Is there a difference between service and therapy animals?

Date Updated

Yes, there is a distinction between "service" and "therapy" animals.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, "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."

Service animals are trained to perform tasks that individuals with disabilities cannot perform for themselves. They are also trained to behave properly in public places. As far as businesses and organizations that serve the public, the Department of Justice states that "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."

In addition to the provisions about service dogs, the Department’s revised ADA regulations have a separate provision about "miniature horses that have been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. (Miniature horses generally range in height from 24 inches to 34 inches measured to the shoulders and generally weigh between 70 and 100 pounds.) Entities covered by the ADA must modify their policies to permit miniature horses where reasonable. The regulations set out four assessment factors to assist entities in determining whether miniature horses can be accommodated in their facility. The assessment factors are (1) whether the miniature horse is housebroken; (2) whether the miniature horse is under the owner’s control; (3) whether the facility can accommodate the miniature horse’s type, size, and weight; and (4) whether the miniature horse’s presence will not compromise legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operation of the facility."

The duties of therapy dog are not limited to working with people with disabilities and are not legally defined. A therapy dog is allowed into locations, such as hospitals and nursing facilities, by invitation only, perhaps as part of a treatment plan. Some national and local organizations may certify therapy animals; however, even with certification, a therapy animal does not qualify for the access protection given to service animals under the ADA.

For more information about service animals, consult the Department of Justice publication entitled Commonly Asked Questions About Service Animals in Public Places of Business.