Service, Emotional Support and Therapy Dogs

Whether you consider dogs to be "man's best friend" or not is a matter of opinion, but for some, dogs are definitely invaluable companions. For these people, dogs aren't just pets: They're helpmates and necessary tools to help them get through daily life. Animals such as trained guide dogs for the blind can be crucial to helping a person maintain their independence. But not all canine companions one sees sitting in the office of a veterinarian are alike: Aside from pet dogs, these animals can be either service dogs, emotional support dogs, or therapy dogs. Each type of dog is called upon to fill a different need for its owner, and each is granted different protections under federal law.

Service Dogs

A service dog is an animal that is trained to perform tasks to help someone with a disability. For example, guide dogs for blind people are a type of service dog. These animals can also be trained to help people who are hearing-impaired, detect that an epileptic person is about to have a seizure so that the person can take steps to ensure their safety, or perform a specific task that is helpful for someone with a mental health issue. This is different than an animal that is just there to raise a person's comfort level: The animal must perform a specific task, such as providing a vet services like waking them from a nightmare induced by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or helping someone with a compulsive behavior to recognize and stop the behavior. Contrary to popular belief, no documentation is required to prove that an animal is a service animal, so there is no way to vet services that an animal may provide. The Americans With Disabilities Act says that disabled people must be allowed to bring their service animal to many more places than just the veterinarian; service animals are allowed wherever the public is allowed, including places where animals would normally be forbidden, unless their presence poses a threat to the health or safety of others.

Emotional Support Dogs

The phrase "emotional support animal" has been misused and abused, leading to much confusion. The term was originally used to indicate an animal that provides needed comfort or support to someone with a mental health issue. The need for such an animal should be documented and prescribed by a medical professional. However, in recent years, the label of "emotional support dog" has been greatly abused by people who just want to bring their dogs with them because it makes them happy, without the need caused by a diagnosed mental health disorder. This has led to a backlash in some cases, as members of the public get fed up by instances of bad behavior of pet dogs and their owners in places where dogs aren't typically allowed to be present. The ADA does not provide any special exceptions for the use of emotional support dogs in public places. However, two other laws do treat emotional support dogs the same as service dogs: The Air Carrier Access Act allows for emotional support dogs to be brought on planes with their owners, and the Fair Housing Act allows such animals to live with their owners in rental housing that otherwise forbids pets.

Therapy Dogs

A therapy dog is an animal that is used to provide comfort and affection to those people who want or need it. For instance, therapy dogs have been used in hospitals, nursing homes, and hospice facilities to help cheer up patients, and they have also been used in schools to give students working on their literacy skills a non-judgmental audience if they have difficulty reading aloud to their peers with confidence. However, not everyone finds the presence of dogs to be a good thing, and care should always be taken when using therapy dogs to make sure that one person's source of comfort isn't another person's source of stress (or even physical distress, in the case of those who are allergic to dogs). Therapy dogs are granted no special access to public areas with their owners under any federal laws.