What are the differences between Therapy Pets and Service Dogs? 

Most people don’t know the difference or even that there is a difference. We’ll quickly cover what both pets are and what they are not, and we’ll cover at the end the biggest differences that you should be aware of if you are at all considering either.

What are Therapy Pets?

Therapy pets provide emotional support to their owners. They are responsible to give care, affection, and comfort to individuals. Therapy pets must have a relaxed and calm temperament. This helps them to give physiological and psychological support to individuals. They are encouraged to interact and provide emotional support to different kinds of people. In contrast, service dogs are required to support only their handlers.

They may visit hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and retirement homes to provide therapeutic support to individuals suffering from mental disorders like depression, anxiety, mood swings, and loneliness.

Unlike service dogs they are not required to perform tasks. Therapy pets help to give a feeling of relaxation to individuals with whom they interact. Many schools also use therapy pets to help children deal with stress. 

Golden Retriever
Guinea Pigs

Therapy Pets Training

Therapy pets do not require special training or certifications to provide emotional support to individuals. Still, there are many institutions that provide training to therapy pets. The training depends upon the field in which the therapy pets will be used. For example, some therapy pets may be used to help children relieve stress or speak loudly in front of people. This can be done by letting the children read in front of therapy pets like dogs. 

They can be trained to help people develop cognitive and social skills. Some facilities may require the pets to undergo certain tests to recognize them as therapy pets. This is necessary to determine their obedience level and whether they sometimes get loud or have a tendency to jump on individuals.

Legal Status of Therapy Pets

Therapy pets do not come under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Federal Housing Act. Because of this they do not have the special legal protections that service dogs enjoy. Public places and businesses are not bound to permit entry of service pets on their premises.  Individual facilities may allow or deny entry of therapy pets upon their own discretion.

Popular Therapy Pets

  • Dogs – Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever, Poodle
  • Cats – Sphynx Cats
  • Birds – Parrots
  • Reptiles – Turtles
  • Smaller Animals – Guinea Pigs, Rabbits

What are Service Dogs?

Service dogs are dogs who have been given the training to provide support to individuals with disabilities. They can help their owners to perform tasks which they cannot do on their own. This could range from opening the door to taking out clothes from the washing machine. Service dogs are extremely helpful for disabled people. 

It is important to know that service dogs are considered “working animals” and not pets. Service dogs can also be trained to sense the change in the health of their owners like a drop or increase in blood sugar levels. Similarly, there are several tasks that service dogs are trained to perform.

Some activities that Service dogs can perform for people with disabilities are – 

  • Act as a guide for visually impaired or blind
  • Alert deaf owners about an alarm, phone ring and other sounds
  • Pick up objects that have fallen like keys 
  • Retrieve objects like phones and medicines
  • Pull owners on a wheelchair
  • Remind people with mental illness to take their medications
  • Calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Order (PTSD)
service dogs
service dogs

Service Dog Training

Service dogs are trained to perform different tasks for their owners. They are also trained to be calm and friendly in public. As they will spend most of their time with their owner, they need to be well-behaved and not create any nuisance. This is done by providing early socialization to service dogs and exposing them to different sounds and animals. There are many charities and organizations that train service dogs. 

Depending upon the owner’s disability needs, a suitable breed is paired with them. For example, a person who needs to be towed in a wheelchair would need a large service dog who is powerful and muscular. A Labrador Retriever would be a suitable pair for them.

The selected dog is introduced to the owner with a disability and is trained to perform the activities that would be helpful for the person. It can take 1 to 2 years for the dogs to finish their training before they are given to their new owners.

The selected dogs are given basic obedience and socialization training in the first year. This is necessary because the dog would be required to access public facilities with their handler. They must learn to sit quietly beside their owners and follow their commands in public places. In the second year, the dogs are trained in more advanced skills that they would be required to perform for their handlers. This varies depending upon the requirements of the handler. The handler may have to visit the training camps to help the dog get along and learn how to assist them. It is during this time the service dogs will be tested for their abilities to handle the medical conditions of the handler.   

Professional organizations involved in service dog training have high standards with a dropout rate of 50 to 70 percent. The selected dogs must have a balanced temperament, be physically fit, and be dedicated to work for their handlers.  Only the best dogs are eventually selected. 

Legal Status of Service Dogs

They are recognized under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as service animals. ADA has framed guidelines to allow handlers to be accompanied by their service dogs in public places like restaurants, malls, parks, or grocery stores. Businesses and organizations cannot deny entry of service dogs to their premises. Their staff cannot ask if the person has any disability or for their medical certifications.

There only two questions the staff can ask –

  • If the dog is a service animal required to assist in any disability
  • What are the tasks the dog is trained to perform

ADA also requires the handlers to have their service dogs on leash or harness. The only exception to this is if it prevents the service dog from doing the tasks they are required to perform. The handler has to maintain control of the service dogs using the leash or using voice or sign commands. ADA allows an exception for individual facilities to remove a service from their premises if the dog is not under the control of their handler.

Popular Service Dogs

  • Labrador Retriever
  • Greyhound
  • German Shepherd
  • Golden Retriever
  • Poodle
service dogs

The differences between Therapy Pets and Service Dogs

The main difference is that service dogs go through an extensive amount of training to weed out the dogs that lack the focus or discipline to become a Service Dog.  Service Dogs are almost exclusively dogs, hence the name Service Dogs. While the selection process and training eliminate most dogs from being a Service Dog, just about any animal can be a Therapy Pet.

There is next to no training to be a Therapy Pet, and because they do not have the training, or perform specific tasks other than possibly calming their owners, they do not have the same privileges given to Service Dogs.  This is not to say that they do not have a valid function in maintaining the health and well being of their owners, but society does not put them on the same level as a Service Dog would get.

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