Monday, August 8, 2011

What's the Difference Between Service Dogs and Therapy Dogs?

It's International Assistance Dogs Week, an entire week devoted to recognizing and celebrating assistance dogs and everything they do to change their partners' lives! The rest of the week, we're going to post stories of service dogs and training tips, but today, we want to make sure that everyone understand what a service dog is.

There are so many different types of assistance dogs that it can get confusing. Guide dogs, service dogs, hearing dogs, balance dogs, psychiatric service dogs, seizure response dogs, facility dogs, diabetic alert dogs - there are even dogs who have been trained to detect peanuts for people who have life-threatening peanut allergies! (Please note that this isn't a comprehensive list of the types of assistance dogs.) Each of these dogs is trained in specific tasks to assist their partners. Assistance Dogs International (ADI) defines some of these types of assistance dogs, if you're interested in more details.

Today, however, we would like to discuss the difference between service dogs and therapy dogs. People often mistake therapy dogs for service dogs and vice versa.

Service Dogs

What is a service dog?
According to the ADI website, a service dogs is "a dog that works for individuals with disabilities other than blindness or deafness. They are trained to perform a wide variety of tasks including but not limited to; pulling a wheelchair, bracing, retrieving, alerting to a medical crisis, and providing assistance in a medical crisis. "

Service dogs are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They are working dogs, not pets, and each dog must be trained to perform specific tasks for their partner. Under the ADA, service dogs have public access, meaning they can accompany their partner anywhere that is open to the general public. This includes restaurants, movie theaters, grocery stores, and other businesses and nonprofits. Legally, access to public places cannot be denied unless the dog is out of control or not housebroken.

Read the ADA's revised requirements for service animals for more information about service dogs and the law.

Therapy Dogs

What is a therapy dog?
A therapy dog is a pet that has been trained to provide affection and comfort to people. Therapy dogs often visit hospitals, nursing homes and schools to interact with the children and adults there. However, therapy dogs are not mentioned in the ADA and do not have public access. They must be invited to enter a public place, and business owners are well within their rights to ask a therapy dog to leave.

Emotional support dogs are similar to therapy dogs. While it may comfort their owners to have the dog with them, emotional support dogs are also pets that are not covered by the ADA and do not have public access.

Other Important Information About Service Dogs

How can you tell if a dog is a service dog?
Service dogs often wear a special harness to show that they are service dogs. However, the ADA does not require service dogs to be identified by a harness. If you aren't sure if a dog is a service dog, by law you are allowed to ask two questions: 1.) is the dog a service dog required because of a disability, and 2.) what specific tasks has the dog been trained to do.

You may not ask the person what their disability is, ask them to have the dog demonstrate a task, or ask for documentation for the disability or service dog.

Can you pet a service dog?
Please do not pet, feed or otherwise distract service dogs. Remember that they are working and must concentrate on assisting their partner. If you distract a service dog, you could even endanger the dog's partner.

The Norwegian Association of the Blind did a great public service announcement about the importance of not distracting assistance dogs.

You may, however, ask the person if you may pet their dog. Many times, the person will say yes, although they may make sure that the dog stays focused on them. Please don't be offended if the dog ignores you while you're petting it. This is actually a good thing! It means that the dog is most likely still focused on its partner, which is exactly what it's supposed to do.

If you ask to pet a service dog and the dog's partner says no, please respect their decision.

Can you talk to someone with a service dog?
Of course! People who have service dogs or who are training service dogs are often more than happy to talk to you. But please talk to the person and not the dog. After all, the person is the one who is going to answer you!


  1. All assistance dogs including hearing dogs and guide dogs are service dogs under the ADA.

  2. Please note that the right to public access does NOT apply to the dog but to the disabled handler using the dog. That's why a disabled person with a trained Service Dog can take the dog to public places, but a family member of that person would not be able to take the same dog with them as they are not the disabled handler.

    The other thing I'd like to add is that you should NEVER EVER EVER ask a disabled person with a Service Dog if you can pet the dog. That's just as rude as asking someone if you can push their wheelchair or play with their cane. Service Dogs are medical equipment and should be IGNORED by the general public. No disabled person with a Service Dog wants to be stopped as they try to get things done by people who want to pet the dog!