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Definitions of Service Dog, Assistance Dog, Therapy Dog, Emotional Support Dog.

diabetic alert dog labrador

What is a Service Dog?

A service dog is a broad category of dogs that includes any dogs that are specially trained to work in public with their handlers only. A police dog, search and rescue dog, medical service dog and assistance dog are all considered ‘service dogs’.

What is a Medical Service Dog or an Assistance Dog?

An assistance dog is a type of service dog is a dog that is considered a medical device for a person with a disability. The dog is specially trained for public access and specifically trained to do tasks that mitigate the disability of their person. Medical service dogs and Assistance dogs are legally allowed to have public access with the person with the disability.  A dog that is trained to perform tasks that mitigate any diagnosed medical disability their handler is considered a medical service dog or assistance dog. This may include both visible (mobility issues or blindness) and invisible disabilities from diabetic alerts, seizure response, autism and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) dogs including anxiety and others.

In some areas (such as BC, Alberta and Nova Scotia, Canada), the dog is recommended to be certified to gain public access and is issued a collar tag issued by their government that gives the dog public access with their handler. This tag is carried by the handler or dog at all times and is available for presentation (like a driver’s licence).

In these provinces, retailers, accommodation and transportation providers, etc can ask: 

1. Is this a service dog?
2. Can I see your government issued certification tag? 

to verify if the dog is a service dog.

In Ontario, Canada, the handler only needs a note from their doctor indicating that a service dog would help mitigate their disability.

In the US, certification is not necessary and retailers etc are allowed to ask:

1. Do you have a disability?
2. If so, what tasks is the dog trained to do?

a service dog handler stands with a walker and her dog in a city scape

What is a Therapy Dog?

A therapy dog is a dog that loves human interaction and has basic socialization and training to go into senior care homes, hospitals, schools and other places where there are groups of people. They are trained to allow unfamiliar people to physically interact with them in order to give the people comfort. Some dogs assist people that have been traumatized by events such as mass shootings, bombings etc.  There are reading therapy dogs. A dog may be specially trained by an organization to do so, or it may be an individual’s dog who takes the dog into a facility. These dogs are not covered by public access rights except for the individual facilities that give their approval.

golden retriever therapy dog in hospital

What is an Emotional Support Dog? 

A dog that by it’s presence, calms and comforts a person. Such a dog usually works long term with only one person and is typically owned by the person using it as ESD. No specific task training is done. Public access is not given to these animals except by special approval in specific facilities. In some regions, the dogs are allowed by housing laws and transportation companies. A letter from a Doctor, Psychiatrist, Social worker or other mental health care professional is usually requested as proof that the dog qualifies as an emotional support dog. As of January 2021, the US Transportation Act and June 25, 2021 Canadian Transportation Act no longer allows emotional support animals in the cabin of planes. They are not recognized in some jurisdictions at all (such as the provinces in Canada for rental/strata situations. Except New Brunswick recognizes them for accommodation purposes only).

girl hugging emotional support dog
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Wondering how to train your own service dog?

Check out our Service Dog Training Institute classes (for both human and dog).
If you want to learn how to train a service dog like a professional, these classes will give you the skills to do so and to train other pet dogs! You learn as your dog learns.

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