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From farming to hunting to protection and more, dogs have been aiding and working with humans since ancient times. Service dogs, working dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support animals all fulfill important roles in their aid to humans, but the terms are not interchangeable. Each recognition is specifically defined, both in terms of the jobs undertaken and the legal rights offered.

What Do Service Dogs Do?

As defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service dogs are individually trained to perform specific tasks and to work with people with disabilities. According to the ADA, disabilities can be “physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disabilities.” The work of the service dog must be directly related to the handler’s disability. These are just some of the things a service dog can do:

  • Guide dogs help blind people navigate in the world.
  • Hearing (or signal) dogs alert deaf people to sounds, such as a knock on the door or a person entering the room.
  • Psychiatric dogs are trained to detect and lessen the effects of a psychiatric episode.
  • Service dogs help those in wheelchairs or who are otherwise physically limited. They may open doors or cabinets, fetch things their handler can’t reach, and carry items for their handler.
  • Autism assistance dogs are trained to help those on the autism spectrum. They can distinguish important sensory signals, such as a smoke alarm, from other sensory input. They may also alert their handler to repetitive behaviors or overstimulation.
  • Some service dogs that are trained to recognize seizures and will stand guard over their handler during a seizure or go for help.

Golden Retriever service dog laying down outdoors next to its handicapped owner.
©Belish -

What Rights Do Service Dog Owners Have?

The ADA mandates that service dogs have full public access rights, which means they’re allowed to go places where animals are typically forbidden. They can be brought into restaurants, stores, libraries, and other public spaces. They must be permitted in housing, even if other pets aren’t allowed.

Service dogs are also allowed on airplanes and other public transport. One caveat: each airline has its own rules regarding service dogs. Most require that the dog sits on the traveler’s lap or at their feet. Dogs cannot block the aisle or sit in the emergency exit row. Service dogs are exempt from the pet fees that airlines charge.

What Is a Working Dog?

A working dog is a purpose-trained canine that learns and performs tasks to assist its human companions. Detection, herding, hunting, search and rescue, police, and military dogs are all examples of working dogs. Working dogs often rely on their excellent sense of smell to help out where humans fall short.

Since working dogs are specifically trained to perform certain roles in certain locations, they’re not often subject to legal ramifications. When they’re on the job, however, working dogs shouldn’t be approached or petted. Doing their job properly requires a high level of focus without distractions.

Just a few of the jobs performed by working dogs include:

Search and Rescue

From missing persons cases to natural disasters, dogs have been an integral part in finding people in dire situations. Search and rescue (SAR) dogs can either use a scent in the air or of a specific object to find who they’re looking for. They can be used in many different situations, including disasters, cadaver searches, drowning situations, and avalanches. Bloodhounds are widely used in this role.

Explosives Detection

These canine heroes work with the police, Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and military to locate dangerous materials. The dogs go through an intense training course to learn how to locate and identify a wide variety of explosives and to alert their handlers of its presence. Breeds that excel in this kind of work include the German Shepherd Dog and Belgian Malinois.

German Shepherd Dog police dog sitting next to its handler in the street.
©Pixel-Shot -

Cancer Detection

Believe it or not, scientists were able to train Labrador Retrievers to sniff out cancer in patients’ breaths by smelling samples and sitting down in front of the one that was cancerous.  Cancer cells give off different odors than regular cells and change the way a person’s breath smells. A dog’s keen nose can tell the difference.  In one case in particular, the Lab correctly diagnosed the disease 98% of the time, whereas a commonly used test found the cancer only 10% of the time.

Allergy Alert Dogs

These dogs are trained to detect an allergen and its residue at schools, events, or activities and alert their owner.  Their training is similar to that of a police dog learning to track scents or drugs.  Breeds commonly trained as allergy alert dogs are the Poodle and the Portuguese Water Dog.

What Is a Therapy Dog?

Therapy dogs play a different helping role than service dogs and emotional support animals. They aren’t trained to live with a specific handler. Rather, these are dogs that, with their human teammate (often the dog’s owner), volunteer in clinical settings. These locations include hospitals, mental health institutions, hospices, schools, and nursing homes. These dogs provide comfort, affection, and even love in the course of their work. Therapy dogs are trained to be comfortable in new environments and to interact with different people. They should have a calm temperament, be unfazed by unfamiliar noises and movements, be comfortable being handled, and love people.

Do Therapy Dogs Have Legal Rights?

Although they’re defined as comfort dogs and often used in therapeutic settings, therapy dogs aren’t considered service dogs under the ADA. Therefore, they don’t have the same legal right to access in public spaces. There are no uniform state or national rules that regulate and certify therapy dogs, and different organizations have different guidelines. As a general rule, therapy dogs should be trained, insured, and licensed by the non-profit that’s offering their services.

German Wirehaired Pointer getting attention.
©rodimovpavel -

Can My Dog Be a Therapy Dog?

If you’re interested in volunteering and think your dog may be a great candidate to be a therapy dog, organizations like the Alliance of Therapy Dogs test dogs for their suitability and, if accepted, have guidelines that must be followed.

While it doesn’t certify therapy dogs, the AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) program offers their training program to organizations, and the CGC test is often a prerequisite required by therapy dog organizations.

What Do Emotional Support Animals Do?

Emotional support dogs have no definition or special access rights under the ADA. They may be trained for a specific owner, but they aren’t trained for specific tasks or duties to aid a person with a disability, and this is the main difference between ESAs and service dogs. They’re considered companion animals and can ease anxiety, depression, some phobias, and loneliness. In order to be considered an emotional support dog, a mental health professional must prescribe the ESA for a patient with a diagnosed psychological or emotional disorder, such as anxiety disorder, major depression, or panic attacks.

What Rights Do Emotional Support Animals Have?

Unlike service dog owners, ESA owners have only limited legal rights. Those rights typically require a letter of diagnosis from the owner’s doctor or psychiatrist. While they don’t have unlimited access to public spaces, the Fair Housing Act mandates “reasonable accommodations” for emotional support animals, even in buildings that don’t allow pets. As of January 2021, airlines aren’t required to accommodate emotional support animals.

Related article: Everything You Need to Know About Emotional Support Animals
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