Dogs have been enriching our lives and working alongside us for thousands of years. While we may not have as much need for a herding dog on the farm, or protecting our properties, the jobs dogs perform have evolved to meet our needs. Service, therapy, Emotional Support (ESA), and other assistance dogs help make human lives easier through a variety of tasks. Read on to learn what the difference is between these types of working dog, and which may be right for you.

What Are Assistance Dogs?

An assistance dog is any dog that is trained to perform a specific task in assisting humans. This can broadly encompass other tasks dogs do such as helping with law enforcement or security. In this article, an assistance dog means a dog that is trained to help a person suffering from a physical or emotional disability. They also provide other support functions.

What Is a Service Dog?

When you think of assistance dogs, you likely think of a dog assisting an owner that is blind or disabled out in public. These dogs commonly wear vests and are focused on helping their owners. Service dogs encompass Seeing-Eye Dogs for the Blind, medical alert dogs, and a variety of other jobs.

        What They Do: Service dogs are specifically trained to assist their one person. They are often trained to perform a variety of tasks. In some cases, a service dog assists someone who is wheelchair-bound. Service dogs can also be alert animals for medical conditions such as seizures or fainting. Service dogs also help guide and navigate for blind owners. In other cases, service dogs are also trained to help calm down their owners or help in public spaces.

        Where They Can Go: Service dogs are able to go into nearly any establishment it is safe to do so under the ADA (American Disabilities Act) law. Dogs from specific organizations such as Seeing-Eye Dogs will have certifications of their service as well. However, in most states, it is not required to have a certification to be a service animal. Most service dogs will wear a vest with badging related to the task they perform, such as “medical alert dog” or “service dog”.

What Is a Therapy Dog?

If you’ve ever had to stay in a hospital, you may have come across a therapy dog. However, therapy dogs are found in many locations beyond the hospital bedside.

        What They Do: Therapy dogs are specially trained to provide therapeutic relief. They are often trained to be quiet, calm, and sociable when performing their duties. Therapy dogs often work in locations such as hospitals to provide stress relief. However, therapy dogs are becoming common in other locations, such as libraries to help young children gain reading confidence, or in universities to help with exam-time stress.

        Where They Can Go: Since a therapy dog is not a traditional service animal, there are greater restrictions on where they can go. Therapy dogs are not allowed in most locations, such as stores. However, most therapy dogs will have badging and certification to get into the locations they work at such as hospitals or libraries. Most therapy dogs will have a vest with “Therapy” or similar terminology on them when out in public.

What is an ESA Dog?

An Emotional Support Animal, or ESA, is a dog trained to assist in emotionally-taxing situations, or with non-physical disabilities. They can help their owners navigate locations and situations where the owner is too fearful or unable to go on their own.

        What They Do: ESA dogs are trained to assist their owner in a variety of situations. This can range from recognizing and stopping panic attacks, helping navigate public spaces, or recognizing and preventing self-harm. There is some overlap between an ESA dog and service dog in that some are trained to recognize a specific issue, such as a panic attack, and perform a duty to stop it. Most ESA dogs are recognizable by the working vest on them when out in public.

        Where They Can Go: ESA dogs can go almost anywhere a service dog can, however, there is some controversy over this. As the rules behind ESA dogs are laxer than service animals regarding training, there has been backlash against allowing these animals into all public spaces a service dog can go. Most ESA dogs also require special approval from a certified psychiatrist or psychologist.

Which Is Right for You?

Which assistance dog is right for you greatly depends on your personal situation. If you require assistance in day to day activities, or need a dog that can alert you to an incoming seizure or health issue, a service dog is likely best. If you suffer from panic attacks or other issues, ESA dogs could be the right choice for helping prevent and stop episodes. If you enjoy helping others, a therapy dog can be a great choice for community service.

Training and certification are important against the backlash over the rise of “fake” service animals. There has been an uptick in owners that simply want to bring their pets with them everywhere they go, claiming that they are “service” animals. Often times, this leads to a pet behaving badly or causing an injury. This is also harmful to those who legitimately need a service animal to assist them.

A good first step in choosing a dog is to speak with local training facilities near you. While most service animals do not have official licensing, it is important your dog is trained to perform the task you need them for. Thorough training includes basic obedience, Canine Good Citizen certification, as well as training in the specific task they are to perform. The better trained your dog is, the less likely you are to encounter issues when working out in public.

It can take years before a dog is trained enough to aid its owner. However, the right dog for you can mean the difference between being homebound or returning to normal activities. Even if you don’t personally need an assistance dog, knowing the differences can help you the next time you see a dog with a vest walking by.