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Service Dog Differences – Who’s Doing What

There are many working pups out there helping people every day. You may have seen them accompanying their owners on errands, in the airport, at the park or just about any other public venue. But sometimes, people don’t fully understand the differences between the types of dogs who help their humans and where these dogs are allowed to go. Here’s a brief rundown of the dogs you see out and about aiding their human counterparts.

Traditional Service dog

A traditional service dog is strictly for someone who has a disability. The disability can be physical or mental. These dogs are trained to help with their handler’s specific disability and give their handler increased safety and independence. The Americans with Disabilities Act protects the right of people with disabilities to have their service dogs accompany them to public places. Though it may be tempting to pet a service dog, please refrain from doing so because that dog has a job to do and can better perform without distractions.

Psychiatric service dog

Not all disabilities are obvious to the casual observer. People with “hidden” or psychiatric disabilities can benefit greatly from a service dog. In order to have a psychiatric service dog, a person must have debilitating mental illness to the point at which he/she cannot function without the animal. These dogs are highly trained, and their training can include providing bracing or counterbalance for a person dizzy from medication, doing room searches or turning on lights for a person with PTSD, waking a heavily medicated person to an alarm, blocking a person with disasociative episodes from wandering off, leading a person who is disoriented to a designated place or person and more. Training can be highly specialized for the person’s mental illness. A psychiatric service dog is allowed to go in public places where other dogs are not, and that right is protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Therapy dog

Therapy dogs are usually very friendly with stable temperaments to help their owners volunteer to assist others with psychological or physiological therapy. Therapy dogs are meant to socialize while they’re on duty. They can help just one person, or they can visit institutions like schools, hospitals, psychotherapy offices, hospices, nursing homes and more, to help many people at once. These dogs perform valuable services for the people they benefit, but they do not operate under the same legal designation as other service dogs, which means that these dogs may not enter areas where pets are not permitted unless specifically invited by the host facility.

Emotional support dog

These dogs belong to people with disabilities, but do not require special training like other service dogs do. In order to have an emotional support dog, a person must have a written prescription from a doctor saying that the dog is necessary for the person’s mental health. The right to take an emotional support dog to public places where pets are not normally allowed is not protected by the law.

Unfortunately, there are those who abuse the system and try to sneak their pets into places illegally by calling them “service dogs.” This makes it very difficult for those who truly need and legally obtain an authorized service animal. Service dogs are a great asset, and we encourage everyone to treat the position with respect by following the law.

-Lisa Marino

Lisa Marino, CPDT-KA, KPA-CTP, PMCT, has taken her varied teaching experiences and applied them to helping owners understand and train their beloved four-legged family members. She has more than four years’ experience leading group dog training classes at Best Paw Forward in Hartland, WI, and opened Head of the Class Dog Training LLC in Winchester, VA in 2012, where she conducts group classes and private lessons, as well as helps owners to modify their dogs' problem behaviors.

Lisa earned her CPDT-KA in 2012, is a 2015 graduate of the prestigious Karen Pryor Academy and is a Pat Miller Certified Trainer.

She has 4 registered therapy dogs and is a Pet Partner Therapy Team Evaluator and a member of HOPE AACR. As a former middle school teacher, she works well with families and children and does school presentations on various dog related topics.

Head of the Class Dog Training LLC 

Winchester, VA