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The Real Definitions: Service, Support, and Therapy Animals

The Real Definitions: Service, Support, and Therapy Animals


We are all familiar with working dogs, right? They often have specialized training to highlight their best skills. They might be bomb-sniffing dogs or search and rescue pups. They might be exercise partners who hike and run with us. Some dogs are even celebrities who need us to take them to shows and maintain their Instagram accounts.

service-therapy-support-animals-Vet-organics-There is understandable confusion around other important jobs like service animals, therapy dogs, and emotional support animals. Many organizations and individuals have tried to create rules around these concepts, sometimes without fully understanding what they are trying to regulate. Each job title has a specific definition, job description, and a unique set of rights that aren’t available to dogs who live as family companions or best friends.

These are important definitions because they not only clarify confusion around access and inclusion, they also relate to our ability to recognize and respect protected disabilities and conditions, including visible and invisible disabilities, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  

Service Animals

Dogs with the job title, “service animal” are classified this way because they have been specifically trained to perform tasks that are beneficial to persons with disabilities. This means they perform tasks that are directly related to the disabilities of their guardian. Just a few examples include:

  •      Guiding the visually impaired and acting as their eyes
  •      They act as ears for the deaf
  •      They monitor people with epilepsy to warn them of a looming seizure attack
  •      Retrieval of items and pulling wheelchairs for handlers with mobility problems.

service-therapy-support-animals-Vet-organicsUnder the American Disability Act (ADA), service dogs are allowed access to all public establishments, even in areas with policies against the presence of animals, as long as they are accompanied by their disabled companions. These specially-trained canines, however, have to be tethered or leashed by their handlers at all times.

The only exception to the leash rule is if the person with a disability cannot use a leashing device or the tether interferes with the dog’s ability to perform tasks. In any scenario, the handlers are required to be in total control of their dogs through voice or other signals, though this handled during training and is not up for debate or testing everytime someone wants to enter a no animal zone.

Service dogs are trained for specific tasks, while emotional support animals provide companionship.

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals, often dogs, offer companionship and affection to people with mental disorders or physical disabilities or health issues. Some examples of the types of disabilities or conditions that warrant a need for emotional support animals are anxiety disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, autism, eating disorders, dementia, schizophrenia, mood disorders, and personality disorders.

It’s worth noting that many of these conditions overlap with the list of protected invisible disabilities and are therefore protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The emotional support animals someone may have with them is trained to provide unconditional love to their guardians, rather than to complete specific tasks, like service animals. They are not certified and have not undergone rigorous training.

service-therapy-support-animals-Vet-organics-That means the person may be protected by the ADA, but the animal is treated as a pet and is not recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Therefore, they do not enjoy the access privileges extended to service animals. With some exceptions, emotional support animals are not allowed in areas with a no animal policy. However, they are protected under the Air Carriers Act and the Fair Housing Authority Act, which allows the animals to accompany their handlers in planes and in pet-restricted houses.

In cases where emotional support animals are accompanying their guardian on a plane or other restricted area, their handler needs to provide a letter from a medical professional indicating that the emotional support animal is indeed an aid and needs to be provided access with their guardian.

The letter does not need to divulge the medical condition nor the reason this person needs an emotional support animal. There are many reasons someone may have an emotional support animal rather than a service animal. Affordability or access to a service animal is a common reason.

Nobody needs to divulge their medical history or conditions to gain access or bring their animal with them.

Therapy Animals

Therapy animals’ sole responsibility is to cheer people up in hospitals, nursing homes, schools and other similar environments. Although they are trained to make people happy, they are not recognized by the ADA as having special privileges, other than being protected as working dogs.

Therapy dogs are not allowed in all animal restricted areas, and can only be allowed into the institutions they work in. They are also not protected by the Air Carriers Act and the Fair Housing Act. Apart from visiting patients to brighten their spirits, therapy animals are also used in animal-assisted therapy. This therapy is used in the treatment of social and emotional disorders.

service-therapy-support-animals-Vet-organics-Therapy animals and emotional support animals are usually confused and their names are often used interchangeably. However, there is a clear distinction between the two. An emotional support animal is used to assist a patient during recovery, and the animal is required to be accompanied by their handler everywhere they go as part of the recovery process. The main responsibility of a therapy animal is to give comfort and joy to people in social establishments, such as schools, hospitals, and nursing homes.

We hope this has been a helpful outline for anyone who has experienced confusion. The definitions and associated rights can be confused. In the confusion, many disabled people and animals endure a great deal of intolerance and unnecessary bullying. Regardless of the access questions, all three types of animals provide an important service to their guardians. Service, emotional support, and therapy animals are working animals with an important job serving their guardians.  

Regardless of a condition or disability, Anybody can develop a healthy relationship with their pup. You might be interested in this article, Build a Therapeutic Relationship with Your Dog.

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