So What’s the Deal with Therapy Dogs, Anyway?

Anyone who’s ever snuggled a pup after a rrrruff day (sorry) won’t require much convincing that dogs have some serious soothing potential. Research demonstrates that pets relieve stressimprove immunityreduce anxiety and even help you live longer (seriously). Hence the burgeoning popularity of formal canine companions. But can anyone’s pet qualify for these jobs? 

The answer isn't totally straightforward. There’s basically a zigzagged continuum of services provided, training required and access to public spaces allowed, with emotional support animals (ESAs) on one end and service dogs on the other. Let us walk you through it.

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young boy with a service dog

What exactly are service dogs?
Service dogs are highly trained animals recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act, that not only provide emotional support but also perform a function that their human owner cannot. They might guide the blind, provide hearing functions for the deaf, serve as medical alert dogs or foster connections with kids with autism. Service dogs are trained—and legally allowed—to go everywhere with their owner. “Service dogs stay with their person and have special access privileges in public places such as on planes, restaurants, etc.” per the American Kennel Club.

How do therapy dogs differ?
Therapy dogs still go through rigorous training and testing to get certified, but they're usually "lent out" and not employed full-time by someone in need. They can provide social-emotional benefits to students, hospital patients, nursing home residents, etc. “From working with a child who is learning to read to visiting a senior in assisted living, therapy dogs and their owners volunteer together as a team to improve the lives of other people,” says the AKC. Therapy dogs, while they need to be certified to do their “job,” do not have the legal access or privileges that a service dog has.

woman with an emotional support dog

Wait, so where do emotional support animals fit in?
ESAs are companion animals that medical professionals (such as a psychiatrist or appropriate licensed professional) prescribe to patients with physical, psychiatric or intellectual disabilities. For example, an ESA might be prescribed to ease a person’s debilitating anxiety or PTSD. Still, they receive no special training or regulated certification, nor are they required to by law. ESAs provide emotional comfort, companionship, friendship and affection to their owners, ideally helping them to function better when grappling with mental health challenges including depression, anxiety and PTSD. Also, they do not have to be dogs! Rabbits, horses, turtles, pigs and rodents are sometimes designated ESAs.

Can you bring an emotional support animal everywhere you go?
This is where it gets tricky. Emotional support animals do not receive the same legal protection or uninhibited access as service dogs—you also can't just call your ESA a therapy dog without the right training. In order to live with an emotional support animal in housing that prohibits pets, or bring one into the cabin of an airplane, a note from a doctor or mental health professional is usually required. Private establishments like restaurants and shops are not obligated by law to allow ESAs. As a result, despite providing legitimate mental health assistance, their presence may whip up controversy. See the fashion blogger’s Frenchie booted from Soho House or Dexter the Peacock who ruffled feathers trying to board a United flight out of Newark.