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Casey’s Corner: Therapy dog, service dog, or none of the above?

Unlike a therapy dog, a service dog will almost always be outfitted with a vest or harness labeled with identifying language. People are reminded never to approach or pet a service dog without asking its owner.
Submitted photo by United States Deparment of Agriculture

When I tell people that Joey has recently been certified as a therapy dog, they often say something like, “Oh, it must be great that you can take him with you everywhere.”

That statement is at the crux of the therapy dog versus service dog versus support dog misperception. A therapy dog is not a service dog, and a service dog is not a support dog.

Most of the time.

But sometimes it is.

Confused? I don’t blame you.

Hopefully, I can clear some of those cobwebs of confusion.

Therapy dogs

Let’s first look at therapy dogs, since that’s where a lot of the questions arise.

Therapy dogs like Joey are trained to provide comfort to people in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, prisons, courts, and other institutions, or act as a connection to patients in therapeutic settings. A special category of therapy dog is the canine disaster assistance dog, which offers emotional support at the scene of a natural disaster or to those who’ve experienced catastrophic trauma.

Although the specific requirements vary between therapy dog organizations, in general the dog must pass behavior, temperament, and handling tests and successfully complete several supervised field visits before being granted certification.

But therapy dogs are not service dogs.

Under law, therapy dogs don’t fall under the protection of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which means they cannot enter businesses or public places which disallow animals (such as restaurants or grocery stores), or accompany their human companion on public transportation unless expressly permitted.

Service dogs

By comparison, a service dog is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires that these animals be “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.” These activities might assisting a blind person or providing wheelchair guidance, warning a hearing-impaired person of sounds such as the telephone or alarms, or sounding an alert when their human has a seizure. Psychiatric service dogs, trained to assist people with serious mental and emotional disorders such as post-traumatic stress, also fall under this classification.

Because they are protected by the act, service dogs may go anywhere with their human companion that the public is permitted, including restaurants, hotels, theaters, and on any public transportation.

Almost without exception, service dogs will be wearing some sort of special jacket, vest or harness that distinguishes them as a service dog, and 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.

Emotional support animals

The category that’s stirred up the most controversy is the emotional support animal. Broadly speaking, an emotional support animal is a companion animal that provides comfort or relief to their human, but is not trained to perform specific tasks related to that person’s mental or emotional condition. These animals do not qualify as psychiatric service dogs, and are not protected under the Disabilities Act.

To qualify as an emotional support animal, the dog’s owner must obtain a letter from a psychologist, therapist, psychiatrist or other licensed mental health professional certifying that the person has a specific emotional disability, not just the need for companionship.

And that’s where the problems arise, thanks in large part to the Air Carrier Access Act, which allows individuals to bring an emotional support animal on board a plane at no additional cost. Over the last few years, literally hundreds of websites have popped up promising to deliver a diagnosis — sight-unseen — and provide an emotional support animal documentation letter for less than $100.

That’s given rise to increasing problems with pets on airplanes: Fifi piddling in the aisle, Fido biting a flight attendant, Buster barking nonstop from Sacramento to Chicago. Many of these supposed support animals are in fact nothing but family pets — some of them untrained or unsocialized — wearing fake assistance animal paraphernalia and sporting phony service and support dog certifications. This sort of deceptive scheme makes it all the harder for those who genuinely need an emotional support or service animal, and has already caused many airlines and cruise ship lines to toughen their restrictions on support and service dogs.

So whether you’re meeting up with a service dog, therapy dog, or emotional support animal, hopefully now you’ll have a better idea of what they are, what they do, and how you can interact with them.

Joan Merriam lives in Nevada County with her Golden Retriever Joey, her Maine Coon cat Indy, and the abiding spirit of her beloved Golden Retriever Casey in whose memory this column is named. 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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