Dogs That Lend a Helping Paw

Both the therapeutic and practical value of dogs and other animals has been pretty well established and accepted around the world.  You have probably heard of both service animals and therapy animals, but what really defines the difference between the two?  The definitions are very specific, but also easy to understand.  It actually depends on who is benefiting from the dog.

A service animal is trained to work for the benefit of the owner or handler.  In contrast, a therapy dog is trained to benefit someone other than the owner.  The only two types of service animals that actually exist, legally, are dogs and miniature horses.  However, many types of therapy animals exist.  This discussion will focus on dogs specifically.

service_dogsTherapy Dogs

If your dog has the right temperament and training, getting them certified to be a therapy dog can be a fulfilling, fun and philanthropic use of your time and your pet’s time.  The best place to start is the Pet Partners Therapy Animal Program website.  Once a dog is certified to be a therapy animal, based on a series of relatively simple tests, they may visit nursing homes, hospitals or other places where people may benefit from their company.

Studies show that the presence of dogs or simply petting a dog (or other animal) can improve physical health, including reducing blood pressure, heart rate and cholesterol as well as improving mental health.  The company of dogs can trigger “happy” brain chemicals such as oxytocin.  Owning a pet offers these same benefits, but therapy dogs often allow individuals to be exposed to animals who may not otherwise have the opportunity.

Service Dogs

A service animal or service dog  is quite a different from a therapy dog.  Again, the beneficiary of the dog (and potentially its unique training) is the owner or handler.  In addition, to be considered a service animal the dog must be trained to perform tasks that alleviate symptoms of the disability of the owner.  The dog must independently recognize the need for that task to be performed.  This means the owner or handler need not give a cue or signal of some kind to have the animal do certain tasks that help them.  For example, a dog may be trained to respond in some way when someone has a seizure.  The dog must know on its own when that is happening and exactly how to respond without someone intervening to direct them.  Also, the owner of the dog must first have a professionally diagnosed and recognized disability to qualify to receive a service animal.

Most people are familiar with or have heard of guide dogs.  Guide dogs for visually impaired individuals are one type of service animal.  Hearing dogs, mobility assistance dogs, seizure response dogs, medical alert dogs and psychiatric service dogs are other examples.

There is actually one other category of assistance animal that exists in the context of mental health assistance.  Emotional support animals are animals or dogs that benefit the owner or handler, like a service animal.  However, the description of what they do for the owner is less specific.  Their presence alone may help alleviate symptoms of the owner or handler’s disability, or they may be trained to do much more than that.

Why the Title Matters

Why are all these distinctions important?  The specific designation can actually have legal implications for the owner or handler of a service animal or emotional support animal.  Emotional support animals and their owners don’t have as many legal rights as service animals when it comes to accessing public places, but can still go on airplanes or live in spaces that might not otherwise allow animals if proper documentation is supplied.

A service animal may also accompany the owner on domestic flights and live in places that don’t otherwise allow animals.  In addition to that though, they have access to all places, including commercial and government buildings, where the public is generally allowed.  Individuals that own service dogs are entitled to reasonable accommodation or alteration when accompanied by their service dog into these places.  Additional rights or laws may be involved at the state or local levels.

It is important that these laws be taken seriously and not abused by those merely wanting to travel or go to dinner with their dog.  While we would all love to have our dogs with us wherever we go, bringing dogs into public places without proper professional training and knowledge may jeopardize the rights of those who really need this access and assistance.

Our next blog post will delve into how assistance dogs apply specifically to individuals with mental health disabilities, an exciting and cutting edge use of assistance animals.  Bed and Biscuit Austin works closely with Aspire Assistance Dogs.  They specialize in helping those with mental disabilities acquire assistance dogs.  If you are interested in finding out how you can get involved, please send an email to, or give us a call at Bed and Biscuit Austin!

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