ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) – The difference between registered service dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support dogs is commonly misunderstood. Service, therapy, and support dogs not only serve different purposes, but they also have different registration processes, training requirements, access to public spaces regulations, and more.

Service dogs

Service dogs (also known as “assistance dogs”) are trained to perform tasks that overcome and ease the challenges that their owner’s physical, psychiatric, sensory, and/or developmental disability present. Some common duties that a service dog may have include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person to take their medications, or calming a person suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an individual with a disability is entitled to a service dog to help them live their life “normally” and more comfortably. According to Assistance Dogs of America, any dog can be a service dog, and they should be trained to perform certain tasks that aid in a disability.

To acquire a service dog, one must receive written documentation from a healthcare provider that they have a disability and request assistance. The healthcare provider will then sign off that the person is receiving treatment, and that they require the support and assistance of an animal.

Many websites, such as USA Service Dog Registration and Assistance Dogs of America, allow those with disabilities the option to register online for a service animal. Often with online registration, people have to answer survey questions, pay a fee, and have a brief online meeting with a healthcare professional to receive an electronic professional confirmation of their need for a service animal.

People can then get service dogs through a wide range of professional organizations. If the handler is skilled enough there is also the option to train a pet they already have in their possession, but training is rigorous and can take years.

The ADA protects people with service animals by requiring that they are allowed access to all public accommodations. This overrules all state and local laws that may prohibit animals in places such as stores, malls, restaurants, hotels, resorts, buses, airlines, and much more. They are also protected under the Air Carrier Access Act and Fair Housing Act.

Building managers and/or landlords cannot refuse a service dog or require their owner to submit any pet deposits or fees because they are required for daily life and are not considered a pet. This applies to both rentals and hotels.

Customized Service Dog ID Badges may help make air travel easier, but people are not required by law to carry one. Service dogs cannot be denied on flights, yet many owners have reported that airlines have required some sort of identification even though by law they are not allowed to do this, according to the Department of Justice (DOJ). 

Under McKinney’s Agriculture and Markets Law § 118, it is a violation for any person to knowingly put a false or improper identification tag on their dog, including special identification tags for identifying guide, service or hearing dogs, or purebred license tags. Lying about a dog’s registration and training to gain free, public access to things is not allowed.

Therapy dogs

A therapy dog is trained to provide comfort to people in long-term care, hospitals, mental health institutions, retirement homes, schools, or in stressful situations such as natural disaster areas. Therapy dogs are typically obedience trained and screened for their ability to interact with humans and other animals in a positive way. 

While any breed can be accepted as a therapy dog, they should be well-tempered, have little to no shedding, must be friendly and social, and must be adaptable, according to US Service Animals. Before a dog can become a therapy dog, it must be registered by a qualified organization and pass a test.

The abilities of the dog handler will also be tested during the therapy dog registration certification process. If the handler cannot show that their dog follows their commands, their dog will not be certified. The American Kennel Club recommends that dogs pass the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) Test before therapy dog registration.

Canine Good Citizen Test

  • Test 1: Accepting a friendly stranger. The dog will allow a friendly stranger to approach and speak to the handler in a natural, everyday situation.
  • Test 2: Sit politely for petting. The dog will allow a friendly stranger to pet it while it is out with the handler.
  • Test 3: Appearance and grooming. The dog will permit someone to check its ears and front feet, as a groomer or veterinarian would do.
  • Test 4: Out for a walk on a loose lead. Following the evaluator’s instructions, the dog will walk on a loose lead (with the handler/owner).
  • Test 5: Walking through a crowd. The dog will walk through a small crowd of people, passing near at least three people.
  • Test 6: Sit and down on command and stay in place. The dog must demonstrate the ability to sit and lie down on command, then the owner chooses the position for leaving the dog the stay.
  • Test 7: Coming when called. The dog will come when called by the handler (from 10 feet away on a leash).
  • Test 8: Reaction to another dog. The dog will behave well around other dogs. Two handlers and their dogs approach each other from a distance of about 20 feet, stop, shake hands, and exchange pleasantries.
  • Test 9: Reaction to distractions. The evaluator will select and present two distractions such as dropping a chair, to which the dog must react properly.
  • Test 10: Supervised separation. This test demonstrates that the dog can be left with a trusted person. The evaluator will hold the dog’s leash while the owner/handler goes out of sight for three minutes.”

Therapy animals are not considered “service animals” and they and their handlers have no protections under federal law. Most businesses, hotels, apartment landlords, and airlines treat therapy dogs as pets, and either deny access or charge pet fees for them to accompany their handler.

However, some states have laws that afford therapy animals and their handler’s rights and protections, according to Assistance Dogs of America. Therapy dogs are not allowed in airplane cabins for free as they are viewed as a pet and nonessential to their handler’s wellbeing and quality of life. They can also be denied from housing units that forbid pets and/or if they do not meet other standards in place by the unit.

Emotional support dogs

Emotional support animals do not require any specific training because they solely provide emotional and therapeutic benefits to those suffering from emotional issues, anxiety, or psychiatric problems. An emotional support dog is meant to aid in the emotional stability of its owner by providing them with love and comfort.

According to the ADA, a physician, psychiatrist, social worker, or other mental health professionals can write an emotional support animal (ESA) letter if they believe the owner will benefit emotionally or therapeutically. Emotional support dogs do not have any behavioral standards or training requirements since they do not perform specific tasks for their owners.

While emotional support animals are protected under the Fair Housing Act, a person must have a note from a licensed mental health professional stating the condition the person was diagnosed with, and that the animal provides emotional support benefiting the person. Landlords/ building managers cannot legally deny or charge a pet fee for a registered emotional support animal.

On December 2, 2020, the DOT announced that airlines would be able to treat emotional support dogs as ordinary pets. Airlines are no longer legally required to make accommodations for emotional support animals due to the new rule, according to ESA Doctors. Few airlines still allow for emotional support dogs to travel with their owner in the cabin of the plane free of charge, while many are now only allowing trained service dogs in the cabin.

U.S. based airlines no longer accepting emotional support animals as of March 1, 2021:

  • Alaska Airlines
  • Allegiant Air
  • American Airlines
  • Air Canada
  • Delta Air Lines
  • Frontier Airlines
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Jet Blue
  • Southwest Airlines
  • Spirit Airlines
  • Sun Country
  • United Airlines

Service, therapy, and emotional support dogs provide people with different services and traits that are beneficial to their health, wellbeing, and overall quality of life. Knowing the difference between how to obtain one, laws and rules that coincide with them, their purpose, and training requirements are important moving forward during this time when mental health is a national priority.