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Understanding Roles: Service Dogs, Emotional Support Animals and Therapy Dogs

Service dogs, emotional support animals (ESAs), and therapy dogs each play distinct roles in supporting individuals' mental and physical well-being, but they serve different purposes and have varying levels of training and legal recognition. While Circle of Change Dog Programs does not provide service dogs, we do get to work with many dogs that have jobs. Unfortunately, many well-meaning individuals can get very confused on the various roles and rights of dogs that play an important role in individuals' well-being.

Service Dogs:

Service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks to assist individuals with disabilities. These disabilities may be physical, such as mobility impairments, or invisible, such as epilepsy or PTSD. Service dogs undergo rigorous training to perform tasks that mitigate their owner's disability, such as guiding the blind, alerting to the onset of seizures, providing stability for individuals with mobility impairments, or assisting with tasks of daily living for individuals with psychiatric disabilities.

Service dogs are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the United States, allowing them to accompany their handlers in public places, including restaurants, stores, and public transportation. Handlers of service dogs are granted legal rights to access these places with their canine companions, regardless of any pet policies.

Emotional Support Animals (ESAs):

Emotional support animals provide comfort and companionship to individuals with emotional or psychological conditions. Unlike service dogs, ESAs do not require specialized training to perform specific tasks. Instead, their mere presence helps alleviate symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD, or other mental health issues.

ESAs are recognized under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) in the United States. This means that individuals with ESAs are allowed to live in housing that otherwise prohibits pets and are permitted to travel with their animals in the cabin of an aircraft, provided they have appropriate documentation from a licensed mental health professional.

Therapy Dogs:

Therapy dogs are trained to provide comfort, affection, and support to people in various settings, such as hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and disaster areas. Unlike service dogs, therapy dogs are not individually trained to assist a specific person with a disability. Instead, they undergo training to be well-behaved, calm, and friendly in various environments, allowing them to interact safely with people of all ages and backgrounds.

Therapy dogs work with handlers who volunteer their time to visit institutions and events where their presence can benefit others. They are not granted the same legal rights as service dogs to accompany their handlers in public places, but they play a valuable role in providing emotional support and companionship to individuals in need.

Service dogs, emotional support animals, and therapy dogs serve different roles in supporting individuals' mental and physical well-being. While service dogs assist individuals with disabilities through specific tasks, ESAs provide emotional support to those with mental health conditions, and therapy dogs offer comfort and companionship to people in various settings. Understanding the distinctions between these roles is essential for ensuring proper training, legal recognition, and appropriate access rights for each type of assistance animal.

For more information on Service Dogs, Emotional Support Dogs, and Therapy Dogs please visit

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