Service Dogs and Therapy Dogs – What’s the Big Difference?

Guest blogger: Stephanie Wiese

[QLD Dogs note:  this article has been modified (with permission from Stephanie) to include links to specific Australian therapy dog organisations as the original article was written for the US]

You may have heard the terms Service Dog and Therapy Dog used together and wondered if there was any difference between the two. Well, there is and there are more terms that you should understand as well when thinking about what defines working dogs. When you research the phrase “working dog” you will come up with many variations like hunting dogs, military/police dogs, and search & rescue dogs. For the purpose of this blog lets stay focused on dogs that are used to help those with needs and disabilities. Our list includes Service Dogs (and its many sub-groups), Emotional Support Dogs and, ultimately, Therapy dogs. Let’s begin:

Service Dogs:

Service dogs are trained to help an individual with a specific disability. Often these dogs are referred to by the job they perform. Service dogs, by law, are allowed to accompany their handlers anywhere the handlers need to go. Unless a service dog’s behavior is disruptive a business cannot ask the handler to remove their service dog.

A photo posted by Rachel (@raising_liberty) on

Types of Service Dogs:

  1. Guide Dog – Assist someone who is blind or visually impaired.
  2. Mobility Dog – Assists a person with daily tasks such as opening doors, retrieving objects, pulling a wheelchair, aid in standing or balancing.
  3. Hearing Dog – Alerts a person who is deaf or hearing impaired to sounds such as the phone ringing, door bell, their name being called, alarm clocks, smokes alarms, etc.
  4. Medical Alert Dog – These amazing dogs are able to sense a change in a persons body chemistry such as low or high blood sugar in a person with diabetes, sense an imminent seizure for someone with epilepsy. They can also locate and bring medication to their handler as well as bring a beverage to swallow the medication.
  5. Psychiatric Dog – Assists people who struggle with a psychiatric disorder such as anxiety or PTSD. Its important to note that these dogs don’t just chill with their handlers – they actually perform specific tasks to assist them. For example:
    • A person with particular disorders that cause them to self harm (picking skin, hitting their head, pulling their hair, etc.) will have a psychiatric dog that can alert them to the behavior in order to help them stop.
    • Someone with PTSD might be prone to having nightmares so their dog will wake them from their sleep to stop the bad dream.
    • If a handler struggles with going out in public a dog can be trained to notice the stress level in their handler and stand between them and another person to act as a barrier of sorts.

Emotional Support Dogs:

ESDs provide emotional support to people with mental health disabilities. Unlike Service Dogs, ESDs cannot go into places that have animal restrictions. The only exception to this rule is that they can live in housings that have pet restrictions and they can also go on airplanes with their owner. Some states may elect to have laws in place to allow ESDs some additional rights as far as where they can go with their owner. ESDs do not require any training to provide emotional support. ESDs are basically household pets. The only way they can be classified as an ESD is by a letter from a licensed mental health provider. Other names ESDs may go by are companion dogs or comfort dogs.

Therapy Dogs:

While ESDs provide emotional support to their owners, Therapy Dogs provide emotional support to other people. Therapy Dogs and their owners are called a “Team”. They can be invited anywhere to assist others. Some areas that Therapy Dogs have helped care for others are:

  • Libraries
  • Schools
  • Airports
  • Shelters
  • Hospitals/hospices
  • Funerals
  • Assisted Living Homes
  • Colleges & Universities
  • Crisis or Disaster areas
  • Home Visits


Therapy Dogs will likely be required to be registered with a Therapy Dog organization. While no formal training is necessary to be a Therapy Dog the dog should know basic obedience, be well behaved and have a desire to be loved on by other people. A dog that is attached to its owner (as sweet as it may be) will not be a good therapy dog if it cannot approach other people. Most facilities that want a therapy dog to visit them will require proof of registration with an organization as well as insurance (which should be provided by any reputable registering organization). Here are some well known organizations in Australia:

Therapy Dogs do not have the same rights as Service Dogs or ESDs. They are only allowed to go into businesses that have invited them to visit other people.

I hope this clarification of roles has helped you as much as it has helped me. Recently, at my kids’ swim school, another parent was with a dog wearing a service vest. I quickly told my dog loving kiddos that they are not allowed to pet the dog because it was busy working. The owner kindly said she didn’t mind if they pet her dog “Bunny” which was very sweet of her to offer. It was interesting to see my kids try to understand how someone without visible disabilities needed a dog to help them with special needs. In this case, the dog was Medical Alert & Psychiatric dog. I look forward to meeting these little heroes more and more!


About the Author: Stephanie runs the blog Heart Heelers where she documents her dream to learn about Animal Assisted Therapy (specifically with dogs). She is a licensed mental health counselor and lifelong dog lover. Follow her in her quest to finding the perfect partner, investing in the best care possible for such a special dog and, ultimately, making many, many people who are struggling with challenging circumstances find a little bit of joy and happiness in the companionship of a loving dog.