Dogs with Jobs: Emotional Support Dogs And Therapy Dogs

We’ve all seen working dogs in public while going about our daily lives helping their handler cross the street, going to the grocery store, and taking public transportation. These dogs typically have a bright-colored vest to alert everyone around them and their owner that they are a working dog.

Other working dogs include emotional support and therapy dogs, both of which tend to get confused with each other. After all, they both provide much-needed mental and emotional help to people, so it can be easy to get these canine occupations mixed up. 


So, what are the differences between emotional support dogs and therapy dogs? 

What Do Emotional Support Dogs Do? 

First things first, emotional support dogs aren’t considered service dogs. It’s easy to mistake these working dogs for service animals, but emotional support dogs do not require specific training because they only provide their owner with companionship and emotional support. 

So, if these dogs don’t require training, what makes them different from regular dogs? Emotional support dogs are licensed by a mental health professional through an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) Letter. This professional could be a therapist, doctor, counselor, social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist, or registered nurse.

Through this ESA Letter, the dog becomes designated or “prescribed” to provide mental and emotional support benefits to people with disabilities or mental and emotional health needs. 

Due to some public opinion about mental health, emotional support dogs aren’t always seen in a positive light. As a result, these working dogs are sometimes considered unnecessary or even an excuse for owners to bring their dogs everywhere.

However, your dog doesn’t get designated as an emotional support dog that easily. It takes more than asking your dog to get this title because emotional support dogs help their owners with often debilitating mental and emotional health challenges they struggle with daily. 


Some of the health conditions that a mental health professional can approve for an emotional support dog include:

  • Depression
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Postpartum Depression
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) 

Emotional support dogs don’t require a special vest or label that indicates them as “emotional support.” Still, finding a way to show others that the dog is working and not a regular pet is recommended. Having a special vest can also prevent strangers from approaching the dog, which could possibly spook the dog. 


So, if you see a dog in public wearing a vest or anything with a label reading “emotional support,” please do not try to pet or play with the dog. They may not have specific training to stay focused like a service dog, but the dog is still doing an essential job for their owner. Plus, they may view a stranger approaching their owner as a threat, so keeping your distance is essential.

However, if the dog seems friendly and is close by, politely ask the owner for permission to pet their dog. If the owner of the dog declines, be respectful and don’t take the rejection personally. If you have kids, this can be a teachable moment about always asking before petting someone else’s dog. 


What Do Therapy Dogs Do? 

Therapy dogs are used in animal-assisted therapy to give emotional support to people in hospital care, hospice, and nursing homes. These dogs also visit schools and daycare centers to visit children for educational or fun activities. 

Any dog can become trained and certified to be a therapy dog, regardless of breed, size, or age. However, this doesn't mean any dog can pass the training because the dog needs to be well-tempered, socialized, trained, gentle, and non-fearful.

Therapy dogs help to enhance the environment they’re in by providing children and adults with:

  • Comfort
  • Affection
  • Love
  • Fun
  • Connection
  • Socialization 

Unlike service dogs, where it's discouraged to approach or pet them, therapy dogs may be pet while on duty. Therapy dogs are sociable and interact with many people during their visits, so they're used to being approached by unknown people. 

So, because therapy dogs go through training to ensure that they have the best qualities for the training, are they considered service dogs? The answer is no. Although they have certification and training, therapy dogs don’t have the same legal status as service dogs.

Some institutions allow therapy dogs to access certain places where dogs are not permitted. However, service dogs have the legal protection needed to ensure their owner has equal access to public facilities. Whereas other dogs would not be allowed to enter these facilities. 


Now that you know the difference between these working dogs, you'll notice when you spot each of these dogs out in public. Use the tips above to see whether it's an emotional support dog or a therapy dog, so you know if it's safe or not to approach them. 

Remember to always respect each of these dogs while they are working and let other people know these key differences, so they don't approach emotional support dogs in public. Education is key to keeping everyone safe and comfortable, so share these tips with a friend!

Do you have an emotional support dog? Do you work with therapy dogs? If you’ve got a story, we would love to hear it in the Porch Potty Facebook group!

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