Service, Comfort or Therapy: What’s The Difference?

By: Kaitlin Hilinski, Therapeutic Services Program Assistant

You’ve probably seen a dog at work out in the world – the grocery store, library, or maybe in an office building or school.  These dogs provide vital assistance to the humans around them, but how can you tell what kind of work the dog is doing?  The truth is, there’s no easy answer.  There are dozens of jobs that a dog may be doing.  For the purpose of this blog post, let’s focus on the three most common;

Service Dogs
A service dog has been trained to perform at least one major task for people with physical disabilities or psychiatric diagnosis.  There are a wide variety of service dogs, including but not limited to; seeing-eye dogs, hearing assistance, seizure alert, insulin or allergy detection, autism spectrum support, and balance or mobility aid.  When a service dog is with his or her person, the dog is working and should not be interrupted.  Many of them will wear a vest or harness that says something along the lines of “Please don’t pet me, I am working.”

These dogs are entitled to accompany their human anywhere that a non-disabled person can go.  They are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The dogs are essential for their person’s safety and wellbeing, just like a wheelchair or hearing aid. Currently, only dogs are covered by the ADA’s legal protections.

Emotional Support or Comfort Animals
A doctor may prescribe an animal for an individual who suffers from conditions such as depression or anxiety.  Sometimes these animals are helpful only in certain triggering situations, like travel or in crowds.  In other cases, the animals are simply pets in the home who help their owners cope with the stressors of life. It’s important to note that a comfort animal does not have to be a dog.  Cats, rabbits, birds, and even pigs have been recorded as comfort animals.  

It is also important to note that comfort animals do not have the same legal protections as service animals.  Restaurants and public buildings are not required to allow a comfort animal onto the premises.  However, under the Fair Housing Amendments Act, a rental property can be required to lift a “no pets” policy in the cases of comfort animals (and service animals too, of course).  Usually, all it takes is a letter from a doctor stating that the human has a medical condition for which the animal is a prescription aide.

Comfort animals are rarely trained as a service animal. However, they may be considered to be “working” when in public with their owner.   As with any unknown animal, the best course of action is to ask the owner for permission before petting or interacting with the animal in any way.

Therapy Animals
A therapy animal has been assessed and deemed to be exceptionally friendly, engaging, and tolerant.  They have been trained to have excellent obedience skills, and are almost always accompanied by a handler who facilitates their work with the public.  There are several different ways that therapy animals work, but most visits places like hospitals, nursing homes, college campuses, schools, and other facilities to lift spirits and help humans de-stress.  Occasionally an animal may live in a facility to provide comfort to the patients and staff or volunteers.

While these animals also fulfill an important and heart-warming role in the community, they are offered no legal protections.  Your therapy dog may not be allowed into the post office or bank with you, despite their training and certification. 

Here at Animal Friends, we offer the Therapets certification program to identify, train, and certify therapy dogs, cats, and rabbits.  We’re working on expanding to other animals in the future too!

If you think your pet has the potential to be a therapy animal, please contact us at 412.847.7081 or fill out this questionnaire: Pre-Interview Questionnaire
Our next round of dog classes begins at the end of August, but cat and rabbit assessments can be scheduled individually.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post – please consider sharing it so more people can learn the difference between service, comfort, and therapy animals.
More information about these distinctions can be found online at the National Service Animal Registry 

I’d also like to thank one of our fabulous trainers and volunteers, Anita DeBiase for doing the initial research that inspired this writing! 

Do you have experience with a service, comfort, or therapy animal?  Please tell us about it in the comments!

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