Therapy Dogs for Mental Health: Answering Common Questions

March 6, 2024

5 mins

Jackie Rosu


Dogs have long been referred to as “man’s best friend” and played an important part in many of our daily lives, but research has found that dogs can also play an integral role in improving mental health and overall emotional well-being.

Dogs have long been referred to as “man’s best friend” and played an important part in many of our daily lives, but recent research has found that dogs can also play an integral role in improving mental health and overall emotional well-being. Not only can dogs perform specific tasks that help make living with a disability easier, but therapy dogs have also been shown to increase confidence and independence in their handlers.

This article will provide an overview of service animals and therapy dogs and discuss how they can improve your overall mental health. We will also be addressing some of the most commonly asked questions and misconceptions involving service dogs and emotional support animals.

Understanding the Various Types of Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals

Many people view the terms “therapy dog,” “service animal,” and “emotional support animal” as interchangeable synonyms. In reality, however, there is a significant nuance between the various categories, with each having a very specific function and set of skills used to improve their owner’s mental health. 

Service Dogs

According to Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal is any dog that “has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with disability.”

Due to the varied nature of disabilities, there are countless types of tasks and functions a service dog could be trained to perform. A few of the most common types of service dogs include the following:

  • Seizure response dog: Best for individuals suffering from seizure disorders
  • Hearing dog: Best for individuals who are hard-of-hearing or deaf
  • Guide dog: Best for individuals with visual impairments or blind

These trained actions must relate specifically to their handler’s disability. Under the ADA guidelines, only dogs (or, in very rare, specific circumstances, miniature horses) can be considered a service animal. Although there are no formal rules on color, size, or breed for service animals, German shepherds, labradors, collies, and golden retrievers are incredibly popular due to their levels of intelligence and trainable natures.

Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)

The requirements for an emotional support animal (ESA) are much less rigid than service animals. ESAs can be any type of domesticated animal and do not have any age requirements or restrictions in place.  The only two major requirements of an ESA are that they must be manageable in public and provide emotional support, comfort, or companionship to their owners suffering from a mental health or psychiatric disability. 

While distinctly different from service animals, emotional support animals are not pets either. United States federal law differentiates emotional support animals from pets and requires that every ESA have a letter from a licensed mental health professional. 

Therapy Dogs

A third major category of animals used to provide mental health services are therapy dogs. The key distinction between a therapy dog and the other two types is that they are not trained for one specific task or individual.

Instead, they are given broader training and typically placed in environments such as hospitals, schools, or mental health facilities to provide affection and comfort to a wide variety of individuals rather than one specific handler full-time.

How Does Someone Qualify for a Therapy Dog?

Any person is eligible for a service dog if they have a physical, emotional, or mental health disability. Service dogs must undergo specific training to assist their handlers with their disability and remain fully in their control at all times while in public. Individuals looking to adopt a service animal or therapy dog have a variety of options available to them, including nonprofits dedicated to keeping them affordable for all.

Some handlers identify their service animals with a vest or special collar, but this is not required. How much you choose to share or not share is entirely up to you and what you’re comfortable with. For additional information on your rights and responsibilities as a handler, refer to titles IV and V of the official ADA guidelines.

Additionally, handlers must be willing to answer the following two questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what task has the dog been trained to perform? Individuals are not legally permitted to request documentation of the dog or require that it demonstrate it for them. 

Where Can I Bring My Service Animal?

Under United States federal law, service animals must be permitted anywhere that the general public is able to go, including restaurants, hotels, taxis, public transportation, grocery stores, hospitals, theaters, parks, zoos, and many others. In essence, anywhere that a person without a service animal can go, a handler with their service animal can go as well.

There are a few minor exceptions and distinctions to be aware of, however. Primarily, it is not the dog who has access rights but rather its owner. This means that while you can legally bring your service dog with you into a restaurant, it may not be left on its own or enter the space unaccompanied.

Additionally, establishments are allowed to exclude service animals from entering a space due to cleanliness or sanitation concerns. According to ADA guidelines, if the presence of a service animal fundamentally causes a direct threat to safety or causes undue burden, then they may be excluded. One of the biggest examples of this occurs in hospitals, where service animals are commonly excluded from operating rooms or burn units but are accepted in inpatient rooms or reception areas.

Can My Dog Become My Service Animal?

Technically speaking, yes. It is entirely possible to train your personal dog as a service animal, though it is not generally advised as the training process can be difficult and time-consuming. For most individuals, they would be better served to adopt a service animal that has already been trained for the specific tasks needed to assist them with their disabilities.

That being said, it is entirely possible that your personal dog brings you comfort and helps you deal with mental health issues such as PTSD. If this is the case, you should strongly consider getting your dog trained as an emotional support animal, as it is a much more attainable task than getting them fully certified as a service animal.

Additionally, emotional support animals are often considered to be a form of “reasonable accommodation” in key areas of life such as housing. For those trying to bring their dog into their long-term accommodation, it can be beneficial to get a letter of explanation from your doctor. This can reduce any friction that may arise from your new landlord and make the entire process much smoother.

Learn More With Purposes Recovery

Purposes Recovery is a haven for multiple forms of healing from addiction. As a leading luxury detox center in Los Angeles, they offer several inpatient mental health programs designed to empower individuals to live fuller lives through long-lasting recovery from their mental health and substance abuse issues.

For more information and resources to assist you in your journey, visit their website, where they have countless free articles and online resources, or call them at +1 (888) 482-0717 to speak with one of their trained representatives and learn how they can best assist you in creating an actionable mental health plan.

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