Service, Therapy or Emotional Support Dogs...Who's Who?

by Lee Chambers

The supportive role of dogs in our lives has never been more prominent than it is now.  As a society we have designated some to be service dogs, some are therapy pets, and others are emotional support animals.  But what part does each play? 


Service dogs (otherwise referred to as “assistance dogs”) are specifically trained to help people who are visually or hearing impaired, have mental illnesses (that include post-traumatic stress disorder PTSD), mobility issues, seizure disorders and more.  They undergo a detailed training process tailored to the needs of their person, and the most popular breeds selected for this job are Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, a mix of both breeds, and German Shepherds.  While almost any breed of dog may be able to become a service dog, there are specific requirements regarding health and temperament. 

The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) protects and recognizes service dogs regarding housing issues.   Service dogs can go anywhere their person goes, and advance permission is not required for service dogs at some locations.  You’ll often see a service dog wearing a vest that identifies his role, but it’s not mandatory.  And while it may be tempting to approach these dogs and give them a friendly pat on the head, you shouldn’t.  A service dog’s duty is to be constantly alert and focused on their person to keep them safe. 

For more information about service dog training, or to apply for a service dog, visit


An emotional support animal (ESA) is typically a dog, but can be a cat or other animal.  These are companion pets that a medical professional has determined to be beneficial for someone with mental or physical disabilities.  No training is necessary to become an emotional support animal.

ESAs have been making headlines when it comes to where they can – and cannot – go with their person, especially if they are an exotic animal.  In January, a peacock was barred from a United Airlines flight because, according to the airlines, the animal “did not meet guidelines for a number of reasons, including its weight and size.”  In ordinary circumstances, people flying with their pets must put them in a cage that fits under the airline seat, or if that space is too small, the animal flies with the luggage.  Emotional support animals, on the other hand, are not required to be caged and their people are not charged the fees normally involved in flying with their pet.

Pre-existing laws that protect disabled people from discrimination in housing issues have come to recognize ESAs as necessary for some tenants’ well-being, and they can live with their people even in “no pets allowed” housing sites when the proper arrangements are made.  The Massachusetts Fair Housing Center serves people in western and central Massachusetts who wish to explore their rights in this regard.

If you’re a person with a disability as described above and want to explore your rights to have an assistance animal in rental housing, contact the Massachusetts Fair Housing Center at 413-539-9796.


The first program for therapy dogs started in the 1970’s, and since then, trained therapy dogs visit people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices and more, offering good cheer and a wagging tail.  Unlike service dogs who are focused entirely on their human companion, therapy dogs turn their attention outward, and must be able to be petted and handled by a wide variety of people.

The duties of a therapy dog are not legally defined, nor are they limited to working with people with disabilities.  Evaluation and registration for therapy dogs is available through many organizations, and typical testing may ensure that a dog can handle loud or sudden noises, can walk on unfamiliar surfaces, and not be afraid of people using canes, wheelchairs or other devices.  Some organizations that welcome therapy dogs require proof of specific training, some do not, so a formally trained therapy dog will have more options for visitation.

Therapy Dog Training sessions for people and their dogs are offered twice a year at Sandy Meadow Farm in Westfield.  More info here:

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