By Jeff Murphrey, Canine Country Club

There was a time, not long ago, when if you saw someone walking with a dog say, through an airport, you could safely assume it was a professionally trained service dog. Today, not so much. So what are the differences among service dogs, therapy dogs and emotional support dogs and what are the legal ramifications of of these classifications?


Service dogs are specifically defined by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which supersedes any countervailing state laws, as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.  The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability. Which begs the question; What does “do work or perform tasks” mean? Simply put, it means the dog must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability. For example, a person with diabetes may have a dog that is trained to alert him when his blood sugar reaches high or low levels. Or, a person who has epilepsy may have a dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure and then help the person remain safe during the seizure. The critical elements are that: (1) the person has a disability recognized as such under the ADA, and (2) the dog is trained to perform a specific physical act that the person cannot perform as a result of their disability.

What service dogs are not – and the list is long and varied – includes comfort, emotional support, therapy and companion dogs. So, if you suffer from, for example, anxiety and the presence of your pet dog relieves or lessons your anxiety – a very real and well documented phenomenon – your dog does not

qualify as a service animal. It matters not that you purchased a fancy vest emblazoned with the title “Service Dog”, or that you answered some questions, paid some money and obtained a service dog “certification”. Since your dog has not been trained to perform an act that assist you with your disability, under the legally applicable definition, it is not a service dog. On the other hand, a dog trained to use a device that calls 911 or other assistance when you have a debilitating anxiety attack, could be properly classified as a service dog. The difference is that in the later situation it isn’t the dogs mere presence, but rather it’s specific training, that assist with the disability. This in no way diminishes how incredibly impactful a pet can be to our mental and physical well bein

As a professional who trains service dogs, I have witnessed in recent years an ever increasing number of people misrepresenting pet dogs as service animals. How do I know? The same way a plastic surgeon knows when she sees someone who has unquestionably had surgery they claim not to have had – its our job and thus obvious though not necessarily something one can prove. It is disconcerting in the extreme to see someone claim their clearly untrained and sometimes ill mannered dog is a service animal just so they can travel or enter a restaurant with their pet. Is it illegal? Depending on what state your in, yes. Is it unethical and wrong? Yes, irrespective of where you are. An enormous amount of time, talent, effort and money goes into the training of most service dogs and the virtual explosion of “fakes” makes utilizing qualified dogs progressively more difficult.

Therapy Dogs

A therapy dog is a dog trained to provide a calming, pleasing effect to people in settings such as hospitals, nursing homes and schools. Typically, their job is just be petted and loved on and to return that love to those in need while exhibiting only the best of manners. Such dogs usually take and pass a test administered by one of the nationally recognized organizations that certify therapy dogs. Certification is almost always required by the hospitals or other institutions that utilize their services, but this is not a legal requirement. Therapy dogs are not service dogs and thus are not allowed access to places open to the public that exclude pets like restaurants, movie theaters, etc. 

Emotional Support and Companion Dogs

This is a category created by the airline industry in an effort to accommodate customers who had psychological or emotional needs eased by the presence of pets that would not qualify as service animals. Unfortunately, the accommodation was abused by many who claimed that everything from snakes to chickens were “Support animals” and most airlines have now either vastly restricted or eliminated this category of pet from their cabins. Service dogs are, of course, still permitted to fly.

Service dogs are special, devoted and highly trained animals that deserve our respect and admiration and whose work should not be diminished just because many of us (me included) would like our pets to be with us all the time.