by Joan Merriam
Special to The Union

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November 14, 2013
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Therapy dog or service dog?

What’s the difference between a crocodile and an alligator? Or a tortoise and a turtle? Or a rabbit and a hare?

Since this is a column about dogs and not alligators, you’ll need to find the answers yourself.

Suffice it to say that each of these animal duos are very different, even though we frequently use the same word to describe them both.

So what’s my point? Simply that we often make assumptions that two things that appear the same actually are the same — even though they’re not.

Case in point: therapy dogs and service dogs. Or service dogs and working dogs. And what about assistance dogs? Guide dogs? Emotional support dogs? Mobility dogs? Yikes!

If your head is spinning right now, I don’t blame you.

The difference between these classifications can often be very confusing, especially when people — even some professionals — use the terms interchangeably.

Every time, I take Casey out wearing his blue therapy dog jacket, I end up having to explain that people can pet him and that unlike the case if he were a service dog, socializing with humans is actually part of his “job.”

So let’s try to reduce the confusion by explaining some of the differences between these categories.

Service dogs (also known as special assistance dogs)

A service or special assistance dog is specifically trained to assist people with disabilities.

We used to call these “seeing eye dogs,” who helped a blind person.

Today, however, service dogs fill a wide variety of human needs in addition to sight: they may help people with medical conditions such as epilepsy (commonly known as a seizure alert dog), or mental and emotional disorders such as post-traumatic stress or autism (often called a psychiatric or mental health service dog).

Some dogs known as signal or hearing dogs are trained to warn their hearing-impaired human companion of sounds such as the telephone or alarms.

Service dogs are trained from puppyhood to perform one of these particular tasks and are nothing like the typical family pet.

In fact, most of these dogs are a disabled person’s lifeline. This is why service dogs are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which allows them to go anywhere with their human companion that the public is permitted.

This includes restaurants, hotels, theaters and on any public transportation.

Almost without exception, service dogs will be wearing some sort of special attire that distinguishes them as a service dog: a jacket, vest or harness, which often includes a statement such as, “Please don’t pet me: I’m working.”

In every case, you must respect this caution unless the person gives you explicit permission to interact with the animal.

Working dogs (also known as professional working dogs)

This classification can be especially perplexing because in the strictest sense, a working dog is any dog trained to perform a specific task, such as a guard dog, police dog, avalanche dog, cadaver dog, drug-sniffing dog or military dog.

To add to the confusion, service dogs are also a category of working dog. Even worse, the American Kennel Club has designated some 30 pedigree breeds as part of the working group, including breeds as disparate as the boxer, Doberman, rottweiler, Saint Bernard and mastiff.

So let’s just say that a working dog is any dog that “works,” and leave it at that!

Therapy dogs

These dogs, which come in every conceivable age, shape, size and breed, are trained to provide comfort and affection to people in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, prisons and other institutional settings.

They can also be used in therapeutic settings as a bridge to patients and as support for those who have experienced catastrophic trauma, loss or natural disasters.

One important note: therapy dogs are not service dogs.

Under law, therapy dogs do not fall under the protection of the ADA, which means that they do not have the right to enter businesses or public places which disallow animals or accompany their human companion on public transportation unless explicitly permitted.

While therapy dogs are trained, certified and insured, the certification process is much less rigorous than for service dogs.

Usually, therapy dogs must pass an obedience class and then demonstrate that they are comfortable with unusual objects (such as wheelchairs or meal carts) and strange sounds and smells, accepting of strangers, good with other dogs, calm and obedient.

Although the specific requirements vary between therapy dog organizations, in general, the person and dog must pass a handling test and successfully complete a specified number of supervised field visits to places such as nursing homes or retirement centers, after which they receive membership and certification.

Emotional support dogs

Further muddying the waters is a category known as an emotional support dog.

These are simply pets that provide a sense of comfort or safety to their human companion but are not trained to perform specific acts directly related to that person’s mental or emotional condition.

These animals do not qualify as psychiatric service dogs and are not protected under the ADA.

I hope all this has helped clarify the differences between these wonderful working dogs and hasn’t ended up confusing you even more than you were before!

Joan Merriam lives in Nevada County with her Golden Retriever Casey (hence, “Casey’s Corner”). You can reach Joan at joan@joanmerriam.com. And if you’re looking for a Golden, be sure to check out Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue.


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The Union Updated Nov 14, 2013 09:46PM Published Nov 14, 2013 09:46PM Copyright 2013 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.