What is the difference between a “therapy dog” and a “service/assistance” dog?

If you are looking for someone with a therapy dog to visit your facility, contact Therapy Dogs International, Inc. at (www.tdi-dog.org).

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The designations “therapy dog” and “service/assistance dog” can often times be confusing and are quite frankly regularly misused by professionals. This leads to even greater confusion in the general public when trying to differentiate these terms. The simplest way to understand the difference between a “therapy” dog and a “service/assistance” dog is this; a “therapy” dog is typically trained by you to work on a volunteer basis to benefit people other than yourself, such as patients you would visit in a hospital or nursing home; whereas a “service/assistance” dog is trained, usually by professional service dog trainers (not pet dog trainers), to assist you in your daily life. A service/assistance dog may be used to guide the blind, alert the deaf, and to provide mobility assistance, etc.

Whether you are seeking a service dog for yourself or a therapy dog to benefit others, there is a significant amount of time, energy and commitment involved in selecting and training the dog. The reality is that few dogs have the temperament for this type of work. This article is designed to go into some of the details about the differences between the two types of dogs in a legal sense as well as the requirements for temperament and training.


What is a therapy dog?

A “therapy dog” is someone’s pet that is highly trained, can be easily controlled around other dogs, is very social and enjoys interacting with all ages and types of people and has been tested and certified through a recognized therapy dog organization. Typically the dog is certified with one handler, usually the dog’s owner, as a therapy dog/handler team. Once certified these teams, if invited, may visit hospitals, nursing homes and other places for the purpose of interacting with residents of those facilities providing they maintain their certification. Unlike a service/assistance dog, a therapy dog and their handler have no special rights of access as defined in the Americans with Disabilities Act. You can find information on the legal definition of a service/assistance dog at: http://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm.

Who registers therapy dogs?

There are several therapy dog registries. Therapy Dogs International (http://www.tdi-dog.org ), PetPartners, formerly The Delta Society, (http://www.petpartners.org/ ) and Therapy Dogs Incorporated (https://www.therapydogs.com/) are three of the more well-known registries that have credentialed dogs in Maine. Each registry has its own test criteria, rules, evaluators and associated fees. Typically a dog/handler team may only be registered by one registry and evaluators usually are only certified by one registry.  The best place to get current information on each registry’s requirements is at their respective websites.

Does a therapy dog need to pass a test to be certified?

Reputable therapy dog registries will require a dog and handler team to pass a test prior to their being certified. This test is necessary to protect the public, the people, the facility the dog may visit and ultimately the therapy dog/handler team. The fees paid to therapy dog registries are used in part to pay for liability insurance that protects all parties in case of an accident such as a dog bite. There are some very disreputable places online where you can register your therapy dog and get a certificate without requiring a test. These “registries” typically do not include any insurance should an accident occur. The reality is that if you and your dog are not certified by a reputable organization, you could be financially liable for any and all damages and could possibly be subject to criminal charges should something go awry during a visit.

What are the test requirements to be a therapy dog?

The test criteria for most registries are usually a superset of the American Kennel Clubs (AKC) Canine Good Citizen Test. The following assessment is based on requirements of Therapy Dogs International. Registries typically require that the dog be at least one year of age, are current on all vaccinations, have a veterinary health certificate and are licensed by the state before they are eligible to be tested. Seldom are dogs mature enough or sufficiently trained where they can pass the test before 18 to 24 months of age. A dog must be able to sit, down and stay reliably when given a cue. Other basic obedience behaviors involve being able to walk with their handler on a loose leash, to come when called, and to leave things when asked to leave things. Additionally, dogs should be non-reactive to any type of person or dog and only minimally reactive to audible and visual stimuli. When your dog is at your side they should not move towards another dog or a person unless they have been released to do so. A dog that lunges or barks at a person or another dog during a test would be considered “not ready” and may not pass a test in the future. A dog must also allow a stranger to examine their paws, their eyes and to brush them without excessive wiggling and without growling or biting. A dog that paws at or mouths people would also be deemed “not ready.”

Based on my experience as a past TDI evaluator, the following parts of the test are the ones that are usually most difficult for a handler and their dog:

Reaction to Another Dog - This test demonstrates that the dog can behave politely around other dogs. Two handlers and their dogs approach each other from a distance of about 10 yards, stop, shake hands and exchange pleasantries, and continue on for about 5 yards. The dog should not show any kind of negative reaction or pull towards the other dog. The handler should not allow the dog to visit with the demo dog. Negative reaction means a dog showing signs of disobedience, aggression or avoidance (shyness). Having an excellent attention behavior and an automatic sit can be very helpful for passing this part of the evaluation.

Reactions to Distractions (Leave-It) – This test is in two phases.  In phase one a stranger will offer the dog a treat. The dog must ignore the food.  In phase 2, the handler, with the dog on a loose leash, walks past food on the ground (placed within a distance of three feet) and, upon command, the dog should ignore the food. If the handler spots the food, a command of leave it can be given and the dog is not permitted to pick up the food. If the handler does not see the food and consequently does not give a command, he or she is not scouting adequately. If the dog gets the food, they fail the test. As scavengers, dogs have a natural instinct to check out food. An excellent attention or leave-it behavior will help a dog pass this test.

Supervised Separation - This test demonstrates that a dog can be left with a trusted person, typically a stranger, and will maintain its training and good manners. The owner will go out of site for three minutes. The dog does not have to stay in position but should not bark, whine, or pull away from the person holding the leash. Dogs need to be well socialized and comfortable around all types of people, including strangers, in order to pass this part of the test. This is not so much a training issue as one of helping your dog learn to cope emotionally with being left with someone new in your absence. Lots of gradual practice is essential to passing this part of the test.

Visiting with a Patient - The TDI Certified Evaluator will test the willingness of each dog to visit a person and ascertain that the dog can be made readily accessible for petting (i.e. small dogs can be placed on a person’s lap or can be held, medium and larger dogs can sit on a chair or stand close to the patient to be easily reached.). Shyness, aggressiveness, jumping up and not wanting to visit are reasons for automatic failure. The evaluator should be looking for a dog that willing approaches and obviously wants to interact in a friendly manner yet, is not rambunctious. If a dog does not have an outgoing personality and is not interested in meeting people they may be able to pass the test but may not enjoy doing therapy work; asking such a dog to be part of a therapy dog/handler team is unfair. Dogs that have been trained to shake or do other things with their paws often fail this part of the test because they initiate contact with their paws without being cued to do so. For a patient taking blood thinning medicine in a nursing home or hospital, the risk of a scratch from a nail can be very serious, thus all pawing behavior should be discouraged.

Walking on a Loose Leash – Your dog’s ability to be under control while on a leash is tested throughout various parts of the TDI test. The dog must be wearing either a flat buckle or snap-in collar (non-corrective) or a harness (non-corrective). Pulling on the leash, jumping up, shyness, not wanting to visit, showing aggressiveness, not walking on a loose leash are all automatic failures. There must always be slack in the leash.

How can I get my dog prepared to pass the test?

If you have a young puppy and your hope is to someday become a therapy dog and handler team, the most critical thing you can do is to socialize, not overwhelm, your puppy in a positive manner before they are 16 weeks of age. Getting them accustomed to crutches, wheelchairs, different noises and flooring is crucial. Always keep in mind however, that even if you do everything right, this does not necessarily mean that your dog will be cut out to be a therapy dog.

From a training perspective you are not required to take any classes or even to train your dog in order to take a therapy dog test; however there is no question that it is very beneficial. It is rare that a dog and handler team not taking formal training class will actually pass an evaluation.  Typically a person would complete several dog training classes before they and their dog would be ready to take the test. For example, if you are starting with a young puppy, the optimal choice would be to go through Puppy Headstart, Basic Manners, and all upper level classes, maybe more than once. A class taught by someone who is familiar with the test is one of the best ways to prepare.

What happens if my dog does not pass the test?

If you and your dog take the test and you are not ready, you can usually take the test again. Most evaluators will suggest what you need to work on, although they don’t necessarily offer advice on how to train your dog to do better. Also, if an evaluator has concerns about your dog’s basic temperament, they may suggest other activities instead of therapy work. The fact is, not all dogs are suitable for being therapy dogs; that does not mean they are not great dogs.

What happens after my dog passes the test?

Once a dog and handler have passed a test they must then register with the therapy dog registry before they are considered certified. This typically involves submitting current veterinary records along with your application. One of the main benefits of registering, which is typically done annually and involves a fee, is the liability insurance that comes with the registration. If your dog were to hurt someone while working as a therapy dog, you would typically have some coverage. If your dog is not appropriately registered, you may be personally financially and legally liable for your dog’s behavior and subsequent actions. Institutions should require that you provide proof of registration and proof of insurance before allowing you and your dog to visit with people at the facility. Their failure to do so does not necessarily remove or limit your liability.

On a personal note, I always advise people that some dogs that can past the test may not enjoy doing therapy work. Your first responsibility is to your dog, not to the people you visit. If your dog does not enjoy therapy dog work or later shows signs that they no longer enjoy the work, it is time to stop.  Shed, one of our dogs, was certified with my wife, Paula, as her handler. Paula took Shed on one visit and although she was a real sweetheart, she clearly did not enjoy meeting and interacting with strangers. She retired after one visit. My dog Tikken and I did therapy work for a few years, but then one day she hesitated as we were entering one of the nursing homes we visited. When she did that I second time I knew she was ready to retire and I allowed her to do so.

So after we’re registered, how do we get started doing therapy work?

If you wish to visit healthcare facilities as a therapy dog/handler team, you should contact the facility ahead of time rather than just showing up with your dog. Typically it would be the activities director or volunteer director you will need to connect with to schedule your visits. Most facilities will need to see proof that you and your dog are certified and have insurance. They may also require that you go through their volunteer training program due to laws covering patient privacy and confidentiality.

Most registries require that you reregister and pay an annual fee to keep your certification and insurance current. Some may also require that you take the test again.

When is a therapy dog/handler team considered to be working?

Typically, a dog/therapy team is usually only considered to be working as a therapy team when; 1) they are with the certified handler, 2) they are volunteering their time, and 3) they are on a leash connected to the handler. If your spouse or partner is certified with your dog and you are not, the dog would not be considered to be a therapy dog when working with you. Most registries do not cover your dog when they are at your home or if you have your dog at your place of employment. If you are a mental health professional and want to use a therapy dog as part of your practice you should check with your employer and your personal insurance provider to make sure you have adequate insurance coverage. Likewise, if your dog were to bite someone in your home, it is doubtful that you would be covered by the registries liability insurance. Lastly, if you are not holding the leash and something happens, you may not be covered by the registries insurance.

What if I don’t have a dog but want to get one so we can become a therapy dog/handler team?

Not every dog is going to be able to pass the test to become the canine half of a therapy dog/handler team, so selecting the right dog will be very important in increasing the odds that your dog will pass. I strongly encourage you to work with a certified professional dog trainer that is familiar with the test criteria who can offer objective advice. In my opinion that means that they have absolutely no financial interest in your purchasing a dog or a puppy. Any organization or individual that is trying to sell you a dog may not always be as objective as possible about a dog’s potential for becoming a therapy dog. While puppy temperament tests have their place, there is no research that supports that they are predictive of a dog’s future suitability for therapy work. Nor does getting a puppy whose parents were therapy dogs guarantee that the puppy will pass a test at a future date. No one can guarantee that a dog will be suitable for therapy dog work.

Research studies have demonstrated that if either parent is shy or timid the puppies will be timid. Shyness or timidity is very likely to make a dog unsuitable for therapy dog work. Either the dog will find the work very stressful or will not be able to pass the test. Another major factor in a dog’s suitability will be their environment and training that occurs during their critical socialization period which occurs between eight and sixteen weeks of age. A certified professional dog trainer can be of great assistance in helping you develop a socialization and habituation plan for this period that optimizes a puppy’s odds of being good therapy dog material.

I personally believe that you will have the best probability of passing the test by getting a puppy that you socialize and train yourself with therapy work in mind. A dog’s temperament, a key factor in their suitability for therapy dog work, is determined in part by genetics. When choosing a puppy you will definitely want to meet the parents so you can assess their temperament. If you do not have experience in this area you would be advised to work with a certified professional dog trainer or certified dog behavior consultant who has experience in this area. They will not be able to guarantee that a puppy will pass a future therapy test, but they may be able to indicate that a puppy would be unlikely to pass a test.


How do I get my dog certified as a Service or Assistance Dog?

It is important to understand that there are not necessarily easy, simple answers to obtaining or certifying a dog as a service dog because there are legal issues involved as well as training issues. As previously mentioned, there is a great deal of confusion between the differences between therapy dogs and service/assistance dogs. As opposed to a therapy dog, a service/assistance dog does have special rights of access as defined in the Americans with Disabilities Act. You can find information on the legal definition of a service/assistance dog at: http://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm. Any specific questions you have about the legalities should be directed to a lawyer with expertise in this area.

Definitions – Service Dog

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and associated Federal regulations are the laws that allow access to public accommodations for people that require a service/assistance dog. The U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division’s definition of a Service Dog is:

Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.

This definition does not affect or limit the broader definition of “assistance animal” under the Fair Housing Act or the broader definition of “service animal” under the Air Carrier Access Act.

Some State and local laws also define service animal more broadly than the ADA does. Information about such laws can be obtained from the State attorney general’s office.

My understanding of this definition is that the owner of a service dog must have a disability and that the dog must be trained to perform specific tasks related to the disability. It does not say anything about the dog being “certified” as being able to perform those tasks. In fact there is no legal requirement for certifying, registering or licensing a service dog as a service dog, although there are places online that will take your money for doing so. Please understand that these are scams and that the only license your service dog may require is a municipal or state dog license; the same any pet dog may be required to have. For more information on organizations that are selling fake service dog certifications, check out this website: http://servicedogcentral.org/content/node/509.  This article, also from Service Dog Central discusses the consequences of fake and inadequately trained service dogs - http://servicedogcentral.org/content/node/595.

If you need a service dog, please make sure that you get one that is properly trained. If you do not meet the legal requirements for a service dog, please do not attempt to pass your dog off as a service dog. Doing so is not only a crime but also potentially threatens the access rights of those that truly do need a service dog.

A business or other public facility may only ask an individual with a service dog two questions: 1) is your dog a service dog and 2) what tasks has your dog been trained to perform for you. They cannot require an individual to present special ID cards for their dog or ask about the person's disability.

Owner Responsibilities

The same U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division document outlines where service animals are allowed, as noted below.

Under the ADA, State and local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that serve the public generally must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is normally allowed to go. For example, in a hospital it would be inappropriate to exclude a service animal from areas such as patient rooms, clinics, cafeterias, or examination rooms. However, it may be appropriate to exclude a service animal from operating rooms or burn units where the animal’s presence may compromise a sterile environment.

The document also outlines responsibilities of the service dog’s owner.

Under the ADA, service animals must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered, unless these devices interfere with the service animal’s work or the individual’s disability prevents using these devices. In that case, the individual must maintain control of the animal through voice, signal, or other effective controls.

A person with a disability cannot be asked to remove his service animal from the premises unless: (1) the dog is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it or (2) the dog is not housebroken. When there is a legitimate reason to ask that a service animal be removed, staff must offer the person with the disability the opportunity to obtain goods or services without the animal’s presence.

If a business such as a hotel normally charges guests for damage that they cause, a customer with a disability may also be charged for damage caused by himself or his service animal.

Can any dog be a service dog?

The reality is very few dogs have the requisite temperament and skills to be a service dog. All service dogs need to have very stable temperaments and be able to be trained to a high degree of precision. In addition they need to be able to work on demand and under great stress for as long as necessary. I’ve talked to a number of the service dog agencies over the years, these are the groups like NEADS (National Education for Assistance Dog Services), and they have indicated that even with dedicated breeding programs designed to produce the optimal service dog, only about 50% of the dogs that start training are able to complete the program. Those that washout become great pets, but the point is a great pet probably does not have what it takes to be a good service dog.

The website (http://www.servicedogcentral.org/) says this about the odds of a pet becoming a service dogs

 “Service dogs can come from many different backgrounds. Some are intentionally bred for service work, some are career change dogs bred for other work, some are rescues, and yes, some started out as pets.

However, the odds of any given dog having all the "right stuff" and actually completing training to become a service dog are about 1 in 100. The vast majority of pets, even lovely, well-behaved pets, aren't going to be suited, though it is possible.”

What does a service dog need to be trained to do?

A service dog needs to be trained to perform the tasks related to their handler’s disability. They also need to be trained to have good manners and to be reliable in a wide variety of situations. Assistance Dogs International, an organization whose purpose is to “…improve the areas of training, placement, and utilization of assistance dogs, staff and volunteer education, as well as educating the public about assistance dogs, and advocating for the legal rights of people with disabilities partnered with assistance dogs.,” suggests that all service dog and owner teams should be able to pass a public access test (http://www.assistancedogsinternational.org/standards/public-access-test/). Many Service Dog providers actually use this test and require their dog/owner teams to take the test on a periodic basis. It is unfortunate that this test was not included as part of the ADA, because clearly the professionals with the most experience in training service dog/owner teams believe it is essential.

Can I train my service dog myself?

While not impossible, rarely can a person train a service dog to meet their needs and perform tasks with the necessary reliability required of most service dogs. Taking also into consideration the high rate of dogs whose temperaments are not suitable for true service work, it is very unlikely that the household pet can become a service/assistance dog.  Individuals that need a service dog are best advised to work with one of the many service dog agencies that have years of experience in identifying the best dogs, training them, and then training you to get the most from your dog. Service dogs need to perform to a high degree of precision and reliability, far beyond what the average pet dog or competitive obedience dog requires requiring months of training by experts.

Where can I learn more about obtaining a service dog?

The website Service Dog Central (http://www.servicedogcentral.org/) contains a great deal of information on service dog laws as well as agencies that train service dogs.

Service/Assistance dogs and therapy dog/handler teams do very important work. Service and assistance dogs can greatly improve the life of the disabled. Therapy dogs and handlers teams can bring great joy to those in hospitals and nursing homes. Unfortunately, there is a growing trend for people to fraudulently present their dog as a therapy dog or service/assistance dog just so they can take their dog places where their dog would not normally be allowed, making it even harder for those that really need and depend upon these dogs. 


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