Discussing dog breeds, dog-adoption, and the human-canine connection.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Therapy animals, Emotional Support Animals, and Service Dogs: Who can be what?

Napoleon: therapy alpaca, Lake Oswego Review

Today we're going to attempt to understand the difference among service and non-service animals in the U.S.; while other countries have similar distinctions laws vary by country. It's all I can do to track the U.S. laws on this topic.
Sorry everyone else.
But the general rules are similar.

Therapy Animal (often a dog but could be a rabbit, llama, min. horse etc.).

A therapy animal or therapy dog is either:
a) specially trained to interact with people who are elderly, disabled, young, or distressed
b) is an animal that happens to be naturally calm, quiet, and petable,
e.g. a rabbit  might not be particularly 'trained' to visit senior citizens but they are pleasant to hold and pet. The individual animal should not bite, kick, spit etc..

Therapy dogs:source, WorldLifestyle

A dog, on the other hand, which has the capacity to prey on other animals, and well developed canine-teeth for crunching bones, should have specialized training to ensure that they will not bite if startled. Golden retrievers are very popular for therapy work as they are genetically more likely to be tolerant of people and other dogs.

A therapy animal:

  • visits people where they are: therapy centers, hospitals, airports, disaster zones
  • can be any animal that is well behaved and doesn't mind being petted
  • therapy animal status is not breed or species specific.
A therapy animal's owner is typically an able-bodied person who volunteers to use their animal to help others.

Feather wear: bird ESA vest

Emotional Support Animals (could be virtually any animal)
An ESA is an animal that is basically prescribed for someone with a mental health concern such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder - or - for someone with a neurodevelopmental condition such as Autism Spectrum Disorder.   

An ESA is not trained to performs functions that alleviate their person's condition; rather, their very presence helps the person to function - whether that means not having a panic attack or a melt down, or allows their person to just feel a little less distressed.

Dog fashion spa

What makes this category so easily confused with the Service Dog category are the facts that many people have an ESA that happens to be a dog, and when a disabled person says they "need" their dog to manage, we tend to think of that as a service dog. The law in the U.S. however, has different ideas.

The central points are:
  • any animal that a person can care about and find comfort in, can be an ESA
  • even when an ESA is a dog it doesn't require special training to fulfill it's purpose 
  • an ESA cannot be kept out of housing that normally doesn't allow 'pets' - they are an element of their person's treatment for a medical condition, not a 'pet'
  • even when an ESA is a dog that calms their person down, they are not automatically a service dog and can be denied access to places that are only open to service dogs, like restaurants.

Image: Sovereign Health

Service Dogs - (can only be dogs...unless they are a  miniature horse)

A service dog is a dog (I know that is redundant but that is the law) which has been specifically trained to perform tasks which assist a person with a disability; the dog's skills help mitigate the effects of the disability. 

  • Seeing eye dogs
  • Mobility dogs that brace people, retrieve items, carry packages etc.
  • Hearing dogs - alert person to household sounds including phone, door, fire alarm
  • Alert dogs for those with PTSD - dog can sweep a room, block others from making physical contact, jump up to be a live-weight in the case of a panic attack
  • Alert dogs for seizures - warn person of impending seizure, can get help, can find and bring medicine, can find and bring a phone.

Getty images:Upworthy

Now, for an oddity of American law. Due to the limited life span of dogs; to the fact some religions take a dim view of living with dogs; to the fact that some people are allergic to dogs - the law allows for one exception. A person may have a Service Miniature Horse. The use for miniature horses was pretty much limited to people who required an animal for balance/mobility reasons. However, some horses are now being trained to be guide horses for the blind.


 I think the reason these categories so often get confused is that a dog can fill any of these roles; only a Service Dog [or service horse]- with specialized training to mitigate the impact of a disability - is legally allowed access to public spaces like restaurants, parks, shopping centers. 

Private spaces are different. A private space can invite in therapy animals to visit people. But no one (private/public) has to allow access to a therapy animal.

Daily Treat: rover.com
Housing on the other hand, is the private space  where a person lives;under the law a person with a disability is to be allowed to live with their ESA, despite no pet policies. The caveat is, the person has to have the type of disability that requires an ESA (something that should be discussed with a therapist or other qualified professional.) 

Landlords are allowed to ask for documentation of a person's disability and they are allowed to ask questions about the disability that cannot be asked about people with service dogs in public spaces...but let's not wade off into those murky waters right now.

On another day I will tackle the fraught world of registrations, certifications, tags, vests, and maybe even airline travel. And by the way, airlines work under a different set of laws in the U.S., and people can have their ESA on planes. Which can be problematic. 

Future service dogs being served: Carlene white


  1. Thank you for writing this. It was very informative. Although, I can attest that my dogs and any I have ever met have all been ESA dogs. Don't you think? (wink, wink)

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