The Difference between Service Dogs and Therapy Dogs

Does it really matter? For the person who owns or is considering owning one or the other, it makes a very big difference. And for anyone who wants to be a good neighbor, it makes a difference too.

You'd be surprised at the number of people who are confused about what each of these dogs does, and where they are or aren't allowed to go. Some think that guide dogs for the blind are the only type of service dog there is. So let's clarify things.

Definitions. According to the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, a dog is considered to be a service dog if it has been "individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the help of an individual with a disability". A disability is a "mental or physical condition which substantially limits a major life activity" (like self-care, walking, seeing, working, and includes conditions that may not be visible such as deafness or a psychiatric condition). 

The dog must be trained to perform tasks directly related to the disability or it is not considered a service dog. Service dogs are not considered "pets", and they are required to have access to most places-even places that have a "no pets" policy

Therapy Dogs are not defined by any federal laws, however, some states do have their own laws defining them. It's a good idea to check with your specific state when doing your research on either type. Therapy dogs are usually personal pets of their owners. Their owners work with them to provide services to other people, such as affectionate contact with people in nursing homes or hospitals. Many owners are part of an organization's pet therapy program, like the ASPCA's pet therapy program.

Working differences. To recap, service dogs are dogs that help their owners with their specifically disability-related tasks. For example, a service dog can alert a deaf person or a person who sleeps excessively due to medication side effects or significant depression, to the doorbell ringing. They can fetch or pick up things for owners who have difficulty using their hands due to arthritis or some other condition, or experience pain upon reaching or bending. They are trained individually to do these ta as needed for each owner. A therapy dog, on the other hand, is a pet dog that helps other people by traveling to specific places, usually accompanied by its owner.

Access. Service dogs are legally required to have access to "all...places of public accommodations, convenience, resort, entertainment, or business to which the general public or any classifications of persons therefrom is normally or customarily invited or permitted". (1990 ADA) Remember that since the service dog is not considered a pet, any "no pets" policy is not applicable. The only exception is if the dog is out of control and the owner can't control it, or if it poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others (this does not include food establishments, where they must be allowed). Refusal to allow access according to this law is considered a violation of a person's civil rights as protected by the 1990 ADA, and the violator is subject to possible monetary damages and penalties. 

Therapy dogs only have access to the specific areas where they are providing services, such as an award in a hospital for pediatric cancer patients. They can be barred from anywhere they don't have express permission to be. And the owners of therapy dogs must respect all "no pets" policies.

Identification. There is no federal law specifying that service dogs require any form of identification. According to the 1990 ADA, businesses may not require any special identification for the dog; they can only ask if it is a service dog. They are also allowed to ask what tasks the dog performs, but not what disability the owner has. There is no law referring to therapy dogs and identification, but they are different in that they are not allowed the same access as service dogs anyway. 

However-and this is a big however-there is so much confusion and misinformation among the public (even, surprisingly, physicians and hospital personnel), that it is in an owner's best interest to have some form of identification visible to help others to recognize the animal as a service dog.

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