Since I trained my dog, Scout, as a Therapy Dog, I’ve gotten this question a lot! (Scout is shown here at one of our previous offices.)
And it’s important to know the difference! So here’s my take on the differences between an emotional support dog, a therapy dog and a service dog:
- A service dog is a dog specially trained to perform a task for an individual with a diagnosed and documented disability (e.g., a Seeing Eye dog guides a sight impaired individual, a Hearing Dog alerts an individual to sounds). Guidance concerning service dogs is provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Service dogs can usually go into places other pets would not be allowed (e.g., a food service establishment). While service dogs do not have to be registered or labeled in any way, establishments are permitted to ask a dog’s handler only 2 questions to determine if the dog qualifies as a service dog: 1) Is the dog a service animal? and 2) what task does the service dog perform? The dog does not have to perform the task on command. If the handler answers question #1, with a yes and answers #2 with a description of a task (i.e., something more than just “provides comfort” or “provides emotional support”), then the dog meets the criteria for service dog and must be permitted to accompany its handler.
- A therapy dog (like Scout, shown here at an event) is a specially trained and certified dog who works with a trained therapist (could be psychologist/counselor, physical therapist, rehab therapist) to assist the therapist in the treatment of their clients. For example, Scout was trained to provide support in the therapy room (e.g., be available for petting by a client who might be feeling anxious while discussing their trauma). A rehab therapist might use a dog in rehab therapy to help motivate a client to develop their fine motor skills by attaching the therapy dog’s leash to their collar. There are a number of certifying bodies through which people get their therapy dogs trained. Therapy dogs must be accompanied by their trained handler to work as therapy dogs. Common places for therapy dogs to work are hospitals, nursing homes and sometimes schools (e.g., a therapy dog in a reading program can assist children in becoming more confident in their reading because reading to a dog is less intimidating than reading to an adult).
- Finally, an Emotional Support Dog (ESD) is a dog that is not usually specifically trained for a task. An Emotional Support dog is a dog that provides comfort to its owner; its presence is the “skill” performed. Emotional Support dogs must be “prescribed” by a health care provider. Under HUD regulations, a properly prescribed ESD would have to be allowed to live with the owner, even if a particular residence doesn’t allow pets. Some airlines allow properly prescribed ESDs to travel in the passenger compartment of an airline, even though pets are not be allowed.
In the course of my practice, I have occasionally prescribed ESDs. They can be helpful to people with a variety of difficulties. For example, someone who struggles with depression might find that an ESD encourages them to get out of the house and get exercise because the animal needs to be walked. Someone with PTSD might find an ESD helpful to keep them calm when they are having flashbacks or during or after a nightmare.
ESDs should only be prescribed after an appropriate evaluation by a trained clinician. If you are interested in understanding if an ESD could support you in your management of a mental health concern, please contact a licensed mental health provider in your area.