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Service, Comfort or Therapy: What's the Difference?

Mar 06, 2015 06:40PM ● Published by North Hills Monthly magazine

By Kaitlin Hilinski, Volunteer

You’ve probably seen a dog at work out in the world­—at the grocery store, library or maybe in an office building or school. These dogs provide vital assistance to the humans around them, but how can you tell what kind of work the dog is doing? The truth is, there’s no easy answer—there are dozens of tasks that the dog could be performing. Following are the three most common:

Service Dogs
A service dog has been trained to perform at least one major task for people with physical disabilities or psychiatric diagnoses. There are a wide variety of service dogs, including but not limited to seeing-eye dogs, hearing assistance, seizure alert, insulin or allergy detection, autism spectrum support and balance or mobility aid. When a service dog is with his or her person, the dog is working and should not be interrupted. Many of them will wear a vest or harness that says something along the lines of, “Please don’t pet me, I am working.” 

These dogs are entitled to accompany their humans anywhere that a nondisabled person can go and are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The dogs are essential for their owners’ safety and well-being, just like a wheelchair or hearing aid. Currently, only dogs are covered by the ADA’s legal protections.

Emotional Support or Comfort Animals
A doctor may prescribe an animal for an individual who suffers from conditions such as depression or anxiety. Sometimes these animals are helpful only in certain triggering situations, like while traveling or in crowds. In other cases, the animals are simply pets in the home that help their owners cope with life stressors. It’s important to note that a comfort animal does not have to be a dog. Cats, rabbits, birds, and even pigs have served as comfort animals.

It is also important to note that comfort animals do not have the same legal protections as service animals. Restaurants and public buildings are not required to allow a comfort animal onto the premises. However, under the Fair Housing Amendments Act, a rental property can be required to lift a no-pets policy in the cases of comfort animals (and service animals too, of course). Usually, all it takes is a letter from a doctor stating that the human has a medical condition for which the animal is a prescription aide. 

Comfort animals are rarely trained as service animals. However, they may be considered to be ‘working’ when in public with their owner. As with any unknown animal, the best course of action is to ask the owner for permission before petting or interacting with the animal in any way. 

Therapy Animals
A therapy animal has been assessed and deemed to be exceptionally friendly, engaging and tolerant. They have been trained to have excellent obedience skills and are almost always accompanied by a handler who facilitates their work with the public. There are several different ways that therapy animals work, but most visit places like hospitals, nursing homes, college campuses, schools and other facilities to lift spirits and help humans de-stress. Occasionally an animal may live in a facility to provide comfort to the patients and staff or volunteers.

While these animals also fulfill an important and heart-warming role in the community, they are offered no legal protections. Your therapy dog may not be allowed into the post office or bank with you, despite its training and certification.
More information about these distinctions can be found online at the National Service Animal Registry www.nsarco.com.

Here at Animal Friends, we offer the Therapets certification program to identify, train and certify therapy dogs, cats and rabbits. We’re working on expanding to include other animals in the future, too! If you think your pet has the potential to be a therapy animal, please contact Animal Friends’ Therapets program at 412-847-7081.

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