So what IS the difference between service dog and therapy dog?

The terminology for these two types of service animals may seem similar but there are KEY differences to know.

We will explore how each dog is recognized in their role, both in their legal rights offered and tasks undertaken.

Most importantly, how to distinguish what to know about these supportive loving animals.

Let’s get started.

Brief Overview: KEY Differences of a Therapy Dog vs. Service Dog

Here is a quick snapshot of the KEY differences of what distinguishes a therapy dog from a service dog.

Then, we will break down what each dog’s roles are, training expectations, and legal rights. What-Is-the-Difference-Between-Service-Dog-and-Therapy-Dog

Therapy Dog


Service Dog

  • Improve the life of their OWNER who has a disability through highly trained skills and tasks
  • Protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
  • DO have special rights to go into businesses that serve the public
  • Lasting 1 to 2 years, training is highly specialized to support the owner’s disability needs

What is a Therapy Dog?

A therapy dog is solely meant to provide comfort, affection, and therapeutic support to a person going through an emotional experience.

In a nutshell, think of a therapy dog as an EMOTIONAL support animal that has teamed up with their owner to make the lives of others better.what-is-a-therapy-dog

These furry sweethearts are there to boost your energy in their presence 🙂

They emotionally benefit those they visit (who can be a child or adult) in several ways:

  • Reduce anxiety
  • Help the person feel happy if they are in pain
  • Alleviate depression or fatigue
  • Reduce blood pressure
  • Provide an uplifting experience
  • Socially encourage interaction with others

What are Therapy Dogs Used For?

Therapy dogs are there to improve the daily lives of others.

The owner and their therapy pup will travel to places that have therapy programs (or where dogs are allowed to go) to sprinkle happy vibes and affection at:what-are-therapy-dogs-used-for

  • Hospitals
  • Nursing homes
  • Schools
  • Libraries
  • Airports
  • Mental Health Institutions
  • Disaster sites

It’s important to keep in mind that therapy dogs are NOT subject to specialized training requirements like a service dog.

They have to be friendly, well-mannered, great at listening, and handled by their owner at all times.

Therapy Dog Training

ANY breed or mix can be trained to be a therapy dog which you can do yourself or hire someone to help.

But in order to allow your pup to provide therapeutic support to others. the animal does need to be certified and registered with a reputable national organization.

You will need these credentials in order to visit hospitals, schools, and other businesses that allow therapy dogs.

The following steps are taken to having a therapy dog …

  1. The friendly pup needs to be 1 year or older.
  2. An observer in your area will test you and your dog by observing your pets manners, behavior, and how they are handled by you.
  3. After being observed, you and your dog will be supervised for up to three visits to a medical facility.
  4. After successfully being observed for three visits and submitting your registration paperwork, you and your pup can become a “Therapy” team. 🙂

If you find it costly to hire training help, you can look into the ten basic commandments your tester will be evaluating you on which is the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) Test.

Also, YouTube is a GREAT learning tool to watch additional training tips of these ten commandments.

Now that we have a good understanding of what a therapy dog is, let’s dive into the OTHER common service animal you will see and hear about … a service dog.


What is a Service Dog?

A service dog is a highly trained working animal to help a person with disabilities be able to live their life in an easier way.

The dog’s service training is geared SPECIFICALLY towards the needs of the disability of their owner.

For instance, if the owner has mobility issues, the animal will be trained to help with …

  • Opening doors
  • Picking up items that drop
  • Carrying bags
  • Serve as balancing support by wearing a harness

When you see a service dog wearing a brace or harness, there is usually a handle on top of it for the owner to hold onto for balancing purposes.

It’s important to keep in mind that this type of service dog can also be known as a “working” dog which requires VERY different skill sets and training than other working animals such as police dogs or search-and-rescue dogs.

As we just briefly mentioned, their training is tailored to help the disability of their owner by servicing them specific to their needs …

  • Guiding a person who is blind
  • Protecting someone if they have a seizure
  • Calming a person with anxiety
  • Alerting someone who is deaf

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), “service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Some State and local laws also define service animal more broadly than the ADA does. Information about such laws can be obtained from the relevant State attorney general’s office.”

Therapy Dog vs. Service Dog Legal Rights

Therapy Dogs

Emotional support dogs do NOT have special rights to go into “animal restricted” areas like service dogs to.

They are not allowed to go into public accommodations such as hotels, grocery stores, public transportation, restaurants, museums, and other businesses with restricted animal policies.

Therapy dogs are also NOT considered service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Therefore, they are not protected under the ADA law.

The ADA specifically states, “These support animals provide companionship, relieve loneliness, and sometimes help with depression, anxiety, and certain phobias, but do not have special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities. Even though some states have laws defining therapy animals, these animals are not limited to working with people with disabilities and therefore are not covered by federal laws protecting the use of service animals.”

Service Dogs

Trained service dogs are protected under the ADA law and DO have special rights to go into businesses that serve the public such as …therapy-dog-vs-service-dog-legal-rights

  • State and local governments
  • Businesses
  • Nonprofit organizations

This means that under the ADA, service dogs can not be denied entrance to these businesses that serve the public, EVEN restaurants.

The service animal has to be under control by its handler at all times while being out in public accommodations.

The service animal will need to be wearing a harness and leash UNLESS the owner’s disability prevents them from using these items or if it interferes with the dog helping their owner in any way.

Should this be the case, the handler will control their dog through voice control or other effective devices.

Service Dog Training

The training for a service dog usually happens from the start of puppy hood by a specialized program or the owner themselves.

The animal is specifically trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.

On average, it takes about 1 to 2 years for a dog to be fully trained in two main areas:

  1. Behavior when out in public and in business establishments
  2. Disability-related work skills and tasks

There are many organizations training these service dogs all over the world to help the specific needs of a child or adult in the following ways:

  • Help those who are deaf
  • Help those who use walkers, crutches, or wheelchairs
  • Help those who have seizures
  • Help those who are blind
  • Help those with psychiatric disabilities
  • Help those with walking or balancing
  • Help those to socially interact

Final Thoughts

As you can see, these two types of dogs are VERY different in the services they support.

They are loving animals who bring so much joy to those in their presence.

Service dogs and therapy dogs are truly an incredible animal in being able to help others both physically and emotionally.

If there are questions you have or anything you’d like to add that I did not cover in this post, please share in the comments section below.

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