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For anyone looking into adopting an assistance animal to help with your day-to-day life, it's crucial to understand the differences between the various types of assistance dogs. There are also many myths and misconceptions that surround the use of dogs as service and support animals, so today we’re going to clear some of them up.

It’s important to clarify the difference between the four major types of assistance dogs:

  • Service dog
  • Therapy dog
  • Emotional support animal
  • Psychiatric service dog

Each classification of assistance dog serves a unique function and is afforded different protections under the law. Too often assistance dogs are all lumped into one category ” Service Dogs,” but this isn’t accurate and it's incorrect, and it can even cause legal complications. Let's begin clearing this up with the “most popular” type – service dogs.

What is a Service Dog?

A service dog is an assistance dog that does not have to be trained by a specific party or association, but they must somehow be trained to perform a specific task or function for an individual with a disability and that task must be directly related to that disability (1).

What is a Service DogExamples of service dogs include:

  • Guide dogs
  • Hearing dogs
  • Diabetic alert dogs
  • Psychiatric service dogs

The Rights of Service Dogs

Under the law, service dogs cannot be refused entry to any accommodation that is accessible to the public and modify their practices to accommodate service dogs, if necessary (2). UNLESS permitting entry to a service animal would result in the “nature of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, or accommodations offered or provided, or the safe operation of the public accommodation would be jeopardized.” (28 C.F.R. § 36.301.)

Examples of areas where service dogs may NOT be permitted include:

  • Areas that have mandatory sterile environments (like a surgical suite).
  • Churches, synagogues, and mosques as these are not considered public accommodations under the ADA (3).
  • In some states, service dogs are not permitted in areas of zoos where zoo animals are not separated from the public by a barrier (however, they MUST provide kennel facilities) (4).

Service Dogs and Travel

Service dog handlers may never be denied access to transportation nor may they be required to sit in a particular location or pay additional fees due to their use of a service dog. Additionally, the handler of a service dog does not have to give any advanced notice of the fact that they will be traveling with a service dog.

The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) also establishes that service animals can accompany their handlers in the cabin of an aircraft. As per the ACAA, “For evidence that an animal is a service animal, air carriers may ask to see identification cards, written documentation, the presence of harnesses or tags, or ask for verbal assurances from the individual with a disability using the animal.

If airline personnel are uncertain that an animal is a service animal, they may ask one of the following:

  1. What tasks or functions does your animal perform for you?
  2. What has your animal been trained to do for you?
  3. Would you describe how the animal performs this task for you?

Service Dogs and Properties That Do Not Allow Pets

The Fair Housing Act (FHA) states that service dog handlers may not be denied housing based on their need for that animal. Additionally, the housing board must make “reasonable accommodations” for the individual with a disability so that they might have an equal opportunity to live in and enjoy the home.

The above means that accommodations must make adjustments to their “no dogs” policy to accommodate individuals with service dogs. They may also not charge additional fees related to “pet ownership” since a service dog is not considered to be a pet and the ADA forbids additional fees being charged based on the use of a service animal.

According to the ADA’s official website (5):

“A landlord or homeowner’s association may not ask a housing applicant about the existence, nature, and extent of his or her disability. However, an individual with a disability who requests a reasonable accommodation may be asked to provide documentation so that the landlord or homeowner’s association can properly review the accommodation request.

They can ask a person to certify, in writing, (1) that the tenant or a member of his or her family is a person with a disability; (2) the need for the animal to assist the person with that specific disability; and (3) that the animal actually assists the person with a disability. 

It is important to keep in mind that the ADA may apply in the housing context as well, for example with student housing. Where the ADA applies, requiring documentation or certification would not be permitted with regard to an animal that qualifies as a “service animal.”

When Can a Service Dog Be Asked to Leave a Property?

There are very few incidences where service dog handlers may be asked to remove their service dog from a property:

  • If their dog is out of control and the handler does not or cannot take control
  • The service dog is not housebroken.

If this happens, the staff of the property must still offer the individual the ability to obtain the services or goods in question without the presence of their service dog.

What Questions May Be Asked of a Service Dog Handler?

The handler of a service dog may only be asked two questions by business or establishment owners in regard to their service dog if the status of the dog as a service animal is unclear:

  • Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability.
  • What task or work has the dog been trained to perform?

Other questions are forbidden by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This means that at no time can a business request or require that a service dog leave their property because they are not marked as a service dog (for example, wearing a vest) nor can they ask to see a so-called “registration license” (which simply does not exist).

Service Dog “Registries,” Fake Service Dog Certifications

There is NO legitimate registry for service dogs despite the fact that there are numerous “registries” available online and sites promoting “service dog certifications”.

These fake certification services are a scam designed to fleece uninformed service dog owners and to make it easier for non-service dog owners to commit service dog fraud.

Unfortunately, due to the number of people utilizing fraudulent service dog registration databases, many business owners (and those who are unfamiliar with service dogs) mistakenly believe that service dogs must have a license. This makes it more difficult for service dogs and their handlers without this meaningless “license” to go about their daily business.

Service Dog Fraud

In recent years, unscrupulous dog owners who want to bring their pets into stores with them have begun paying for fake service dog certification. As this action has become more common and dog biting incidents have resulted, more dog bites in stores where a “service dog” was permitted, the U.S. government has begun to crack down on fake service dog scams.

The first step in cracking down on service dog fraud is a law designed to create consequences for people who falsely advertise their pets as service dogs.

There are currently 20 U.S. states that have adopted this law that outlines specific consequences for service dog fraud – almost always a fine and occasionally a short stint in jail as well. Three other states have adopted related laws.

 

What is a Psychiatric Service Dog?

A psychiatric service dog is a type of service dog that is trained to perform specific tasks for individuals with psychiatric impairments so severe that their ability to perform tasks necessary to functioning is impeded.

As service dogs, psychiatric dogs receive extensive training and they are protected under law in the same ways that a “traditional” service dog would be (6).

Examples of psychiatric service dogs include:

  • A dog trained to apply pressure to a soldier with PTSD to relieve dissociation and flashbacks associated with their condition.
  • An autism service dog trained to apply pressure to calm an autistic child when they experience panic or a setback.
  • A dog trained to bring medication to a severely depressed person who is unable to get out of bed to ensure that they take their medication on time.

 

What is a Therapy Dog?

A therapy dog is a dog that provides “people with therapeutic contact, usually in a clinical setting, to improve their physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning.” (7)

To become therapy dogs, canines must be at least one year old and must have a friendly disposition. Therapy dogs must also be able to follow obedience commands well and as their handler, you must be able to show that you can handle your dog well.

Many institutions require that therapy dogs have Canine Good Citizen certification and therapy dog certification through one of the many therapy dog programs such as the Alliance of Therapy Dogs and Therapy Dogs International.

Examples of service dogs include:

  • Dogs that visit children’s hospitals to provide comfort
  • Dogs that visit retirement homes for the elderly to interact with residents
  • Dogs that provide “grief relief” in funeral homes

Requirements of a Therapy Dog

In order to become a therapy dog, your pet will be tested to determine whether they have good manners and the demeanor to be a therapy dog. You will also have your handling skills tested to ensure that you can properly control your dog as a therapy team leader.

Following this testing, you will be asked to take part in multiple visits to organizations that have therapy dog programs and a tester will observe your visits. If all goes well, you will be informed that you and your dog will be approved and can become a therapy dog team (8).

It is not mandatory for therapy dogs to be registered with national therapy dog organizations to take part in all therapy dog programs, however it is generally preferred and some programs (like the AKC Therapy Dog program) do require certification and registration by a recognized therapy dog organization before your dog can earn an AKC therapy dog title.

Membership in legitimate therapy dog organizations (you can find a list of them on the AKC website here) can also be helpful in providing support, education, and additional resources (such as classes) for dogs and their handlers. Therapy dog organizations can also help you to obtain insurance so that should your dog nip, bite, or hurt someone while working as a therapy dog, you are covered under an insurance policy.

Depending on where you work with your therapy dog, different rules and guidelines will apply to your conduct and preparedness for your therapy dog visits. One thing that remains standard, however, is that all therapy dogs must be well groomed and clean. In most instances, this requires that the dog receives a full bath just prior to their therapy visit. This is done for the safety of patients and the cleanliness of the facility as a whole.

The Rights of Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs are NOT protected under federal law in the U.S. This means that they are not afforded protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) or the Federal Housing Act.

Some states do have laws in place that specifically address the presence of a therapy dog and the state protections afforded to them, however, so check locally for these to determine what additional rights (if any) you and your dog may have as a therapy team.

In short, a therapy dog may only go where pet dogs may go AND to the institutions where they have been accepted as practicing therapy dogs.

 

What is an Emotional Support Dog?

An emotional support animal (ESA) is a companion animal (read: pet) that provides emotional support to someone who is suffering from a mental health condition or emotional disorder.

An emotional support dog is not trained to perform a specific task for their handler; they simply offer emotional support that makes daily life easier for their handler.

Requirements of an Emotional Support Dog

Emotional support animals are not trained to perform specific functions since their support is given by simply being present. That said, they should have a temperament and understanding of obedience that is conducive to their role (9).

There is no requirement for ESA dogs to be registered or “certified” by any organization.

The Rights of Emotional Support Dogs

An emotional support animal is NOT protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but they are protected under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) and the Fair Housing Act (FHA).

This means that your emotional service dog is not entitled to the same protections under the law as a service dog. You can, however, travel with your ESA dog with you in the cabin of an airplane under the (ACAA) and obtain housing in a pet-free community with your emotional support dog under the FHA.

To travel with an ESA dog under the ACAA, you may be required to give advanced notice that you will be traveling with an emotional support dog. The length of advanced notice you are required to give depends upon the airline but they can request up to 48 hours’ notice. The airline may also request specific documentation of those people traveling with an emotional support animal.

This documentation should not be older than one year from the date of your scheduled initial flight and should state the following (10):

  • You have a mental or emotional disability that is recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM);
  • You need your emotional support or psychiatric support animal as an accommodation for air travel and/or for activity at your destination;
  • The individual providing the assessment is a licensed mental health professional and the passenger is under his/her professional care; and
  • The licensed health care professional’s;
    • Date and type of professional license; and
    • Jurisdiction or state in which their license was issued.

Additionally, according to the U.S. Government transportation website (11):

  • “Airlines can determine whether an animal is a service animal or pet by:
    • The credible verbal assurances of an individual with a disability using the animal;
    • Looking for physical indicators such as the presence of a harness or tags;
    • Requiring documentation for psychiatric support animals and emotional support animals; and
    • Observing the behavior of animals.

When looking for housing with an emotional support dog, the FHA provides protection for owners seeking accommodations with their ESA dog. Housing organizations may not require that ESA dogs be individually trained or certified. Additionally, the HUD.gov website states that (12, PDF):

“A housing provider may not deny a reasonable accommodation request because he or she is uncertain whether or not the person seeking the accommodation has a disability or a disability-related need for an assistance animal.

Housing providers may ask individuals who have disabilities that are not readily apparent or known to the provider to submit reliable documentation of a disability and their disability-related need for an assistance animal.

If the disability is readily apparent or known but the disability-related need for the assistance animal is not, the housing provider may ask the individual to provide documentation of the disability-related need for an assistance animal.”

READ NEXT: How to Get a Service Dog for Anxiety or Depression & the Costs of It

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The Complete Guide to Types of Assistance Dogs

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