What’s the Difference Between Assistance Dogs and Therapy Dogs?

A few decades ago, Guide Dogs for the Blind were the only type of assistance dog most people knew about. Then came bomb-sniffing dogs and cancer-sniffing dogs and dogs who visit the sick and dogs who listen to children read.

In short, people have realized all the wonderful things a well-trained dog can do. 

It’s International Dog Assistance Week and we want to celebrate all these wonderful animals do. Started by Marcie Davis, a paraplegic for over 35 years, podcast host, and author, she wanted to recognize and support these wonderful dogs. 

One way we can do that is by recognizing the difference between therapy dogs and assistance/service dogs because they’re not the same.

Difference Between Therapy Dogs and Assistance Dogs 

First, let’s describe the difference between therapy dogs and service or assistance dog because they’re not the same thing.

The American Disabilities Act defines service or assistance dogs as dogs who perform specific services for a specific person. For example, a guide dog who guides a blind person is that person’s guide. It’s the same with a dog trained to alert a deaf person to sounds or a dog trained to recognize seizures.

Assistance or service dogs undergo a strict training regimen and they are bred for this purpose. It takes months to train a guide dog for a blind person. Marcie Davis describes their training in her book, Working Like Dogs: A Service Dog Guidebook. She also hosts a podcast by the same name.

Therapy dogs on the other hand, are household pets whose owners decide to enroll them in special therapy dog training. A prerequisite for most certified therapy dog trainings is the AKC’s Good Canine Citizen training.

Good therapy dog candidates are calm and gentle. After they pass their certification, their owners may opt to take them to hospitals or nursing homes or schools. Each organization has their own guidelines around therapy dogs. For example, the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania (CHOP) has a pet therapy program in place.

There’s a third group of dogs too. These are known as Emotional Support Assistance dogs. Like service dogs, these dogs are with “one” person and they’re generally meant to soothe anxiety of highly sensitive people.

As you can see, service dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support dogs all have special roles. Service or assistance dogs are trained to be with one person, and it is good practice to let them do their jobs and not try and pet them while working. On the other hand, you may find a therapy dog at an outdoor festival for example and they’ll be happy to meet you.  

This International Dog Assistance Week let’s take a moment to acknowledge the important work these dogs do.