What’s in a name – service dogs, therapy dogs, support dogs?

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AnimalPET PARTNERS-assisted interventions involve animals and people working together in a number of ways and at different levels to achieve positive outcomes. Some animals provide support in the simplest form of companionship, while others are trained to perform a much higher level of service.

There’s often confusion, though, about the labels assigned to these animals and what those labels mean about the animals and the people they serve. This short primer provides a helpful overview of the different types of service animals you might encounter in your work in the healthcare field or out in public.

Because the service animals you’ll see in public are most likely to be dogs, we’ll refer only to dogs here.

Emotional support dogs
Comfort dogs referred to as emotional support dogs are considered pets because they provide natural, untrained emotional support to people, including those with psychological issues such as anxiety or depression.

Because they aren’t classified as service dogs, they don’t have to be allowed in public spaces that don’t typically allow animals. While most establishments are able to determine whether they will or will not allow an emotional support animal to enter, this type of service animal is protected under the Federal Housing Authority guidelines, so they are allowed on campuses and in apartments.

Therapy dog
Have you seen a dog with a vest making rounds, like a doctor, visiting patients or residents in a hospital or nursing home? That’s a therapy dog.

Therapy dogs are trained to behave safely around different types of people and personalities. They’re also trained to interact with people in a way that makes them feel better – lying next to someone in bed, sitting quietly while their head is stroked by a client in a counselor’s office, and so on. They are certified as therapy dogs.

They don’t necessarily have access to facilities that don’t allow animals and might need special permission for institutional visits. They aren’t protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Service dogs
The Americans with Disabilities Act has three requirements for a service dog:

  1. The owner, or handler, must have a disability that is life-limiting, such as someone who is blind.
  2. The dog must be trained to do something in response to that disability.
  3. The animal can’t cause a public disruption.

Service dogs are trained to help the disabled individual live more independently, not to act as a companion or pet, although that relationship might also evolve naturally.

Because they provide a necessary service to the person with the disability, they are allowed in public spaces that ban animals.

Psychiatric service dog
A psychiatric service dog is a highly and specifically trained form of a service dog, one that can perform tasks that help someone with a psychiatric disability.

Often used with people dealing with schizophrenia or post-traumatic stress disorder, this type of service animal is highly skilled. Depending on needs and training, it might remind the individual to take medication, climb on a lap to provide a calming force for someone who is agitated, or even use a K-9 rescue phone to call 911.

Because their service is medically necessary, psychiatric service dogs are allowed to accompany their partners in public places in the same way that other service animals, such as Seeing Eye dogs, can.

Oakland University trains people to work with several of these types of animal therapy dogs through its online Animal Assisted Therapy Certificate program. The training is particularly popular with people in service professions (teachers, nurses, therapists, occupational therapists, etc.) who want to add animal assisted therapy to their skill set, start a nonprofit, or become a more credible volunteer.

For more information, visit the school’s animal assisted therapy website.

Do you have experience with a service dog? Tell us about it in a comment.

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