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What Are Therapy Dogs And Emotional Support Dogs?

Written by Ella White


Retriever support dog lying on grass

You’ve probably heard more and more people talking about emotional support animals in the past few years. But do you know the difference between an emotional support dog and a therapy dog? Or what it means for a dog to be classified as an emotional support pet? After all, we all lean on our furry friends for a bit of emotional support from time to time. And while the phrase has become an oft-misused buzzword, we’re here to explain exactly what the difference is between a therapy dog and an emotional support dog, and how they qualify for the title.

There are a number of factors that contribute to societal confusion around therapy dogs and emotional support dogs. However, there are clear distinctions between these two classifications, their roles, and where they do and do not have the right to access. 

This confusion usually stems from:

  • A lack of awareness about the roles of therapy dogs and emotional support dogs
  • A misuse of terminology that leads people to believe the two titles can be used interchangeably
  • Misinformation that is spread about the roles and qualifications of therapy dogs and emotional support dogs
  • A difference in the regulations around these titles, which can change in different countries and areas
  • A blurring of boundaries, whereby therapy dogs provide emotional support, and emotional support dogs provide therapeutic benefits

Therapy dogs are especially trained dogs to provide comfort, emotional support, and companionship, and improve people's well-being and contribute to their overall mental and emotional health. This happens in various settings and environments including hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and rehabilitation centers.

Therapy dogs play an important role in recovery and rehabilitation settings, because they offer patients and the people they interact with a sense of unconditional love, help to alleviate stress, can reduce anxiety, and offer comfort. For this reason, therapy dogs often visit patients, residents, or even students, to help promote relaxation and create positive experiences in places and situations that could otherwise be considered stressful.

There is specific training and certifications involved in becoming a therapy dog. For example, they must receive obedience training to prove that they respond well to commands and behave appropriately in different situations. The certification programs assess the dog's temperament, behavior, and socialization skills to make sure they are well-suited for therapy work. Only dogs that are calm, friendly, obedient, and comfortable around different kinds of people can become therapy dogs.

Emotional support dogs are companion animals that provide comfort and therapeutic benefits to people with mental health conditions. Their purpose is to offer emotional support which can help reduce the symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other disorders. While emotional support dogs play a vital role in improving their owner’s well-being, they are not professionally trained and certified working dogs, like therapy dogs.

The benefits of emotional support dogs is that they provide a sense of security, reduce feelings of loneliness and stress, and offer unconditional love and companionship. This level of constant emotional support has been proven to help individuals manage their mental health challenges and improve their quality of life. 

To qualify for an emotional support dog, owners typically need a recommendation from a qualified mental health professional like their therapist or psychiatrist, who can determine whether an emotional support dog would be beneficial as part of their treatment plan.

Under the Fair Housing Act and Air Carrier Access Act in the United States, emotional support dogs are granted certain legal rights and protections. 

  • The Fair Housing Act means that owners of emotional support dogs can request reasonable accommodation in housing, including properties with no-pets policies. 
  • The Air Carrier Access Act allows emotional support dogs to travel with their owners in the cabin of an aircraft, though often specific requirements must be met. 

However, emotional support dogs do not have the same access rights in all public settings as therapy dogs and other working animals. Because of this, they may not be allowed into places like restaurants, stores, or public transportation, where only service dogs are typically allowed. 

In general, emotional support dogs do not require the same level of training as service dogs. However, as with all pets, basic obedience training and socialization is vital to ensure that they behave appropriately in public settings and feel comfortable in different environments. If they do not feel comfortable in varied settings, they themselves may become nervous and be unable to provide emotional support to their owner as a result.

The main difference between therapy dogs and emotional support dogs is that the onus for qualifications falls on therapy dogs, while the human must qualify for an emotional support dog. 

Therapy dogs are typically allowed in places where they provide a service, like hospitals, nursing homes, schools, libraries, and other public spaces. Organizations and institutions understand the positive impact these dogs have on peoples' emotional well-being, and allow them to work under the supervision and guidance of their handlers or owners.

Emotional support dogs, on the other hand, help alleviate stress and provide therapeutic benefits for their owners. But they might not be allowed in all public spaces. Their right to access spaces is generally to do with housing and air travel. Other organizations can deny access to emotional support animals and their owners.

Both therapy dogs and emotional support dogs require thorough obedience training and socialization, but emotional support dogs do not require qualifications to fulfill their role, like therapy dogs do. However, the owners of emotional support dogs will need a recommendation from a mental health professional to confirm that a pet would be beneficial to their recovery or overall wellbeing.