Difference Between a Service Dog and a Therapy Dog

Dogs have long been known for their loyalty and affection towards humans. They have an innate ability to understand and provide comfort to those in need. In recent years, the use of dogs in various therapeutic settings has gained significant popularity. Two types of dogs commonly used for therapeutic purposes are service dogs and therapy dogs. While both are trained to assist humans, there are significant differences in their roles and training.

What is a Service Dog?

A service dog is an assistance dog specially trained to support people suffering from health challenges such as diabetes, visually impairments or blind individual, hearing impairments or deaf individual, mental disorders, epileptic seizure, and mobility impairment.

The breeds of dogs used for this purpose are the ones that are least aggressive and in general good health which includes well built, vigor and good stature. Though dogs of almost any breed have the capability to function as service dog specific ones are easy to train and work better in assisting humans with normal tasks.

The service dogs enable the patients to complete tasks beyond their limit, which would not be possible in the hands of a handler. The service dog is trained by private professional trainers as well as the physically challenged individual.

The rights for people with disabilities to move around with their service dogs perhaps to the restaurants, stores, schools, car parks or airplanes is protected by the America with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Air carrier Access Act, and DOJ/HUD Fair Housing Act and Federal Rehabilitation Act.

Dogs are however, only allowed in schools if following criteria is met according to the Fair Housing Act (FHA) −

  • If the owner is disabled.

  • If the individual has documents that support the health issues as well as the approval to train service dogs.

  • The dog is trained to perform tasks for the individual.

Service dogs also have permits to be in schools by the directive of ADA, however, the school is not responsible for the service dog. The owner takes the full responsibility of the misbehavior of their dog.

What are Therapy Dogs?

Therapy dogs are dogs trained to offer emotional support to victims of natural disasters, patients in the hospitals, hospices, and nursing houses as well as phobic and autism individuals.

They as well offer affection and comfort to people in the retirement homes and schools. Therapy dogs can also serve as service dogs, based on the needs of the handler. However, they are not allowed to move freely in the public, but are definitely allowed in the organisation and facilities in which they function.

Therapy dogs are formalized, as they are not protected by the Federal Housing Act. They are also not trained to offer assistance to specific individuals, and under the regulation of America with Disabilities Act (ADA) they do not deserve to be called service dogs. Therapy dogs are trained by individuals but subjected to different organizations requirements before they are adopted and accepted to treat the different patients.

A typical therapy dog has to fulfill these following requirements under an organisation examination and evaluation −

  • Ability to deal with sudden loud noise or strange noises.

  • Can walk on various unfamiliar surfaces.

  • It does not fret over people with canes or wheelchairs.

  • It does not fret over unusual functioning people.

  • It must be able to relate well with children and elderly people in the community.

Therapy dogs are allowed within specific institutions to assist students in easing stress, and anxiety especially during the examination period. They are also used to aid the reading habit of children. Therapy dogs were once used in Florida after a shooting incident in school to aid students in getting back to the normal school routine. The golden retriever is the best dog breed used as a therapy dog, mostly because of their calmness and great attitude towards strangers.

Differences: Service Dog and Therapy Dog

A service dog is a specially trained dog that assists individuals with disabilities to carry out specific tasks. They are trained to perform tasks that are directly related to the individual's disability. These tasks can include guiding individuals with visual impairments, alerting individuals with hearing impairments, pulling a wheelchair, retrieving items, opening and closing doors, and many more. Service dogs are trained to work in a variety of settings and are often referred to as working dogs.

In contrast, a therapy dog is a dog trained to provide comfort and affection to individuals in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and other settings. They are not trained to perform specific tasks related to a person's disability. Instead, they offer emotional support to people in need. Therapy dogs can help reduce anxiety and depression, improve mood, and even help with pain management.

The training for a service dog is much more extensive than for a therapy dog. Service dogs go through rigorous training that can take up to two years. They are trained to perform specific tasks related to the individual's disability and must be able to remain focused on their work. Service dogs must be trained to ignore distractions and remain obedient to their handler's commands.

They must be able to work in a variety of settings, including busy public places like airports, shopping centers, and restaurants.

Therapy dogs, on the other hand, undergo basic obedience training, socialization training, and specialized training to prepare them for work in therapeutic settings. Therapy dogs must be friendly and calm, and they must enjoy interacting with people. They are trained to respond to their handler's commands and remain calm in a variety of situations. Therapy dogs must be comfortable around people of all ages and backgrounds.

The requirements for certification and training also differ for service dogs and therapy dogs. Service dogs are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and there are specific requirements that must be met for a dog to be considered a service dog. Service dogs must be trained to perform specific tasks related to an individual's disability, and they must be trained to behave appropriately in public. Service dogs are also required to be up to date on all vaccinations and must have a clean bill of health from a veterinarian.

Therapy dogs, on the other hand, are not protected under the ADA, and there are no specific requirements for certification. However, therapy dogs must undergo basic obedience training and pass a temperament test before they can be certified. The therapy dog's handler must also undergo training to ensure they can handle the dog properly in therapeutic settings.

The following table highlights the major differences between a Service Dog and a Therapy Dog −


Service Dog

Therapy Dog


A service dog is trained to offer support to people with disabilities, in performing certain tasks.

A therapy dog is trained to offer emotional support for victims of natural disasters, and varying emotional trauma.

Legal Protection

Service dogs are protected by the American Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Federal Housing Acts (FHA) or its equivalent.

Therapy dogs are not protected by the ADA and FHA.

Public Access

Service dogs are allowed access public places such as hotels, restaurants, stores and other public places, however, the owner has the full responsibility of any misbehavior of the service dog.

Therapy dogs are not allowed in public prohibited areas.


Service dogs are often used by people with disabilities to perform tasks.

Therapy dogs are used help people cope with emotional distress or recovery.


In conclusion, while both service dogs and therapy dogs offer valuable assistance to humans, there are significant differences between the two.

Service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks related to a person's disability and are protected under the ADA. They undergo extensive training and must be able to work in a variety of settings. In contrast, therapy dogs are trained to provide emotional support and comfort to individuals in therapeutic settings. They undergo basic obedience training and specialized training to prepare them for their work.

While the roles of these two types of dogs differ, they both play an essential role in improving the lives of humans.

Updated on: 25-Apr-2023


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