What Is A Service Dog: Identifying The Different Types of Assistance Canines

The news is filled with tales of service dogs – from heroic canines rescuing victims of natural disasters, to controversial events at 30,000 feet and misbehaving companion animals on flights. This frequent, extremely public level of interest raises a lot of questions for the curious:

  • What are service dogs used for? 
  • Can anyone get a service dog, or are they reserved for people with certain disabilities? 
  • Can businesses get in legal trouble for barring service dogs?
  • Are people required to prove their dog is a service dog?

The rise of various “exotic” support animals and uncertain rights have muddied the waters in terms of public understanding of service dogs. This in turn leads to a lot of misunderstandings and complications, particularly in high-stress situations like airports. Essentially, there are three kinds of dogs that help people with difficulties, and only type – service dogs – are granted the access and legal freedoms commonly (and often mistakenly) attributed to all three. This article will address everything a curious mind needs to know about each type of assistance dog, their rights, and what they do.

What Is A Therapy Dog?

A therapy dog is closest in performance to a service dog in that they’ve had training in their task and have been taught to be very well-behaved. Therapy dogs are canines that travel to businesses, shelters, schools, and other places with large groups of people to offer comfort and a soothing presence. 

Therapy dogs are not protected by the governing document for disability rights and regulations – in other words, the Americans with Disabilities Act, more commonly known as the ADA. This is the act that specifies, for example, how a business must make itself accessible with features such as wheelchair ramps, handicapped parking spaces, and handicapped bathroom stalls. The idea behind these regulations is equality – the ability for an individual with a handicap to access and use the same services as someone without that handicap. The ADA is the legal force behind service dogs, and requires businesses to allow service dogs in businesses, restaurants, transportation methods, hotels, and more.

Some uses of therapy dogs include

  • Visiting or remaining at a school recently afflicted by a natural disaster or school shooting to offer comfort to returning students
  • Visiting a senior citizen center or the children’s ward of a hospital to cheer up the occupants
  • Spending time with autistic or non-neurotypical children to aid in socialization and comfort

These tasks are important and can be absolutely crucial to individuals struggling with depression, tragedy, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Generally, the therapy dog remains with his owner throughout the visit, even while interacting with others, and will return home with his owner at the end of the day. An important distinction between service dogs and therapy dogs is that therapy dogs are not permitted access where a pet would normally be excluded, such as stores, businesses, and restaurants. 

What Is An Emotional Support Dog?

An emotional support dog is a canine companion kept as a companion animal, in whom the owner finds comfort. Often used as a blanket term for all companion pets, not all pets are technically considered emotional support animals, or ESAs. To be an official ESA, a handler must generally have prescription and/or letterhead documentation from his or her mental health professional stating that the dog is necessary to their health and well-being.

While ESAs do not have the same access rights as service dogs, they do have some legal protections in certain cases. The Fair Housing Act states that a documented/prescribed ESA is (provided they are toilet-trained, well behaved, and not a danger to others) allowed in “no pet” apartments or housing. This protection applies to all sizes, breeds, and types of canines, just as it does to service dogs. An apartment complex cannot allow a documented ESA beagle while barring a documented ESA Pitbull, for example. Per the American Kennel Club, ESAs are also covered by the Air Carrier Access Act, which allows well-behaved, documented ESAs to travel in an aircraft cabin with their handlers. 

Of the three types of assistance dogs, ESAs are the least well-defined in terms of public perception. Many unscrupulous individuals attempt to pass their dogs off as ESAs despite a lack of documentation, need, and in many cases, even basic behavioral training. The results have, unfortunately, resulted in unflattering headlines – dogs using the bathroom in the middle of an airplane aisle mid-flight, or biting a neighbor unprovoked in a condominium complex.

Businesses do have a legal right to ask for documentation on an ESA, so ESA handlers should keep their prescription, letterhead, or other paperwork with them at all times when accompanied by their emotional support dog. 

What Is A Service Dog?

A service dog is one that is “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” What this means is that in addition to assisting owners with disabilities that impair a sense – sight, for example – service dogs can also be used for physical support, or to alert to an impending episode. Some uses of service dogs include:

  • A dog trained to adopt a certain position, bark in a controlled fashion, or touch their owner if they sense an oncoming seizure
  • A dog trained to fetch a bottle of medication, phone, or other tool if their owner is physically unable
  • A dog trained to “alert” if something their owner is deathly allergic to, such as peanuts, is nearby
  • A dog trained to physically cover their owner with their body or otherwise comfort them if they are having a mental or emotional breakdown
  • A dog trained to place their head, paw, or body between their owner and the floor if their owner is having a fit or seizure, to prevent injury or trauma

Service dogs have been professionally trained in the specific disability-related task they are required to perform. These animals have also been trained to be well-behaved in public and to pay very close attention to their owner in order to perform their duty. A service dog will not, for example, lift their leg on a restaurant table, or try to get off the leash to eat food dropped nearby. Their duty is treated with the same gravity as a human would their own job, and they respectfully follow, focus, and stay with their owner without wandering or prompting.

Do Service Dogs Have To Wear A Vest?

Some service dog handlers – another word for owners – choose to use vests to communicate their service dog’s purpose. Vests and special collars are a good, highly-visible way to inform strangers that they should not approach or attempt to pet a service dog. While the dog’s training will ensure they aren’t dangerous or jumpy around strangers, they are working and need to focus completely on their handler. Distractions like petting may cause the service dog to delay alerting to a life-threatening event, which could put the handler in danger.

It’s important to note, however, that service dogs are not required to wear a special vest or carry documentation. This is a very common myth about service dogs, and it has led to significant discrimination and difficulty for handlers with disabilities. Even if a dog is not wearing anything that identifies him as a service dog, he must be permitted entrance to any public, business, or government facility or area if his handler requires it. 

Can A Business Deny Entry To A Service Dog?

If a business or facility needs to determine if a dog is a legitimate service dog, they are only permitted to ask two specific questions about the dog, per the ADA:

1.  Is the animal required because of a disability?

2. What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?