Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs, and ESAs: ... These Are Not The Same Things.

Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs, and ESAs: ... These Are Not The Same Things.

July 03, 20214 min read

Therapy Dogs, Service Dogs and ESAs are NOT the same thing!

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 therapy dog" or that they want to train their dog as an "emotional support dog".

Sometimes when people say this, they really mean:

"I want my own dog certified as a psychiatric service dog for myself or a family member."

Other times, they mean:

"I want my own dog certified as a facility therapy dog for a school or nursing home."

And sometimes they mean:

"I want my untrained 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.

Therapy Dogs Help Other People


Therapy dogs provide Animal Assisted Therapy to those who can benefit from it. A Therapy Dog may work in a senior care residence, a children's hospital ward, a court house, a psychologist's office, or a school counsellor's office.

Therapy dogs do not have public access rights, nor do they need them. The facility they work in, be it a school or nursing home or private office, gives them permission to enter because they are - in essence - an employee.

They do not have the right to walk into locations where they have not been invited.

Service Dogs Assist Their Handler


A psychiatric service dog provides Animal Assisted Therapy to only one person - their handler, who suffers from emotional, neurological, or psychiatric challenges such as PTSD, Autism, or Schizophrenia.

As well as providing a comforting friend in challenging situations, these dogs are trained to assist in others ways.

They may give medication reminders, help their owners avoid triggers, interrupt self-harm, alert their owners to rising cortisol levels, or warn their owner of an oncoming hallucination.

Psychiatric service dogs are considered disability equipment and their handlers have the right to bring them into public places which do not permit pet dogs, IF (I'm putting this in bold):

They do not cause public disturbance and behave calmly and appropriately.

Emotional Support Dogs Are Dogs

Dogs love us unconditionally. Dogs lower our heart rates, lower our cortisol levels, and lower our blood pressure. They increase our chance of surviving a heart attack.

All dogs have value as companions and best friends.

Sadly, they cannot accompany us in public places unless those places permit pets.

Personally, I'm of the opinion that a well behaved pet that causes no problems should be welcome everywhere.

Unfortunately, I don't own "everywhere" and the owners of stores and medical offices have the right to make their own rules about such things.

The term "Emotional Support Animal" is an American term, and does not have an equivalent in Canada.

In Canada, either you have a very well trained dog who assists you with your disability, or you have a beloved pet which must abide by normal rules. There is no "emotional support dog" designation and you cannot get your pet "certified" as such, despite what scam websites may tell you.

Having a disability, including one like PTSD, is not sufficient to give you the legal right to bring your beloved pet into public in British Columbia.

The dog must meet certain criteria, in which case it becomes a service dog, not an ESA.

Practice Time!

Let's look at some imaginary dogs and their jobs, and categorize them.

This is Bosco.

Bosco's owner is a paramedic.

Bosco comforts worried family members and trauma victims on ambulance rides.

Bosco is well trained and obedient, and always relaxed in new situations.

Is Bosco a Therapy Dog, Emotional Support Dog, or Service Dog?

Answer: Therapy Dog

This is Salty.

Salty's guardian has PTSD and feels safer when Salty is with him.

Salty has no special training, though he's generally well behaved.

He does tend to sniff around in stores or wags his tail and approaches people who talk to him.

Is Salty a Therapy Dog, Emotional Support Dog, or Service Dog?

A: Emotional Support Dog - legally, a pet.

This is Tater.

Tater's guardian has generalized anxiety.

Tater reminds her to take her medications, and jumps on her and starts licking her face when she has a panic attack.

Tater heels on a loose leash in stores and lies under tables at restaurants.

Is Tater a Therapy Dog, Emotional Support Dog, or Service Dog?

Answer: Service Dog.

This is Sunny.

Sunny's guardian suffers from Schizophrenia.

Sunny has a remarkable ability to recognize an oncoming hallucination.

Sunny is only eight months old and still sometimes jumps on people who walk by.

Therapy Dog, Emotional Support Dog, or Service Dog?

Answer: Potential future service dog, but needs training, so for now, a useful pet.

Interested in your dog becoming more than an ESA?

Learn more about our service dog program here.

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Wag The Dog delivers accredited dog training and service dog training in the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley of beautiful British Columbia.

We train at the forefront of canine cognitive science. We know that our dogs are capable of understanding so much more than people think.

You want to have the best possible relationship with your dog, but you don't know how to handle the problems that keep cropping up.

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Coquitlam, BC

Amelia Kellum, B.Sc, CPDT-KSA, CTDI


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