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  • AMPP Pittsburgh

Service, Emotional Support, and Therapy Dogs. Oh My!

Selena Johnson CPDT-KA, FDM -- Phenomenal Canine Dog Training

Awareness of Service Dogs, Emotional Support Dogs (aka Emotional Support Animals), and Therapy Dogs has become exceedingly widespread over the last couple of decades, in large part due to the growth of the internet. Platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook host thousands of videos and photos of Service Dogs and Therapy Dogs doing their jobs and influencers documenting daily situations. Even popular media and news pages like NYTimes, Wall Street Journal, The Dodo, and Huff Post have all had content about these dogs.

Outside of the internet, more and more people are coming in contact with Service Dogs and Therapy Dogs as part of their daily lives. Colleges host Therapy Dog days, airports have Therapy Dog teams, more medical facilities are implementing Therapy Dog programs, and some businesses are bringing Therapy Dogs in periodically just for their employees. The proliferation of Service Dogs is a complex equation but changes in human medical practices, dog training, the Americans with Disabilities Act, our recent military conflicts, and overall awareness have caused the number of SD to increase significantly. Previously, Service Dogs were largely "seeing eye dogs" used for people with vision impairments and there were simply just not that many working dogs. However, there is an ever growing number of jobs a Service Dog can perform for their handler so we are seeing them working more often in the world.

In popular media and on social media, there is constant confusion about these three types of dogs. People don't realize that Service, Therapy, Emtional Support aren't just semantics but are different titles.

So, what’s the difference and why should we care?


Service Dog

“A Service Animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.” This means that the dog must be trained to mitigate a person's disability through specific actions. As of 2011, the ADA specified that these rules apply only to dogs or miniature horses, so other animals are not federally recognized in the United States as service animals.

Service Dogs can help with a variety of disabilities from being vision impaired to PTSD! Not all disabilities are visible and even if a disability is a psychological disability, dogs who are trained tasks to mitigate the disability are Service Dogs.

Service Dogs have public access rights to accompany their handlers to most locations including on mass transit. There are some exclusions and any service dog that is misbehaving or causing an unsafe situation can be asked to be removed. There is also no registry for service dogs or ID cards required.

Emotional Support Animal

Emotional Support Animals “provide therapeutic emotional support for individuals with disabilities (referred to in this guidance as a support animal).” They are not trained to do anything specific for their owners, the owners simply benefit from their presence. These animals provide routine, comfort, and other non trained services to their disabled owners.

The ADA does not define what an Emotional Support Animal is at all because they don't fall under the ADA. Instead we have to look at the HUD’s Fair Housing Act or FHA. Owners who obtain a letter from their medical professional describing their need for their pet can have an animal in most no-pet housing situation. The pet can be asked to be removed if it creates an unsafe or disrupted environment, so while they do not require special training, they should be reasonably well-behaved.

Therapy Dogs

Therapy Dogs provide stress relief and therapeutic benefits to people other than their handler. Therapy dogs are not the only species that can be registered, various organizations offer therapy cats, bunnies, horses, and more. Therapy Dogs are typically certified through an organization that evaluates them and provides the team with insurance policies.

While you may see Therapy Dogs in schools, hospitals, and airports, these animals must be invited to the location and are there for a short time to make people feel more at ease or provide another therapeutic benefit.


A brief overview of the laws for each type of working animal can be summarized in the image below. For more information, you can call the hotline numbers of each government section or visit the links below.

Why should we care?

If you are disabled, it’s important to know the laws surrounding your rights with your service dog or emotional support animal. Being able to cite the law correctly allows you to use services that will help you gain access or fight against discrimination.

If you are not disabled, knowing the laws around service dogs and emotional support animals will help you be an ally to your disabled friends, who are often wrongly denied access. Your voice can make a difference in those moments.

If you wish to make a difference with your dog, check out some of our local AMPP members who have Therapy Dog classes or are Therapy Dog testers/evaluators. If you’re disabled and are looking into obtaining or training a service dog, reach out and I’m happy to help guide you into what is best for you or reach out to other AMPP Service Dog trainers.

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