Service Dogs, Emotional Support, or Therapy Animals – What Are The Differences?

Service Dogs (and miniature horses), Emotional Support and Therapy Animals and Psychiatric Service Dogs – what are the differences?

We have all seen working dogs performing a variety of services for their human companions. Some of us have even contemplated the possibility of getting our own precious pooch certified as some sort of service or emotional support dog in order to make it easier to have them travel with us. However, each designation – service, emotional support and therapy – has a specific definition and certain criteria you and your pup would need to satisfy in order to legitimately be certified under one of these designations.

This is the first of our series on this topic and provides you with detailed information about service dogs and miniature horses, along with some initial information on emotional support and therapy animals and psychiatric service dogs. We will publish more in-depth information on each of these categories in the coming months.

Service Dogs

ADA Regulations
As explained in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) FAQ about Service Animals, “a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.”

“Do work or perform tasks” means that the dog “must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability. For example, a person with diabetes may have a dog that is trained to alert him when his blood sugar reaches high or low levels. A person with depression may have a dog that is trained to remind her to take her medication. Or, a person who has epilepsy may have a dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure and then help the person remain safe during the seizure.”

“Disability”, with respect to a person, is defined at 42 U.S. Code § 12102 as:

  •  a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual;
  •  a record of such an impairment; or
  • being regarded as having such an impairment.

“Major life activities” is defined to include, without limitation:

  • caring for oneself;
  • performing manual tasks;
  • seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working;
  • the operation of a major bodily function, including functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.

wheelchair“Regarded as having such an impairment” means that the person has been subjected to an action prohibited under ADA regulations “because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity.” Note that to be an ADA covered impairment, it cannot be transitory or minor, which means that the impairment must actually last for more than 6 months or be expected to last for at least that long. To add to the complexity, the ADA regulations also state that “An impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active.”

It is also important to note that the “determination of whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity shall be made without regard to the ameliorative effects of mitigating measures such as—

  • medication, medical supplies, equipment, or appliances, low-vision devices (which do not include ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses), prosthetics including limbs and devices, hearing aids and cochlear implants or other implantable hearing devices, mobility devices, or oxygen therapy equipment and supplies;
  • use of assistive technology;
  • reasonable accommodations or auxiliary aids or services;
  • learned behavioral or adaptive neurological modifications.”

What kind of animals can be service animals?

As of March 15, 2011, the ADA revised its regulations to state that only dogs and miniature horses (see below) can be considered to be service animals. However, as stated in the ADA announcement about the change, the more restricted ADA definition does not affect or limit the broader definition of “assistance animal” under the Fair Housing Act or the broader definition of “service animal” under the Air Carrier Access Act. In addition, some State and local laws also define service animal more broadly than the ADA does. You can check with your state’s Office of the Attorney General to see what the rules are in your state. Some regional ADA Centers also publish rules comparison charts for specific states in the region. For example, the Northwest ADA Center, which covers Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Kansas has a comprehensive chart showing federal and state laws for service and assistance animals.

miniature horseIn addition to the provisions about service dogs, the revised ADA regulations have a new, separate provision about miniature horses that have been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Miniature horses generally range in height from 24 inches to 34 inches measured to the shoulders and generally weigh between 70 and 100 pounds. Entities covered by the ADA must modify their policies to permit miniature horses where reasonable. The regulations set out four assessment factors to assist entities in determining whether miniature horses can be accommodated in their facility. The assessment factors are:

  1. whether the miniature horse is housebroken;
  2. whether the miniature horse is under the owner’s control;
  3. whether the facility can accommodate the miniature horse’s type, size, and weight; and
  4. whether the miniature horse’s presence will not compromise legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operation of the facility.

The Guide Horse Foundation even sells shoes and sneakers for use with miniature horse service animals!

Specific Examples of Service Dogs

Please note that emotional support, companion, comfort and therapy animals are generally NOT considered to be service animals. However, the ADA does provide for a sub-set of therapy animals, called “psychiatric service animals” (more on this below). The ADA also publishes a very handy pamphlet on service dogs and emotional support animals which lists, among other things, the following examples of animals that are considered “service animals under ADA regulations.” Note that in each example, the dog has been trained to perform a specific task for someone with a specific disability:

  • Guide Dog or Seeing Eye® Dog is a carefully trained dog that serves as a travel tool for persons who have severe visual impairments or are blind.
  • Hearing or Signal Dog is a dog that has been trained to alert a person who has a significant hearing loss or is deaf when a sound occurs, such as a knock on the door.
  • Psychiatric Service Dog is a dog that has been trained to perform tasks that assist individuals with disabilities to detect the onset of psychiatric episodes and lessen their effects. Tasks performed by psychiatric service animals may include reminding the handler to take medicine, providing safety checks or room searches, or turning on lights for persons with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, interrupting self-mutilation by persons with dissociative identity disorders, and keeping disoriented individuals from danger.
  • SSigDOG (sensory signal dogs or social signal dog) is a dog trained to assist a person with autism. The dog alerts the handler to distracting repetitive movements common among those with autism, allowing the person to stop the movement (e.g., hand flapping).
  • Seizure Response Dog is a dog trained to assist a person with a seizure disorder. How the dog serves the person depends on the person’s needs. The dog may stand guard over the person during a seizure or the dog may go for help. A few dogs have learned to predict a seizure and warn the person in advance to sit down or move to a safe place.

Where can you take a service dog or horse?

service dog by poolThe US Department of Justice announcement regarding the limitation of the definition of “service animals” to dogs also specifies where service dogs may be taken: “Under the ADA, State and local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that serve the public generally must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is normally allowed to go. For example, in a hospital it would be inappropriate to exclude a service animal from areas such as patient rooms, clinics, cafeterias, or examination rooms. However, it may be appropriate to exclude a service animal from operating rooms or burn units where the animal’s presence may compromise a sterile environment.”

The aforementioned ADA pamphlet on service dogs and emotional support animals also provides this specific guidance:

  • When a person with a service animal enters a public facility or place of public accommodation, the person cannot be asked about the nature or extent of his disability. Only two questions may be asked:
  1. Is the animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?
  • These questions should not be asked, however, if the animal’s service tasks are obvious. For example, the questions may not be asked if the dog is observed guiding an individual who is blind or has low vision, pulling a person’s wheelchair, or providing assistance with stability or balance to an individual with an observable mobility disability.
  • A public accommodation or facility is not allowed to ask for documentation or proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal.
  • Local laws that prohibit specific breeds of dogs do not apply to service animals.
  • A place of public accommodation or public entity may not ask an individual with a disability to pay a surcharge, even if people accompanied by pets are required to pay fees. Entities cannot require anything of people with service animals that they do not require of individuals in general, with or without pets. If a public accommodation normally charges individuals for the damage they cause, an individual with a disability may be charged for damage caused by his or her service animal.

Next up: Emotional Support Animals (including therapy dogs) and Psychiatric Service Dogs.

We will be publishing in-depth information on each of these categories but, in the meantime, there is a table with a basic break-down of the differences between Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs and Emotional Support Animals. Note that Psychiatric Service Dogs are not included in this chart but they are closest to Service Dogs in terms of the characteristics listed below:

chart of characteristics

The chart is courtesy of

©Onpets, LLC 2016.  All rights reserved.

Featured Stories

Your Senior Cat and Kidney Disease

A well cared for cat can live at least 20 years.  At most veterinary practices, cats 10 years and older...

Dog ID and Tracking Product Round-up

According to the American Humane Association, every year over 10 million dogs and cats in the United States are lost...

Exercise – You AND your pup need it!

You’ve heard the saying: If you are too heavy, your dog isn’t getting enough exercise! Regular exercise, be it daily...