My dog often accompanies me to my office in Little Canada. Clients will visit and interact with her. I tell them she is a certified therapy dog, driving the question, “What is a therapy dog?” Many people unknowingly use animal and pet terminology incorrectly. There is a huge difference between a service dog and a therapy dog. A therapy dog can also be an emotional support dog. Emotional support pets are not all dogs. Not all emotional support pets are allowed on airlines in the passenger cabin. There are no service pets, only service dogs. Complicated, right?
It is important to know the difference about pets and animals when it comes to where you can take your pets, and what type of certification you may need. Lets begin with service animals. Only dogs can be service animals and they are always allowed in public. They are very highly trained and start training as very young puppies. Fostered until they pass their training, they are then matched with their owner based on the training they received. Service dogs are trained to anticipate, respond to, and assist their owners with medical issues and needs. For example, many blind people have service dogs that assist them navigate through public spaces. Service dogs can also be trained to bark to alert owners of immediate danger. Dogs can pick things up, open doors and perform other acts to assist owners. Service dogs seen in public are considered to be working and are highly focused. Owners do not appreciate strangers greeting or communicating with their dog while the dog is working. Always ask before you pet or approach a service dog.
Emotional Support Animals
Emotional support is very different from medical necessity. An emotional support animal (ESA) can be any animal, trained, or untrained. This means everything from dogs and cats to chickens and hamsters. Many individuals who suffer with mental and emotional health issues will bond with an animal and find great comfort in the animal’s companionship. An animal can also form a strong bond with an individual, but the bond is not required for the animal to be an ESA. The owner will take the animal with them for emotional support in difficult situations (e.g., medical treatments), and in other public places when needed. Often certification is required. Certification is for the owner, not the animal. Certification means a doctor or therapist certifies that the owner has a verified mental or emotional affliction, which may create the need for the ESA. The best example is airline flights. Despite the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allowing for ESAs in many situations, many airlines have strict regulations regarding emotional support animals. Certification is required and each airline has its own set of regulations. Certain types of animals are completely prohibited for the safety of the public. In addition, when it comes to the airlines, almost all allow for pet travel in the cabin or cargo bin. However, pets are in a different category from ESAs and have different regulations for transport. Make sure you know the rules before booking a flight.
Therapy animals are also certified and are usually seen in nursing homes, hospitals, airports, schools and other places. The therapy animal and its handler are considered a team, and both are certified. Handlers may or may not be the owner, but all therapy animals and handlers must be certified. The handler must follow a very strict set of rules and is a constant advocate and protector of the animal at all times when acting in its capacity as a therapy animal. Therapy teams must be invited to and accepted by the facility they visit. They must follow the facilities rules and regulations at all times or risk losing certification. National and local organizations will only certify certain kinds of animals for therapy work. The owner and animal must go through an evaluation before being certified. Handlers receive badges they must wear when doing therapy work. Even if you and your pet become a certified therapy team, it does not mean the animal can be taken on airplane as an ESA animal. Therapy animals do not have the same certification as emotional support animals. Also, you may see animals in nursing homes or hospice facilities that are not certified therapy animals. They are usually family pets allowed for visits with specific individual residents. Always call the facility first and ask about visiting with pets. While pets do not pass diseases to humans, pets can pose a minimum risk for the transmission of disease to patients or residents who are immunocompromised.
Please do the right thing, always follow the four A’s: Assess your pet for contact with the public, always protect and be considerate of your pet in public, always call ahead for permission and always get the proper certification and training when and if it is required.