Therapy Dog or Service Dog?

People often confuse “therapy dogs” with “service dogs,” but these are two distinct terms and carry with them different levels of protection under the law.

Therapy Dogs

A therapy dog is specially trained to offer comfort, companionship, and affection to those in need of a friendly pres-ence. These gentle animals are used in a variety of situations, including courtrooms, nursing homes, hospitals, schools, mental facilities, and disaster areas. Activities involving therapy dogs (or other therapy animals) are usually classified as AAA (animal assisted activities) or AAT (animal assisted therapy). The use of animals as therapeutic companions appears to help people relax, reduce their level of stress, and feel more comfortable in their environ-ment, whether it be a hospital or a courtroom.

To qualify as a therapy dog, the animal must be evaluated and registered with a national organization such as Therapy Dogs International (TDI; www.tdi-dog.org) or the Delta Society ( www.deltasociety.org). Most of these organization offer training and volunteer opportunities for both the dog and the dog handler. The therapy dog is only half of the therapy team; the hander, most frequently the dog owner, is the other half. Organizations such as Land of PureGold Foundation ( http://landofpuregold.com) offer dog therapy volunteer opportunities for people who do not own a dog.

Note that even with a certificate from one of these organizations, “therapy dog” is not a legally recognized title. Although certain facilities may allow, and even encourage, these pets to visit, therapy animals do not have the legal right to do so.

Service Dogs

Service dogs (also called companion dogs) are canines that play an important, defined role in the life of a disabled human partner. Service dogs provide their disabled partners more independence and self-sufficiency. The training for a service animal represents months of hard work, as the animal must be trained to be good natured and obedient in a variety of situations while also protecting its owner.

Some breeds are favored over others as service dogs, but the primary concern is the animal’s temperament. The dog must be patient, friendly, kind, and gentle with a wide variety of people in an assortment of circumstances. Although its owner undoubtedly loves it, a service animal is not a pet. It is a working animal with important responsibilities to enhance the quality of its owner’s life.

Most nations have laws protecting the rights of service animals aiding disabled persons. In the United States service animals enjoy extensive legal protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). According to the ADA, a service animal must be allowed everywhere its owner is and shall not be treated as a “pet” by business owners. This law supersedes local ordinances, which may, for example, prohibit dogs from restaurants. Failure to admit someone with a service animal into a business or workplace is grounds for what could be a very serious lawsuit. Most service dogs wear an identifying jacket or patch to mark them as a service animal at work.

Owners often carry ID cards for their service dogs to ensure they will be permitted into public facilities without incident. For more information, and to learn how to obtain valid certification and ID cards for service dogs, see the Registered Service Dogs website ( www.registeredservicedogs.com).