Chances are that if you have recently been to a grocery store, airport, or Home Depot you have seen people with their “working” dogs. So, what are the main differences between a Service Dog, a Therapy Dog, and an Emotional Support Animal?
Emotional Support Animals
While people may argue that all pets provide emotional support, the official designation of Emotional Support Animal (EMA) is relatively new. In 2014 there where approximately 2,400 EMAs in the US and by 2019 the number had increased to 200,000. As the popularity of ESAs increased so did abuse of the term and laws have subsequently begun to limit the privileges of EMA. Importantly, EMA are NOT part of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In order to be classified as an EMA, owners must obtain a letter from a mental health professional endorsing the pet as a treatment for a diagnoses of a psychological or emotional disorder. EMAs may be a pet other than a dog, such as a cat or a rabbit, and they "work" by being a companion, rather than providing a service to the owner.
Therapy dogs work together with their owners to provide support and comfort, and generally improve the lives of those they visit. Therapy dogs may work in hospitals, schools, or nursing homes. Although they have some special privileges, therapy dogs are not service dogs.
Service dogs are highly trained pups in extreme demand with wait times ranging from 1-4 years. The training required for a pup to become a service dog is rigorous with 50-70% of pups unable to complete the 1-2 year training. The cost of training for a full course can be up to $25,000 or even more for guide dogs for the blind (~50K). The training begins with a high level of socialization (think crowded airport), and then moves on to specialized tasks related to a disability such as autism. These amazing pups are protected under a federal law known as the Americans with Disabilities Act. This law guarantees that "all people with disabilities have the legal right to use their assistance animal in all areas that are open to the general public."
In great news, more and more people are realizing how animals improve our lives whether they are helping us to remain calm or helping to navigate a physical disability. So be sure to show them some love even if you are not allowed to pet them!