Therapy Dog vs. Service Dog: What Is the Difference?

No doubt, you have seen them while out and about in your daily life. You go to the store and see someone with a dog in a place you weren’t expecting. They probably had on a vest that identified them as a service dog or therapy dog.

Yet, what do these terms mean?

Granted, it can be confusing, as it might seem that both types of dogs are similar. After all, they help people, right?

Yes, but in different ways.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice has specific guidance as to what is a service dog versus a therapy dog. Knowing the difference can be very helpful if you or someone you know is considering utilizing a dog to help with particular issues.

What Is a Service Dog?

A service dog, as defined by the Justice Department is “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.”

A disability would be an impairment that is recognized under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), such as a physical disadvantage (being blind or confined to a wheelchair) or a mental ailment (struggling with PTSD). This law was created to protect the rights of those who have a disability. And it stipulates that these individuals may utilize a service dog to help them and make them feel safe.

A key marker for service dogs is that they are trained specifically to assist a person with their particular disability. One example that highlights this point is a service dog assisting a person who has seizures. Canines have the ability to detect an oncoming seizure in a person before they even realize it’s happening. A well-trained service dog can warn its owner that a seizure is coming, which helps them to prepare for it. Additionally, the dog also helps keep the person safe when a seizure is occurring.

Obviously, it takes time to train a service dog to perform these tasks correctly and safely.

What Is a Therapy Dog?

Therapy dogs are different than service dogs in that they are not specifically trained to perform a task related to someone’s disability. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they are not useful! In fact, they are certified, registered dogs that have to meet stringent requirements.

A therapy dog can provide comfort and support for someone who has trauma or other emotional issues. They may serve in hospitals and nursing homes, therapist’s offices, or in homes to help decrease stress and anxiety levels. That’s because having a therapy dog present and interact with them can help lower blood pressure, slow breathing, and release feel-good hormones.

So the issue is that they’re not “of service.” It’s that they don’t fall under the definition of “service dog” because they’re not trained to perform specific tasks.

The Important Difference Between a Service Dog and a Therapy Dog

It all comes down to the law. Under the ADA, a person with a disability who uses a service dog cannot be denied services. For example, a blind person using a service dog would be allowed to bring the animal into a grocery store or restaurant. Of course, the dog must be under your control, and it must be housebroken.

Therapy dogs, on the other hand, do not have this protection. So if you would bring a therapy dog into a business (even if it had a vest that identified it as such), you could be denied service as it is not classified as a service animal.

For an individual who would like a dog for support, it would be best to seek guidance in order to choose the right do for the job. In broad terms, if you have a diagnosed disability and need help with performing specific tasks, then a service dog would be appropriate. On the other hand, if you need general emotional comfort and support, then a therapy dog might be the best choice. If you are unsure, ask organizations in your area that specialize in dog training.

Dogs, in general, make great pets because of their capacity for unending love and affection to their owners. They are also intelligent animals that can be trained for a range of tasks. If you are struggling, either emotionally or with getting by in your day-to-day activities, then a service or therapy dog might be the answer you need.

Also, at Luminous Counseling, we can provide the companionship of a therapy dog to boost your sessions. Please, call/text us to find out more, 256-686-9195.

AuthorJoshua Howell, MS, LPC, NCC, AADC, ICAADC, SAP, SAE

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