Speaking of Pets: Know the difference between therapy dogs, service dogs and emotional support animals
Speaking of Pets
When I tell people that my dog, Joey, is a therapy dog, they often respond with, “It must be great to take him with you everywhere.”
That’s at the crux of the therapy dog versus service dog versus support dog misperception. And in light of Veterans Day on Monday, it’s an important distinction to understand. It’s a well-known fact that animals can help treat symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans, but as important as it is to honor their ultimate sacrifice today, it’s important to stay educated about the difference between the different types of assistance animals.
Therapy dogs like Joey provide comfort to people in hospitals, nursing homes, schools and other institutions. They must pass behavior and handling tests and complete supervised field visits before being certified.
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But therapy dogs are not protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, so they cannot enter businesses or places like restaurants that disallow animals.
Service dogs are “trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.” They might assist a blind person, warn a deaf person of sounds such as the telephone or give an alert when their human has a seizure.
Service dogs are covered by the ADA and may go anywhere with their owner, including restaurants, hotels and on public transportation. Most service dogs wear a special jacket or vest with a statement such as, “Please don’t pet me: I’m working.” You must have explicit permission from the owner to interact with these dogs.
Emotional Support Animals
This is the category that’s stirred up the most controversy. An ESA provides comfort to their human but is not trained to perform specific tasks related to that person’s mental or emotional condition. These animals are not protected under the ADA.
To qualify as an emotional support animal, the animal’s owner must obtain a letter from a licensed mental health professional certifying that he or she has a specific emotional disability. Unfortunately, today there are literally hundreds of websites promising to deliver a diagnosis—sight-unseen—and provide “certification” for less than $100.
That’s resulted in dogs wearing unearned assistance animal paraphernalia and sporting dubious service dog certifications. This makes it all the harder for those who genuinely need an emotional support or service animal.
So whether you’re meeting a service dog, therapy dog or emotional support animal, hopefully you’ll have a better idea of what they are and do and how to interact with them.
Joan Merriam lives in Northern California with her golden retriever, Joey, and Maine coon cat, Indy. She emphasizes that she’s not a veterinarian or animal behaviorist — just an animal lover who’s been writing about pets since 2012. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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