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A Primer on Service Dog Terminology

by Brigit Stadler

This post is a quick primer on the terminology around service dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support animals, the differences in their functions, and protections under the law. 

A service dog is a dog that aids someone with a physical or mental disability to function and live more independently. They perform a variety of tasks including, but not limited to, assisting with mobility or visual impairments, or psychiatric tasks such as redirecting self-harming behavior or scanning a room and turning on lights. There is no one type or breed best suited to being a service dog; rather, their temperament, trainability, and sometimes size (for things like providing balance assistance) are more important. Service dogs are legally protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This means they are to be allowed to go anywhere their handler can go, whether that's on the light rail, to the bookstore, or out to eat, and landlords cannot bar someone with a disability from having a service dog and cannot make the tenant pay pet fees.

A therapy dog is any dog that has passed a series of obedience tests to provide comfort to people in a variety of situations. Dogs are frequently brought in to comfort those in hospitals and nursing homes or after a disaster, sit with children while they read to help build confidence and ease anxiety, and many colleges now bring dogs in during midterms and finals to help students de-stress. Therapy dogs are not protected under the ADA and are not allowed in private businesses the same way service dogs are unless they and their handler have been invited. They are also not protected under the Fair Housing Act unless they also function as an emotional service dog. Service dogs are generally not therapy dogs, as a service dog serves a specific purpose to help its handler function.

An emotional service dog is any dog that provides their owner with emotional support. They are similar to psychiatric service dogs in that they assist people with mental illnesses but, unlike service dogs, are not trained to perform a specific task; rather, caring for the dog can help the individual stay on a routine, get outside daily, have much-needed companionship, etc. They are considered a reasonable accommodation for their owners who have mental illnesses under the Fair Housing Act, meaning that they are allowed to live with their owners in housing that might not otherwise allow pets and their owner can get a pet deposit/fee waived. To do so, the owner will generally need to provide documentation, usually a letter from a doctor or licensed mental health professional who knows the owner well and can attest to their need for the dog. The owner must also do due diligence to ensure the dog will be properly cared for, will not damage the property, etc.

In terms of which dogs are allowed where, service dogs are required by law to have access to any public space with their handler as specified by the ADA. Those who have service dogs are under no legal obligation to detail for others the nature of their disability, though in some cases (such as flying with a psychiatric service dog or starting a new job), they may need to provide documentation about the tasks the dog performs. Business owners can inquire about the tasks the dog performs if it is not readily apparent the dog is a service dog (e.g., the dog is not wearing a vest, collar, or tags designating it as a service dog), but that's all. The general public should not ask handlers about their dogs unless the handler has in some way indicated it's all right to do so, and certainly should not interact with the dog. After all, the dog is working, and no one likes being interrupted during work.


Emotional service dogs are allowed with their owners in certain situations but not in many public spaces in the way that trained service dogs are. In other words, the decision to allow the emotional service animal to, say, accompany their owner to the grocery store so the owner can run their errands without anxiety, or to accompany their owner  at a restaurant  is up to the business owner. Many airlines allow emotional service dogs on flights but may still charge a fee and will usually require documentation from a medical professional. It's best to check with the airline before booking your flight.

For more information on service dogs, etiquette around them, or the differences between service dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support dogs, visit the following sites: 

Service Animals vs. Emotional Support Animals, ADA National Network

When is it OK to Speak to a Handler About Their Service Dog?, Actually Service Dogs

Service Animal Policies - Fair Housing of Washington State, City of Seattle

Fair Housing and Disability Laws FAQ, Tenants Union of Washington State

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