Differences Between Emotional Support Dogs and Therapy Dogs

Raunak Chabra

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Differences Between Emotional Support Dogs and Therapy Dogs

In recent years, the recognition of animal-assisted support in enhancing mental health and wellbeing has surged. As society becomes increasingly aware of the profound benefits that animals, especially dogs, can offer, the interest in integrating these furry companions into therapeutic settings has grown exponentially. By learning the differences between these two types of support animals, we hope to provide clarity and insight into their invaluable contributions to mental and emotional health.

Definitions and Roles

Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs (breeds like Labradors or German Shepherds just to name a few) are trained to provide comfort, affection, and support to individuals other than their handlers, often in a variety of settings. These include hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and during therapy sessions. The presence of a therapy dog can significantly reduce stress, increase comfort levels, and facilitate emotional or physical recovery in patients and stressed individuals. For example, a therapy dog visiting a children’s hospital can bring joy and a sense of normalcy to young patients, aiding in their overall healing process.

Emotional Support Dogs

Unlike therapy dogs, emotional support dogs primarily provide companionship and comfort to their owners, who may be dealing with psychological or emotional conditions such as anxiety, depression, or PTSD. These dogs do not require specific training to perform tasks; their mere presence is what offers the therapeutic benefit. An emotional support dog can help its owner by alleviating loneliness, reducing stress, and offering unconditional love, thereby improving the owner’s mental health.

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Training and Certification

Therapy Dogs

The training of therapy dogs is comprehensive, involving temperament testing to ensure the dog is friendly, patient, and confident in various environments. They undergo obedience training and are specifically trained to work in the diverse settings they will visit. This process ensures they behave impeccably and can handle unexpected situations. Various organisations certify therapy dogs, and this certification is often a requirement for their admittance into institutions where they provide support.

Emotional Support Dogs

There is no legally mandated training for emotional support dogs. However, it is beneficial for them to be well-behaved and sociable, qualities that can be achieved through basic obedience training and proper socialisation. While emotional support dogs do not require certification, a letter from a licensed mental health professional is typically needed to classify a dog as an emotional support animal (ESA).

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Legal Rights and Public Access

Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs have the right to access the facilities where they provide support, but these rights do not extend to public places where pets are generally not allowed, such as restaurants or shopping centres. Their access is granted on a case-by-case basis, depending on the policies of the institutions they are visiting.

Emotional Support Dogs

The legal rights of emotional support dogs differ significantly. While they do not have the same wide-ranging access as service dogs (those trained to perform specific tasks for individuals with disabilities), ESAs are often allowed in housing facilities that might otherwise prohibit pets. However, public access, like that of therapy dogs, is limited and does not include spaces where pets are typically not allowed.

Benefits and Considerations

The psychological and physiological benefits of interacting with both therapy and emotional support dogs are well-documented. These can include lowered blood pressure, reduced stress levels, and improved overall emotional state. For individuals considering the support of a therapy or emotional support dog, it’s important to weigh the commitment, lifestyle changes, and the welfare of the animal itself. These animals provide immense support but also require care, love, and attention in return.

Common Misconceptions

A common area of confusion lies in distinguishing therapy dogs from emotional support dogs, and further, from service dogs. Service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks for individuals with disabilities and have extensive public access rights, unlike therapy or emotional support dogs. Additionally, there are myths surrounding breeds and capabilities; it’s crucial to understand that any breed can potentially be a therapy or emotional support dog, depending on their temperament and the individual’s needs.


Understanding the distinctions between therapy dogs and emotional support dogs is vital for individuals considering their support. Recognizing the responsibilities involved and respecting the legal distinctions and training that differentiate these supportive companions will ensure that both humans and dogs benefit from their relationship. By making informed decisions, individuals can better navigate the process of integrating these animals into their lives for mutual wellbeing and support.