Therapy Dogs and Service Dogs Are Not The Same: A Helpful Guide

One of the more difficult aspects of our job is trying to identify what people mean when they call us and say they want their dog “certified as a PADS dog”.

Pacific Assistance Dogs Society is a Burnaby-based service dog charity recognized by Assistance Dogs International. They specialize in dogs for the Deaf and disabled, and they also provide facility therapy dogs for organizations like the RCMP, Canuck’s Place Children’s Hospice, and local schools.

Wag the Dog cannot get your dog certified as a PADS dog, because we are not PADS!

Only PADS dogs are certified PADS dogs.

What do people really mean when they say they want their dog to be a PADS dog?

It usually boils down to one of the following:

  • “I want my own dog certified as a service dog for myself or a family member.”
  • “I want my own dog certified as a facility therapy dog for a school or nursing home.”
  • “I want my dog to be certified as “in training” so my landlord can’t evict me.”

I’d like to help clear up the confusion around these three statements. Many clients aren’t really sure what they want or whether it is achievable because they are hazy on the terms and legal definitions regarding service dogs, therapy dogs, and other dogs granted public access.

What is the difference between a service dog and a therapy dog?

A guide or service dog is recognized by the provincial government as your personal support animal. You need this dog due to a medical problem or disability and the government has granted you legal rights to bring the dog wherever you go.

Examples of guide or service dogs are:

  • A Guide Dog for the Blind
  • A Hearing Alert Dog for the Deaf
  • A Mobility Assistance Dog for those in wheelchairs or with balance difficulties.
  • A Psychiatric Support Dog for those with PTSD, severe anxiety, or autism
  • A Diabetic or Seizure Alert Dog for those with diabetes or epilepsy.

Examples of therapy dogs:

  • A dog who visits the local nursing home or hospice to comfort the residents
  • A dog who attends school with a teacher to comfort the students
  • A dog who accompanies first responders to comfort accident and trauma victims.

Guide/Service dogs are legally recognized and come with legal rights and protections.

Therapy dogs do not.

A teacher who wishes to bring a therapy dog into the school must get permission from the school board. A first responder who wishes to use a therapy dog to comfort their patients must get permission from their employer. A dog who visits a care home or hospital must get permission from the facility in question.

A service dog does not.

A service dog is considered your personal medical aid and it is welcomed wherever you are, with the exception of public health hazards such as in the kitchen of a restaurant or the burn ward of a hospital.

A service dog has been through a government certification process to confirm that you genuinely need the dog and that the dog is suitable for service dog work.

There is no government certification process for a therapy dog.

St. John’s Ambulance offers a therapy dog program which is well respected and recognized by most hospitals, schools, and other facilities.

However, a St. John’s Ambulance Dog can still be legally turned away if the hospital or school does not want the dog there.

What about emotional support dogs?

Canada does not recognize emotional support dogs as being different from regular pets. Every dog is an emotional support dog. We can all benefit from the love and companionship of our pets, and that is why we should strive to train them to be well mannered in public, so we can bring them more places and enjoy their company more.

People with a diagnosed psychiatric disability such as PTSD, anxiety disorders, or neurological conditions such as schizophrenia, epilepsy, and autism, often benefit from the assistance of a service dog. These are psychiatric service dogs and they perform trained tasks to actively make the world more accessible to their handlers.

For example, an autism dog may serve as a guide, providing a comforting handle to hold. A PTSD dog may help lead their handler away from triggers.

These are service dogs, not emotional support dogs.

What about dogs in training to be service dogs? Do they have legal rights?

No. Many people misunderstand a subsection of the BC Guide Dog legislation regarding the certification of dogs in training.

Prior to the updating of this legislation a few years ago, provincially and internationally recognized schools like PADS did not have the legal right to train their dogs in public, despite the necessity of working in public in order to train a service dog.

The new legislation changed this and now grants trainers from certified schools legal rights to train service dogs in public.

This right is not extended to uncertified members of the public who wish to train their own dog. If you have hopes of turning your puppy into your personal, legally-recognized service dog someday, but your landlord wants to evict the dog, you have no legal recourse.

Wag the Dog can not help you. PADS cannot help you.

Your best hope is to find a more understanding landlord, and/or get your dog certified ASAP.

Keep in mind that many public places such as malls and cafes tolerate dogs in training so long as your dog is clearly marked as being “in training” and you are open about the fact that your dog is not yet certified.

Please also keep in mind that if your dog is not certified and you insist on public access you could be subject to prosecution. Be honest about your dog’s certification status always.  

What does certification entail?

In order to get your dog certified as a service dog, your doctor must sign a form certifying your medical need for the dog. Then you and the dog must go through a rigorous 40 item obedience test to demonstrate that you have full verbal control over your dog, that your dog can be calm and unobtrusive in public, and that your dog will stay close to you and ignore other people in public.

Your dog must pass with 100% in order to be certified.

Wag the Dog can help you prepare for this test.

To learn more, visit our Assistance Dog Training page.

Having trouble deciding whether to take the service dog or therapy dog route?

Here are some questions you can ask yourself:

Do you have a medical need for your dog?

If yes, then you want a service dog. If no, then you want a therapy dog.

Do you want your dog to ignore the public and focus on you?

If yes, then you want a service dog. If no, then you want a therapy dog.

I hope this helps clear up the confusion. If you have more questions feel free to contact us at