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Is there anything more comforting than the reassuring touch of a dog? Scientists have discovered that interacting with animals boosts levels of oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin in our brains, and can even improve our immune system.

These findings prove that dogs bring comfort to the people they interact with, but what exactly is a comfort dog? The term is typically used to describe a type of dog known as a “crisis response” dog. Crisis response dogs are different from therapy dogs and emotional support animals (ESAs), but the distinctions can get confusing, so we’ve broken it down below.

What Are Crisis Response Dogs?

Crisis response dogs are trained to handle stressful, crowded situations so that they can help people remain calm in disasters. Not all therapy dogs have the temperament to be crisis response dogs.

These dogs assist people struggling with the aftermath of natural disasters, like hurricanes, fires, floods, epidemics, and tornadoes. Teams of certified crisis response dogs and their handlers also aid individuals affected by man-made disasters. You may have seen footage of canines greeting students returning to campus after a school shooting, or heard about crisis response dogs helping communities recover from acts of terrorism.

Several agencies provide certified crisis response teams to community and government organizations. When a crisis occurs, these agencies reach out to their teams to see who is nearby and available to help.

Hadley Kemp, 3, and Landon Nugent, 8, of Virginia Beach, Va., pet Crisis Response Canine Gunther handled by John Hunt during a Courthouse Community United Methodist Church prayer service in Virginia Beach, Va., on Monday, June 3, 2019. Credit: The Virginian-Pilot Newspaper

John Hunt, co-founder of Crisis Response Canines, and Gunther, his 5-year-old Rottweiler, travel across the country in response to mass shootings and disasters. The organization, based in Sicklerville, New Jersey, provides mental first aid for survivors and victims and their loved ones.

“We can’t change what happened,” says Hunt, “but we can certainly prompt a few smiles and conversations from those who have cried their hearts out and not wanted to interact with anyone until now.”

A good crisis response dog is:

  • Not afraid of strangers
  • Not bothered by crowds
  • Outgoing, but calm
  • Trained and socialized
  • Unbothered by loud noises such as crying or screaming
  • Unbothered by children or adults in distress

Crisis Response Dogs vs. Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs are privately owned canines. These dogs and their owners volunteer in places like schools, hospitals, and nursing homes. Therapy dogs and crisis dogs are not considered service animals. Owners of therapy and crisis dogs do not benefit from the same legal accommodations as those with specially trained service dogs such as guide dogs. Still, these dogs fill an important role in bringing joy and comfort to the many different people they visit.

As a general rule, therapy dogs should be trained, insured, and licensed by the non-profit that’s offering their services.

Therapy dogs should have a calm temperament, be unfazed by unfamiliar noises and movements, be comfortable being handled, and love people. If you think your canine companion has what it takes to be a therapy dog, check out the AKC’s therapy dog title program.

Crisis Response Dogs vs. Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals (ESAs) provide comfort to their owner and only their owner. Unlike service dogs, ESAs are not trained for specific tasks or duties. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), owners of  service dogs receive special accommodations for their dogs. Owners of ESAs do not. As of 2021, U.S. airlines are no longer required to accommodate ESAs as service dogs; but if the airline chooses, they may allow ESAs to travel as pets in an under-seat carrier or as cargo. Owners are now responsible for any associated fees. See AKC Government Relation’s flyer for more information on the topic.

While certain agencies provide certification and training for crisis response dogs and therapy dogs, an emotional support dog requires only a prescription from a mental health professional.

It is important to note that there are individuals and organizations that sell service animal certification or registration documents online. These documents do not convey any rights under the ADA and the Department of Justice does not recognize them as proof that the dog is a service animal.

Knowing the difference between a crisis response dog, therapy dog, and ESA is important. And if you own a dog with the right temperament, volunteer therapy work provides an excellent opportunity to give back to your community.
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