving and receiving affection, asking for and getting what we need, etc.”

In therapy, dogs act as a motivator to elicit a desired response from the child. In occupational therapy, for example, brushing a dog can make a child more comfortable when his own hair is brushed.

A dog can also make a child in therapy less nervous or fearful.

“I’ve noticed how much easier it is for kids—particularly teenagers—to talk about hard things when they are able to focus attention on Louie and have their parents and me gazing at him too instead of at them,” Raudenbush says.

These uses of therapy dogs are a good option for a family that may not be able to have a dog at home or doesn’t need a dog’s support on a daily basis.

Companion dogs, in contrast, live with the family and provide comfort at home. They undergo obedience training and can learn skills to help with specific conditions. For example, they can provide kids with autism additional tactical stimulation or increase socialization for someone with anxiety.

One type of companion dog is an Emotional Support Animal (ESA), which provides comfort for someone with a disabling mental-health issue, such as anxiety or depression. An ESA must be prescribed by a health professional.

What is a service dog?

Unlike therapy dogs, which can be certified at any age, service dogs are trained from the time they’re puppies to carry out specific tasks.

They are taught to work with owners who have a variety of disabilities ranging from guide dogs for people with visual
 or hearing impairments; dogs trained
 to respond to their handlers’ diabetic shock or epileptic seizure, and dogs that assist people with autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or other mental illnesses.

A medical-alert dog can warn someone up to 40 minutes before a seizure 
or diabetic shock and prepare for it. For instance, the dog might position itself to counterbalance an expected fall to lessen the impact. While almost any breed of dog can be a therapy dog, service dogs are typically labs and retrievers.

The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows someone with a service dog access to any public place. To qualify as a service dog, however, it must be trained to perform a specific task for the owner’s disability.

“A person with depression may have a dog that is trained to remind her to take her medication,” notes ADA.gov. “Or a person who has epilepsy may have a dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure.”

Puppy in training from Canine Partners for LifeThe fact that a dog provides comfort to someone who suffers from anxiety, however, is not enough to qualify it as a service dog under the ADA.

“If the dog has been trained to sense that an anxiety attack is about to happen and take a specific action to help avoid the attack or lessen its impact, that would qualify as a service animal,” it says. “If the dog’s mere presence provides comfort, that would not be considered a service animal.”

However, if the dog is a prescribed ESA, it can be brought aboard an airplane and live with an owner in housing where pets are not normally allowed, according to the American Kennel Club.

While children of any age can benefit from a therapy dog, service dogs are only placed with children who are 13 or older to ensure they can handle the dog at all times.

“They can do tasks like picking things off the floor or getting
 a parent if a child cries or falls. We can train them to bark if the child needs help,” says Janie Cramer Executive Director of Canine Partners for Life of Cochranville PA, which trains and places service and companion dogs with children and adults.

Whichever option you choose, verify the organization’s accreditation through a group such as Assistance Dogs International.

“If someone has a disability, the last thing they need is a dog that isn’t controlled or doesn’t have training,” says Cramer. “This dog should enhance their life, not make it more difficult.”

Rose Destra is a freelance writer and former MetroKids intern from Temple University.

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