Service, Support or Therapy Dog? The Different Ways Fido can Lend a Paw

Posted by Billy Francis

Dogs assist people every day, from simply keeping them company to providing critically needed support and guidance. Just as your furry friend turns to you for food and shelter, you can turn to her in a time of need. There are a number of ways our pets can take their informal companionship to the next level as a recognized assistance animal. Whether it’s service dogs helping with everyday tasks, emotional support animals providing comfort in stressful situations or therapy dogs spending time with people who can otherwise feel alone, these specially trained pups couldn’t be more important to the people they help. But do you know the difference between them? Each of these designations follows a unique set of criteria and regulations. We’ve broken them down individually to help you understand what it takes to become an assistance animal and how it affects the way you travel with your pet.

Service Dogs

Ready to serve.

Service animals fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was passed in 1990 to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities. The most commonly used service animals are canines due to their size and intelligence. A service dog’s main duty is to help people with disabilities perform daily tasks. This can include pulling a wheelchair, retrieving items or even sniffing out harmful allergens in the air.


Extensive training is required for animals to learn how to perform a range of tasks to help people suffering from physical, psychiatric, sensory (blind or deaf) or intellectual disabilities. Different types of service dogs include:

  • Guide dogs for the visually impaired
  • Mobility dogs to retrieve items and push buttons
  • Hearing dogs to alert handlers to dangers
  • Medical alert dogs to raise the alarm in life-threatening situations
  • Autism service dogs who are trained to interrupt negative triggers that upset the handler

People suffering from PTSD might also require the help of a service dog. Service dogs for people with PTSD are often mislabeled as emotional support animals, but they carry the same rights as a dog helping somebody suffering from a more easily identifiable illness.

If you need the assistance of a service dog, consult a trusted trainer and ask them to train your pooch or help you find an already-trained service animal. There are no breed or weight restrictions on service dogs. As long as he’s willing to learn, Fido can start training.

Dogs who are starting from scratch usually take one to two years to get fully trained. The instructor must incorporate tasks that provide aid for the handler’s unique situation and circumstances, and will also teach Fido how to behave in public. The dog’s disposition matters, as well. Do you have a calm and intelligent hound who’s happy to chill by your side without causing a fuss? If so, they might be the perfect candidate to become a service dog.

Where They Are Allowed

The official stance from the ADA on where service dogs are permitted is as follows: “State and local governments, businesses and nonprofit organizations that serve the public generally must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is normally allowed to go.” This includes your workplace (if the dog is required to help you perform your daily tasks at work), public transportation, shops, restaurants and even hospitals. Essentially, anywhere the public can go, service dogs can go as well. The only places that should be avoided are areas with strict health codes, like kitchens and operating rooms.

There are only two questions that can be asked of you if you try to enter a public place with your service dog: 1) Is your dog required because of a disability? 2) What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?

If you can answer both of these questions truthfully, then your service dog is protected under the ADA.

Air Travel

Under federal law, airlines must allow service dogs into cabins on planes. In the past, handlers have had to provide only verbal confirmation of their dog’s title, but the Department of Transportation recently clarified its stance on assistance animals flying with their handlers. According to the DOT, airlines are permitted to deny entry to a service animal if it poses a threat to other passengers or the flight’s safety. However, they may not deny a service dog entry because of its breed. Additionally, the DOT will not take action against an airline for asking handlers of any type of service animal to present documentation related to the service animal’s vaccination, training or behavior.

Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)

ESA dogs are permitted on flights. Photo by @nimbus_the_dood

Ever since Brooklyn-based artist Ventiko tried to smuggle her emotional support peacock, Dexter, onto a flight on January 28, 2018, the news has been full of stories about a variety of different pets being used as emotional support animals. The attention brought by these unusual companions has led people to start asking, where does it end? After all, it’s hard to imagine flying with a horse in the seat next to you, and yet miniature horses are allowed on board some airlines as ESAs. Emotional support animals differ from service animals because they provide comfort rather than a specific service. ESAs are defined but not protected under the ADA.

Unlike service dogs, official documentation is required to register your pooch as an ESA. A licensed mental health professional, such as a therapist or psychiatrist, must decide that having a dog for company at all times will be beneficial to its owner.


Unlike service dogs, emotional support animals are not required to have the same level of training. The main requirement is for your dog to be under control at all times and not to cause any harm or disturbance to other members of the public.

Where They Are Allowed

ESA dogs, though often highly trained at performing an important service, can legally be denied entry to certain public places. However, handlers of an ESA have access to almost all types of housing regardless of the pet policy at no extra cost, because they are protected under the Fair Housing Act.

Air Travel

Emotional support animals are also permitted in cabins under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), although there are more stipulations involved. Airlines may require documentation from a licensed mental health professional asserting that the handler has a recognized mental or emotional disability and that the emotional support or psychiatric support animal is needed as an accommodation for air travel or at the destination.

Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs offer comfort and stress relief. Photo by Flickr/University of the Frasier Valley

Therapy dogs are often trained to show affection toward people in need, most commonly comforting patients in hospitals, students at schools and even stressed out passengers at airports. A study by UCLA Health found that the simple act of petting animals releases an automatic relaxation response--serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin--all of which can elevate a person’s mood. Therapy dogs have also helped people suffering from chronic illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease. They can also lower blood pressure and improve a patient’s cardiovascular health.


Therapy dogs also don’t require the same amount of training as service dogs. However, the American Kennel Club does offer a number of qualifications for handlers who want to improve their therapy dog’s ability to help people.

Where They Are Allowed

Much like ESAs, therapy dogs are not protected under the ADA and do not have the same access rights as service animals. They can be granted special permission to enter certain areas which are usually out of bounds for dogs, like schools and hospitals. This entry is only permitted when they are providing therapy sessions.

Air Travel

Therapy dogs receive no special designation or allowance from airlines. They are treated like any other pet traveling with their owners and are subject to the airline's fees and restrictions.


Clearly labeled vests or bandanas? Not required. Photo by Flickr/Deb

According to the ADA, dogs are not required to be certified as service, emotional support or therapy animals. In fact, they aren’t even required to wear those brightly colored vests or bandanas you often see. These identifiers, along with certain certifications and documents available online, do not convey any rights under the ADA and the Department of Justice does not recognize them as proof.

More Than Just a Title

A service dog in training visits the National Guard Bureau. Photo by Flickr/Jim Greenhill

Service, emotional support and therapy dogs all provide life-changing acts of assistance for people in need. Unfortunately, there are those who take advantage of the regulations that permit assistance animals to travel with their handlers. Household pets with fake harnesses jeopardize the law for people who actually require assistance, and this creates a negative image around real service dogs. Illegitimate service animals can also create a safety risk if they don’t behave well in public areas. There are currently 19 states cracking down on this practice, fining dog owners with fake service dogs and even assigning them community service as punishment. There are thousands of places that welcome your beloved pet on BringFido; there’s no need to break the law to spend time together.

Do you travel with a service dog, emotional support animal or a therapy dog? Leave a comment or tweet us @BringFido!

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