Local | Pets

Service dogs and therapy dogs have different roles in helping humans

The term “service dog” has become a generic term for describing the activities of three types of working dogs: service, therapy and emotional support. They are, however, all different.

Service dogs

A college student with visual impairment, an older adult with mobility issues, a teenager who is a type 1 diabetic, a young man with bipolar disorder and PTSD — all are able to lead active and productive lives thanks to the help of their service dogs.

Service dogs are specifically trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability and/or chronic health issue. The tasks performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability, such as picking up objects from the floor, retrieving the phone, help with rising from a chair and more. Here is one success story:

Linnea Doumas and Chai (Courtesy Handi-Dogs)
Linnea Doumas and Chai (Courtesy Handi-Dogs)

Linnea Doumas, a college student at the University of Fairbanks, lives with her English Lab, Chai, in a dorm on campus. Linnea has optic nerve hypoplasia, which causes severe myopia (nearsightedness) and depth perception problems. Chai is trained to warn Linnea of obstacles such as steps, curbs and low hanging branches.  Chai has given Linnea more confidence about coming into new places. “I can look around rather than focus on where I am walking,” she says.

Linnea enjoyed working with professional trainers to train Chai. “I especially liked that the trainer not only helped teach the dog a behavior, but taught the owner how to teach it to them. I also liked that each dog is trained specifically for the behaviors the owner thinks will be helpful to them, even if it’s not one commonly needed.”

Service dogs have public access rights in public accommodations (such as stores and restaurants), government buildings, airline travel and housing. These rights are included in the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Act. Businesses are allowed to ask if the dog is required because of a disability and what work or task the dog is trained to perform.

Service dogs are required to behave appropriately in public. An owner may be asked to remove their service dog if the dog is not being controlled or if the dog poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others.

Therapy dogs

A child reads quietly to a Labrador retriever at a library. Children at a Boys & Girls Club play dog bingo with a standard poodle. A boxer mix gives comfort to a family at an in-patient hospice. A Labradoodle visits with folks in the memory care unit of a local nursing home.

Chablis, a therapy dog, visits hospitals and other facilities.
Chablis, a therapy dog, visits hospitals and other facilities.

Therapy dogs are pets who serve as friendly visitors, volunteering with their handlers in a variety of places. Therapy dogs visit health care and behavioral health facilities, shelters, schools, libraries and any place where a wagging tail might be invited and appreciated. Some pet therapy programs also include other animals, such as cats, rabbits, birds and miniature horses.

Therapy dogs are generally screened and evaluated by an organization that sets guidelines for appropriate behaviors while visiting. These organizations often work directly with facilities to establish standards that allow the therapy teams to be invited into their locations.

Therapy dogs do not have public access rights. They must have permission to visit.

Emotional support/comfort dogs

These dogs are important to people with certain anxiety disorders, depression or other emotional issues. Their mere presence provides comfort to their owner. They are not service dogs because they have not been trained to do a specific task or perform work for their owner.

They do not have public access rights. However, a note from a doctor can help with housing (the Fair Housing Act requires that there must be an identifiable relationship between the requested accommodation and the person’s disability) or air travel.

Diane Alexander is marketing and event coordinator at Handi-Dogs, a local 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that helps people train service and therapy dogs and educates the community about their  roles. Visit www.Handi-Dogs.org or call 326-3412.