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What's The Difference Between Therapy Dogs and Service Dogs?

You've probably seen dogs with special uniforms designating them as "service" or "therapy" dogs. These are dogs that provide emotional support as well as help with everyday tasks.  

Is there a difference between service and therapy dogs? The answer is yes. Most of these differences lie in the way the animal is individually trained, services performed, and legal protections. 

People with disabilities will want to carefully consider which dog is right for them. Below, we'll highlight the similarities and differences of therapy dogs and service dogs, so you can choose the animal that's right for you. 

What is a Service Dog? 

As defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal has been uniquely, rigorously, and individually trained to perform tasks for a person living with a disability. The dog's performed tasks must relate directly to a person's disability. Service dogs are not considered pets.

To be certified as a service dog, they must receive extensive training. Training prepares them to perform tasks specific to their owner's needs. Service dogs are not considered pets, as they provide the necessary emotional support and service for a client. 

Many owners suffer from a life-altering disability. They rely on their animals in times of extreme crisis or distress, so they must train well and prepare to perform. 

These animals can be trained to help assist owners when dealing with panic attacks. They also can provide aid to owners dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Further, they help complete physical tasks that keep their owners safe and healthy. 

What is a Therapy Dog? 

Therapy dogs are considered pets. They offer emotional support and affection to comfort people. They are commonly found in hospitals, retirement homes, schools, nursing homes, hospices, and disaster areas. 

Therapy dogs do not have to be trained and certified. However, even if they are trained, their level of training differs from the level of training required for service-trained animals.  

Although certain therapy dog organizations might train them, they aren't trained to serve specific needs of owners with disabilities. They only provide kindness and therapeutic support. Therefore, they don't receive as much legal protection. 

It is possible to train your current dog to adhere to certain commands when using them as a therapy animal. This way, they can be welcomed into nursing homes and other areas where you need comfort. 

Therapy dogs and emotional support animals aren’t working animals so when they are granted access to public spaces, it is by courteous invitation only and remains at the establishment's discretion. 

The Major Differences Between Service and Therapy Dogs 

The major difference between service and therapy animals is their training level. Therapy dogs do not need training or certification; It is possible for therapy animals to also become emotional support animals. A prescription from a doctor or therapist would be needed.

Service dog training is mandatory, long, and strenuous. The dogs must pass assessments before being assigned to an owner. Up to 50% of service dogs in training do not pass their assessment to complete their training. 

Service dog training is even more expensive and requires dogs to be trained at an early age before they've met their owner. 

Dogs that are currently in an owner's possession can learn therapy skills to become a trained emotional support animal. 

This is as long as they can meet requirements regarding temperament, have the ability to learn commands and behave in public settings. Therapy dogs must meet this requirement to receive protections in the act ADA. 

Legal Protections 

The Americans with Disabilities Act protects the rights of individuals with disabilities to access public places with service animals fairly. These public places include stores, hotels, and hospitals, as well as restaurants. In addition to the act ADA, these individuals are protected by other laws. 

However, the act specifies that ESA's are not entitled to the same protections. A business owner has the right to forbid an ESA from their store, but most are accommodating if you have an ESA letter that serves as proof. 

The Fair Housing Act protects tenants from discrimination in their own homes. For service animals, this means that they're allowed in a lease even if it states "no pets" are allowed. Therapy animals are also allowed under this law. However, they do require more documentation from a mental health professional to prove their value of emotional support to the owner. 

Certain protections are issued to service animals when staying in hotels. For example, pet-friendly hotels cannot charge additional fees to guests accompanied by a service pet. Hotels are also not permitted to deny access to these companions and may not provide them and their owner with sub-standard accommodations. 

Therapy dogs do not receive the same guaranteed legal protections in hotels and housing. The pet-friendly hotel has the right to charge additional fees for emotional support animals. Owners who can't go without their dogs therapy are not permitted to stay at hotels where pets are prohibited. However, many hotels are willing to make accommodations to people with ESA letters. 

The Air Carrier Access Act does offer protection for both types of animals that wish to fly with their owners. Owners are subject to complying with specific guidelines, as stated by the airline. You will need an ESA letter.


People with disabilities will be happy with the help that a service or emotional support animal can offer. The main differences lie in service dog laws and protections.  

Be sure to learn more about the act ADA and other laws before choosing the certification that's right for you. Both levels of dog service can be invaluable to you and your animal. 

If you'd like to learn more about these animals and the services they provide, reach out to us at Service Dog Registration of America.

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Registration of a service animal with Service Dog Registration of America does not give you any additional legal rights.