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With airlines removing Emotional Support Animal privileges, there’s a lot of conversation around what a Service Dog or Therapy Dog is. Actually, we’ve just named three different designations. 

It’s important to know the difference because each type of dog has different privileges and different requirements for the handler.

Let’s start with the easiest to understand, Service Dogs. Service Dogs are for people who have a disability. They are trained dogs that perform a specific task that directly helps that person with their disability. 

As an example, a person who is blind has a disability. Seeing eye dogs directly help with this disability by guiding their handler. 

Emotional Support Animals are trained in good behavior, but do not have any specialized training to perform specific tasks. A person who has generalized anxiety or depression can benefit from having an emotional support animal. There is no special place to get an emotional support animal. 

Any pet can be registered as an emotional support animal if they help you get through the day.

A Therapy Dog is typically associated with a specific volunteer organization. Therapy Dogs help groups of people rather than an individual. Some examples include dogs visiting college students during exam time to reduce stress. Therapy Dogs may also work in hospitals or nursing homes and visit long term patients. Therapy Dogs can also help people who have gone through a traumatic event or lost loved ones. 

Where definitions have become complicated is in understanding what qualifies as a disability. If someone has anxiety, do they get a Service Dog or an Emotional Support Animal? If their anxiety is such that it prevents them from going about daily life, it can qualify as a disability. Panic Disorder for example, is recognized as a disability. 

Next the dog needs to be trained to perform a task that helps with the disability. If the dog just provides comfort, then they would be an Emotional Support Animal. Say the dog is trained to lick the handler’s face when they have a panic attack to bring them back to the present moment and reduce the impact of the panic attack. This would be a valid task that would qualify the dog as a Service Dog.

Depression is also complicated. People who suffer from depression can benefit from having a dog because the dog forces them to get up, go for a walk, leave the house, and the dog provides unconditional love and companionship.

In the above description, the dog would likely be an Emotional Support Animal. But, if the dog were trained to remind the person to take their medication at a certain time everyday, that would likely qualify the dog as a Service Animal. 

Now say the person with depression was part of a support group and once a month, that support group brought in dogs that everyone could pet and cuddle with. Those would be Therapy Dogs. 

It gets complicated quickly. That’s why it’s important to understand the differences and act accordingly.

Each type of dog has different access in public spaces.

Service Dogs can go anywhere their handlers can go, even indoors at restaurants. There are some exceptions, but generally Service Dogs have an all access pass to accompany their handler. 

Emotional Support Animals get special housing privileges. According to the Fair Housing Act, landlords must make reasonable accommodations to allow people in need of an Emotional Support Animal the ability to maintain a dog in their home. 

So if the building has a no dog policy, they should make an exception for an Emotional Support Animal. The landlord may request a certificate or ID to validate the dog’s status, or they may request a medical letter, recommending that the patient or handler maintain the dog.

Emotional Support Animals are not exempt from good behavior. It’s very important that they do not cause damage or cause noise disruptions while the handler is not home.

Therapy Dogs do not have special access outside their job. They may get access in an airport if they are there to comfort passengers, or a hospital if their job is to visit patients. But outside of their “job” they are not permitted in places that don’t normally allow dogs. 

No matter which kind of dog you have, training is essential. All of these dogs must have completed some kind of good behavior or good citizen training. They must not be aggressive, and must be in control of their handler at all times.

Service Dogs have the extra requirement of being desensitized to outside stimulus in order to fully focus on their handler. Service Dogs should ignore other dogs and toys and people while working. Service Dogs might wear a vest to tell others (and them) that they are on duty and should not be engaged.

Emotional Support Animals and Therapy Dogs might also wear visual identifiers like vests or leashes or tags that let people know they are on duty.

If you are interested in registering your dog as a service dog or emotional support animal or therapy dog, it’s important to understand what you and your dog qualify for. 

Always be honest and know that at the end of the day you are always responsible for your dog. 

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