Therapy Dogs, Service Dogs, and Emotional Support Dogs – The Ultimutt Guide!

TALES BLOG /Ultimutt Guide

One of the most common questions we receive is “what’s the difference between a service dog, therapy dog, and emotional support dog?”. These terms are often incorrectly used in everyday conversation so understanding the differences can be difficult. Have no fear because Hand in Paw is here to clear the air!

Let’s start with what Hand in Paw knows best – therapy dogs!

Therapy dogs visit people of all ages dealing with emotional and physical life challenges alongside their owner. They deliver positive distraction, motivation, empathy, and compassion to people in need. Hand in Paw is a human service organization that provides training and evaluations for therapy animals (dogs and cats) and their handlers. We do not have any association with service dogs or emotional support dogs. Hand in Paw therapy dogs and their owners provide therapeutic comfort to many people in schools, nursing homes, hospitals, and other settings across Central Alabama and Tuscaloosa!

What about service dogs?

Service dogs are dogs who are specifically trained to perform tasks to help an individual person who has a disability. Service dogs stay with their person and have the civil right to enter public settings to help their owner mitigate their disability. Service dogs may not enter public settings by themselves or with a different person. One of the most common examples of a service dog is a dog who guides an owner who is blind. Other examples of service dogs include diabetic alert dogs, seizure alert dogs, and allergy detection dogs to name a few.

So what do emotional support dogs do?

Emotional support dogs are prescribed by a licensed mental health professional to an individual person with a disabling mental illness. A therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist must determine that the presence of the animal is needed for mental health of the patient. Emotional support dogs support through companionship and can help ease anxiety, depression, and certain phobias. Emotional support dogs do not qualify as service animals according to the Americans With Disabilities Act and therefore do not have the same rights of access to public places.  

Click the chart below for a downloadable pdf!

To help dive in even further on the differences between therapy dogs and service dogs, we met with Hand in Paw volunteer Meghan Mills!

Meghan is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Birmingham-Southern College and has both a Hand in Paw Therapy Dog named Dawli and a Service Dog named Arrow! We sat down with Meghan to hear her first-hand experience of training and working with therapy and service dogs to help explain what makes their individual roles unique.


Here’s what she had to say!  

“Dawli and I love visiting and bringing a smile to people's faces as a therapy team. Our favorite visits are Sit, Stay, Read and Pawsitive Living with school-aged children. Dawli loves meeting new people and getting pets. Before becoming a therapy dog, we had to work on basic obedience in group training classes and socialization to new settings and things, especially medical equipment. As a therapy dog, Dawli only goes to non-pet friendly places we are invited to through Hand in Paw community partnerships. 

As my Service Dog, Arrow has a completely different job than Dawli. He underwent about 2 years of professional training to become a Service Dog as he must be "bomb proof" to all situations; Service Dogs are the "Olympic athletes" of working dogs. As a person with a disability (epilepsy), Arrow saves my life on a regular basis by performing seizure alerts and response. He is with me pretty much 24/7 (work, shopping, doctor's appointments, etc.) and yes, we sometimes get on each other's nerves! It is worth it though because he has given me my independence back by allowing me to drive a car and teach college without being in a constant fear of having a seizure and hurting myself. Before Arrow, I had frequent concussions and other injuries from falling when having unexpected seizures. Arrow LOVES other people but he is trained to ignore them when working in public so he can focus on his job and keep me safe. The plan is when he retires from being my Service Dog, he can be a Hand in Paw therapy dog like his big sister!”       

We hope that this blog post was helpful in understanding the differences between therapy dogs, service dogs, and emotional support dogs! To learn more about becoming a Hand in Paw Therapy Team, please visit .