Helper Dogs Provide Service, Therapy or Emotional Support

A Brief Overview

  • Service dogs and therapy dogs have different jobs. Read on to learn more about the differences and how dogs can help people with diverse disabilities.
  • A service dog is trained to support a specific person in unique circumstances.
  • Therapy dogs are chosen by temperament and trained to use closeness and touch to reduce anxiety.
  • An emotional support dog fills a unique need. Read on to learn more about the roles helper dogs fill and how disability rights vary depending on the dog’s job.

Full Article

A support dog can allow its handler to live and work with more freedom and quality of life. Figuring out which dog is right for the job depends on the person’s unique needs. A trained dog can provide specific services for an individual or can be more generally taught to provide therapy or emotional support.

Service dogs have a wide range of jobs. They can be the eyes or ears for individuals who experience visual or hearing impairments. Medical alert dogs are trained to notice and seek help for a person who might experience a significant health event, such as a heart attack or seizure. Dogs can learn to assist individuals with autism, epilepsy, diabetes, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other specific disabilities. Trained dogs can open doors, press buttons or disrupt the start of an anxiety attack.

Whatever the role, a service dog is a worker and not a pet—and dog owners often must remind others not to pet the dog when it’s working. A service dog performs specific tasks to help a person with a disability and is highly trained to focus on its job.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) specifically defines a service animal as a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. ADA guidelines are specific that dogs are the only species recognized as full service animals, with full rights of access. Although miniature horses are also permitted to assist a person with a disability, they are regulated under separate provisions. More information about service dogs and their training is available through the website of the American Kennel Club.

A therapy dog has a different job. A therapy dog is trained to interact with a wide variety of people in need of comfort and emotional support. Trainers choose dogs that have easy-going, friendly dispositions by nature. The dogs then learn to provide psychological and physiological therapy when they interact with people. Therapy dogs might visit nursing homes, hospitals, schools, daycares, group homes, and rehabilitation centers. Although therapy dogs go through rigorous training, they do no have the same rights as service dogs. The Alliance of Therapy Dogs provides more information about therapy dogs and how to work with one.

Another type of helper dog is an “emotional support dog,” which provides a level of assistance somewhere in between what a service or therapy dog would provide. An individual struggling with significant anxiety, a panic disorder or issues with confusion or anger might benefit from the targeted support of a trained emotional support dog. These dogs learn to use touch and physical connection to provide stabilization for their handlers. For an individual with a mental health disorder or autism, for example, an emotional support dog might provide the needed support to enable the person to ride a bus, go to work, or attend an event that previously was too overwhelming.

Like therapy dogs, emotional support dogs are not protected by the ADA, but they are covered under the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act. Note that many air carriers require documentation that describes the disability and the reason the dog is needed during a flight.

For information about various helper dogs and where they are legally allowed, visit Assistance Dogs International.

Consider the right breed for the job

Certain tasks require a dog with a specific size and temperament, and different breeds work well for targeted services. Some breeds have a focus or trainability that suits them for a wide variety of work.

  • German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers are popular choices for many different roles.
  • Bernese Mountain Dogs have size and strength that make them a great choice for people with mobility issues. They also are incredibly smart and can help in emergency situations.
  • Terriers, Cocker Spaniels, Poodles, Lhasa Apsos, and Shih Tzus have great hearing and can help individuals with hearing deficits.
  • Pomeranians, Collies, and Poodles can work as therapy dogs, especially for people with autism, PTSD, epilepsy or diabetes. People with deadly food allergies might rely on help from these breeds.
  • Pomeranians also work well as medical alert dogs, especially for people who have diabetes, hypoglycemia, asthma or heart disease. Pomeranians can be taught to detect blood sugar levels or if someone shows signs of an asthma or heart attack.

Training standards provide guidance

According to the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP), a dog should have a minimum of 120 hours of schooling, over six months or longer. The association recommends that at least 30 of those hours are spent on outings to prepare the dog to work in public places. The dog is individually trained to perform tasks directly related to the disability of the owner, and some dogs take longer to train for their specific jobs. For more information on minimum training standards for service dogs, visit IAADP.

Certification is optional, but training is required

Although Washington State does not require a service dog to be certified, registered or identified as a service dog, the law requires that the service dog be trained for its job. Best practice is to have a dog formally identified as a service animal.

To acquire a helper dog, individuals can contact a service dog training school, hire a private trainer, or go through an owner-trained program. Daily Puppy provides detailed instructions about how to get a dog certified in Washington, and Paws-Abilities provides information specific to Pierce County. Both agencies provide service dog classes and a variety of resources.

A service dog can be expensive, but grants can help

Adoption fees, spaying/neutering, veterinary bills, vaccinations and other costs that all dog owners face can add up quickly. Additional training fees and costs for certification can add up to $15,000-$30,000.

Some non-profit organizations provide grants to cover these expenses.  US Service Animals lists service-dog foundations and available grants. Individuals also might choose to fund-raise through websites such as Kickstarter and Go Fund Me. A flexible-spending or health-savings account might cover a service animal’s medical care.  A website called Finder provides more financial options.

Additional resources:

Assistance Dog Club of Puget Sound

Therapy Dogs International.

A Netflix series, Dogs, shares the story of a young girl with epilepsy and her service dog in its first episode, “The Kid with a Dog.”