Service Dog vs Emotional Support Dog vs Therapy Dog… What’s the Difference?


Humans have been aided by dogs for centuries. From retrieving to hunting to farming, many dogs have assisted their owners in many capacities. Still today, many dogs help their owners in different capacities. There are service dogs, emotional support dogs, and therapy dogs. But at what capacity do these dogs help humans and what are the differences?

Service Dogs

The American Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service dogs as dogs that are individually trained to perform specific tasks and to work with people with disabilities. According to the ADA, a disability can be “sensory, psychiatric, physical, intellectual, or other disability.” 

Hearing dogs alert their owners to certain sounds like a car horn or a doorbell ringing.

Psychiatric dogs are trained to detect and reduce the effects of a psychiatric episode.

Guide dogs help blind people in their environment.

Certain service dogs also help their owners to become aware of an impending seizure. These dogs might stand over their owners while in the midst of a seizure or seek help.

Emotional Support Dogs

Unlike service dogs, emotional support dogs are not considered to be a service dog according to the ADA. The difference between emotional support dogs and service dogs is an emotional support dog does not need to be trained with a specific duty to help someone with a disability. This however does not take away from the support these dogs do give their owners. They are considered to be more of a companion and help with issues like anxiety, loneliness, and depression. In order to label a dog as an emotional support dog, it must be prescribed by a mental health professional for someone who has been diagnosed with a mental health disorder such as depression and/or anxiety. Owners have limited legal rights with an emotional support dog vs a service dog. Additionally, as of January 2021, the FAA no longer allows emotional support dogs on planes.

Therapy Dogs

The term therapy dog has been questioned by many for its comparison to service dogs. According to the ADA, therapy dogs are not considered service dogs and do not have the same legal rights as service dogs do. Currently there are no national rules that regulate therapy dogs. So, what is a therapy dog? These dogs do not have to live with the person they are supporting. These dogs may visit mental health institutions, hospice, schools, and nursing homes to provide comfort to people. These dogs should have a kind temperament, be calm and relaxed, and be comfortable being handled by people.

How to spot a fake service dog

Now that you have a better understanding of the differences between the different labels of these dogs, how can you spot a fake one? For years now, there has been much controversy regarding the legitimacy of those people who have dogs that claim they are the real deal. One of the first signs that a dog wearing a service dog vest is fake is to notice unruly behavior by the dog. If you notice the dog being aggressive or becomes destructive, this is a key sign that the service dog is not legitimate. If you understand what a real service dog is and what a real service dog does, it should not be difficult to spot a fake one.

Should you report a fake service dog?

What should you do if you feel you you’ve spotted a fake service dog? In my own personal opinion, I think those who take advantage of the benefits service dogs offer to those in need is not only unethical but it can cause issues for dog owners who have real service dogs. With that said, if you choose to, you can report a fake service dog on the American Disabilities Act website. People can get into a lot of trouble for having a fake service dog. In fact, many states have passed laws that make it illegal for people to have a fake service dog. Many of those will have to pay a fine for having a dog that is not a real service dog. Close to 36 states, including Florida, have made it illegal to have a fake service dog. Be aware that asking someone if their dog is a fake service dog can get you into trouble as you are only allowed to ask a few specifically worded questions to the owner of a (fake) service dog. They can actually report you.

Dogs are an incredible asset to those who have a disability. They can be a true companion to people that require emotional support and therapy. Therefore, it’s important that you know the differences between these dogs in order to make the best decision for your needs.