The Difference Between Service, Emotional Support, and Therapy Animals
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Knowing the Differences Between Service, Emotional Support, and Therapy Animals

Knowing the Differences Between Service, Emotional Support, and Therapy Animals

Consider the following story as it relates to this week’s topic.

Last week at the grocery store, Brad and I saw an adorable dog and I immediately wanted to pet it. Its handler, however, told us that the pup was his “service dog” and could not be distracted. The following day at the park, we saw an “emotional support dog,” according to her owner. And now my sister, Nathalie, who is in the hospital, tells me that a “therapy dog” has been brought by to provide her with some company. How exactly do these types of dogs differ from each other?

Have you been to an airport, mall, park, or other public location lately and seen a dog wearing a vest to indicate its profession? These animals are much more prevalent in public these days. But what exactly is their purpose and what should the public know about them? Our Tampa therapists and psychologists want to shed some light on this topic.

Service Animals

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal is “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”

That is to say, these dogs are trained to pull wheelchairs, open doors, pick up dropped items like a phone or TV remote control, help with mobility and balance, or even remind a person to take medication. In short, service animals perform tasks that are related to the individual’s disability.

Service dogs are allowed in public spaces like hospitals, grocery stores, and restaurants. Dogs that fit the ADA’s definition of a service animal, due to the training they’ve received and tasks they perform, include:

  • Guide dogs
  • Seeing-eye dogs
  • Hearing or signal dogs
  • Psychiatric service dogs
  • Sensory or social signal dogs (SSigDOGs) for children with autism
  • Seizure response (or alert) dogs

Emotional Support Animals

As per the ADA, emotional support animals, comfort animals, and therapy dogs are not considered service animals. Emotional support animals provide companionship, help ease loneliness, and can even help with depression, anxiety, or phobias and are often used as part of a medical or mental health treatment plan.

They are not necessarily trained to do specific things to benefit an individual with a disability and are not allowed in all public spaces like service animals are. However, they are allowed to live in non-pet-friendly housing and can travel via public transportation under the Fair Housing Amendments Act and Air Carrier Access Act, respectively.

Another thing to know is that emotional support and therapy animals are not limited to just dogs. There are also emotional support pigs, macaws, ferrets, and others.

Therapy Animals

Similar to emotional support animals, therapy animals offer therapeutic contact. However, this is usually done in a clinical setting with the purpose of “improving physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning.” Therapy animals provide their comfort to people in places such as:

  • Hospitals
  • Nursing homes
  • Rehabilitation facilities
  • Hospice facilities
  • Schools
  • Rice Psychology Group

While many therapy animals may not be specially trained to assist with a person’s disability, they can be trained to provide comfort in specific ways. There are a variety of different organizations that provide therapy dog certifications such as Therapy Dogs International ( and Pet Partners ( At the very least, therapy dogs should pass the AKC Canine Good Citizen test and receive a certificate.

Our Tampa Therapists and Psychologists Love Dogs!

As you may know, Rice Psychology Group usually has a dog or two in the office. Our current therapy dogs are Milo and Primera. They provide comfort and sometimes specific therapeutic interventions for the kids and adults we see. They don’t always wear their vests when they are “working” but are definitely on the job at the office!

If you or a loved one is ready to talk about something that’s been on your mind, know that Milo and Primera are here to help! Our therapy dogs are here to snuggle next to you and give the comfort needed as you or your loved ones talk, play, or otherwise work through important issues. Contact us in Tampa today for more information about our services.

About Rice Psychology

Rice Psychology Group is home to a team of psychologists who work tirelessly to help adults, adolescents and children deal with their issues. Whether you’re currently dealing with depression, going through a divorce or fighting an issue you just can’t understand, know that our Tampa psychologists are here to help.

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