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What's In A Name?

Updated: Sep 20, 2018

Emotional Support and Service dogs have been the subject of several news stories lately. The following essay should help clear up the confusion between these, and other categories of "specialized" dogs.


Service Dogs, Emotional Assistance Dogs, Working Dogs, and Therapy Dogs:

Your rights and responsibilities as a dog owner and handler.

In the last 20 years the use of animals, especially dogs, to help humans with a wide range of medical issues has really taken off, especially animals to help with anxiety, PTSD, and phobias. This has caused quite a bit of confusion with a lot of people on what their dog can actually do and the rights that it has and what the difference is between a full fledged Service Dog, an emotional assistance dog, a therapy dog, and other working dogs. This confusion has caused a lot of issues with landlords, airlines, and businesses and has caused a lot of interference in the work of true service dogs. Let’s look at the differences below:

1.) Service Dog.

a. What is it? A service dog has been highly trained for a specific purpose to assist a person with a disease or disability. This may include seizure alert and assistance, seeing eye dogs, hearing dogs, diabetes alert and assistance dogs, mobility assistance dogs, autism dogs, etc.

b. Training. Training is intense and usually takes up to 2 years before being paired with their person. It involves high amounts of socialization, impulse control, calm and thorough obedience, honoring (ignoring) of distractions, people, and other animals, and proper social etiquette in all manner of places in addition to the special tasks they need to perform for their people. This last one is important. Service Dogs MUST be trained to perform a specific task for their handler DIRECTLY RELATED to their disability. Comfort is NOT included.

“The ADA makes a distinction between psychiatric service animals and emotional support animals. 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. However, if the dog's mere presence provides comfort, that would not be considered a service animal under the ADA.”

Many dogs wash out due to fear of noises, high prey drive, not enough training drive, etc. It takes a special dog to be a service dog.

c. Laws and Rights. The Americans With Disabilities Act fully protects service dogs and their handlers. Because of this law, Service Dogs are allowed to enter any public area and many private ones. The only things businesses and other establishments are allowed to ask is “Is your dog a Service Dog?” and “What is it trained to do?” They are not allowed to ask what your disease or disability is. You do NOT need to show them papers or certificates, but it is a good idea to have them available since it can make things go more smoothly. Service dogs do NOT need to be certified and can be trained by their owners. Service dogs can be required to leave a public/private area if the dog is behaving poorly or is not housebroken. Service dogs MUST remain on a leash in public places unless the task they are trained to do requires them to be off-leash. See for more information about the rights and responsibilities awarded to service dogs.

2.) Emotional Assistance/Support Animal

a. What is it? An Emotional Support Animal, or emotional assistance dog, is a dog that provides comfort to its handler just with its presence. They are used to help people with anxiety, fears, depression, PTSD, and other mental or psychiatric disability overcome the stresses of life by providing a “therapeutic benefit”, comfort, and calm.

b. Training. An ESA is not required to have training of any kind. It is a very good idea, however, to make sure the animal has basic training, manners, and obedience and is well socialized around other people and animals, especially if you plan to take it on an airplane as you can be asked to leave and miss your fight if your animal is not behaving.

c. Laws and Rights. An ESA is NOT considered a Service Dog. They do NOT have the legal rights awarded to a service dog INCLUDING being allowed in all public places. The only legal rights an Emotional Assistance Dog has is as a “reasonable accommodation for a person with a disability” in the Fair Housing Act, meaning that a living place that doesn’t allow pets must allow an Emotional Assistance Dog, and proof that the animal is needed must be provided by a medical doctor or psychiatrist. There are a lot of misconceptions that all you need is a note from your doctor and BAM, you can take Fluffy or Fido everywhere with you and nobody can contradict it. This is NOT the case. More information can be found here:

3.) Working Dogs

a. What is it? A Working Dog is a dog that is highly trained to do a specific job. This could be detecting drugs or bombs, protection of a person, managing wildlife, detecting bedbugs, police, military, search and rescue, etc.

b. Training. The training a Working Dog receives will depend strongly on the job it performs. At a minimum, they are highly socialized to all manner of people, pets, and places and trained to obey their handlers.

c. Laws and Rights. Working Dogs have no rights outside of what a regular pet would have. They are not allowed anywhere pet dogs are not unless invited. Permission must be gained before entering any public building. Police dogs are an exception as a police dog may accompany his handler wherever the officer needs to use him. If the police dog is being used to search, a warrant may be required.

4.) Therapy Dogs

a. What is it? A Therapy Dog is trained to bring comfort to people other than their handler and are often brought into hospitals, nursing homes, and all types of places after a traumatic event.

b. Training. Therapy Dogs go through intense training for obedience, manners, socialization to new places, noises (like hospital beeps), equipment (wheelchairs, IV drips, hospital beds, walkers, etc), elevators, and more. They are trained not to jump on or paw at people, to remain very calm and tolerate all manner of petting. Many times they are trained not to lick people since many people in hospitals or nursing homes are immunocompromised and dog saliva contains a lot of bacteria.

c. Laws and Rights. Therapy Dogs have no rights outside of what a regular pet would have. They are not allowed anywhere pet dogs are not unless invited. Permission must be gained before entering any hospital, school, nursing home, etc.

Understanding the difference between types of non-pet dogs and knowing what rights you have, and don’t have, as a dog owner or handler is important for making sure that you are not interfering with other people, businesses, and most importantly, other service animals. Because of the huge influx of people fraudulently claiming their pet or ESA is a service animal, there have been a lot of conflicts developing and those really suffering are true service animals and the people that they are trained to help. People’s service animals have been attacked by fake service dogs or ESAs that people assume they get to take with them. ESAs with no training have caused disturbances or soiled public places, and handlers have gotten belligerent when private property owners have asked their untrained animals to leave (which is well within their rights).

The other main conflict is the ease in which fake, but official looking, papers can be quickly obtained by people that want to take their pet dog with them everywhere. These papers claim that your pet is an ESA or Service animal. It can be very confusing and frustrating for business owners when people provide such documentation and then the animal causes all kinds of havoc because it hasn’t actually been trained to handle being in public. Business owners worry about violating a person with disability’s rights to have a service animal and because there is no real license or registry, fake documentation, or just buying a vest that says “service dog” on it, has been a soaring business and continues to cause conflicts. New legislation to crack down on fake service dogs is popping up in many states with hefty fines.

While it can be tempting to purchase a vest or fake papers so that you can take your pet with you wherever you go, please consider the damage it does to the people that actually NEED their service animals and think twice before committing fraud.

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