two ways dogs lend a helping paw: service dogs and therapy dogs

Posted by Nicole Larocco-Skeehan, CPDT-KA on Nov 16 2015
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You’ve got the nicest dog on the block, and you want to share the love! Maybe you’ve thought about making him a service dog or therapy dog. But what’s the difference?

“Therapy dog” and “service dog” are often used interchangeably, but service dogs and therapy dogs have different types of jobs to do.

At your service: what service dogs do

Service dogs are specially trained to perform behaviors that disrupt or mitigate their handler’s disability. People regularly think of service dogs as dogs who guide the blind; but with advances in modern dog training practices, service dogs are being used in more applications that you may even think are possible!

There are dogs who help veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder or people who need help stabilizing themselves while standing or walking. Some dogs can sniff out allergens for severely allergic children or function as limbs for those who can’t physically complete day-to-day tasks.

Want to make your dog a service dog?

I encourage you to think twice…with the popularity of websites that certify anyone’s dog sight unseen for a nominal fee, and the fact that service dog training is an unregulated field, many people are working the system and getting every Fido, Spot and Fluffy registered as a service dog.

Surely being around your own dog makes you feel great, and you would love to take them everywhere. After all, your dog is very friendly and sociable, why not make him a service dog? And while it may seem no big deal to you, every time a poorly trained service dog makes a mistake in public, whether it’s barking at a child, stealing a sample at the grocery store or having an accident on the carpet in the mall, it makes it more difficult for those who truly need a service dog for day-to day-functioning. A true service dog must have an unflappable personality and months, if not years, of training on how to act in public. So I encourage you, leave the service dog work to the professionals!

But there are other ways you can get involved and help people with your dog.

Spreading joy with therapy dogs

Therapy dogs have wonderful personalities and are tested with an independent certifying organization that evaluates their obedience and behavior. Once certified, these dogs are admitted to volunteer with their owner or handler at a variety of locations like schools or hospitals, providing stress relief, comfort or cheer to people in need, such as seniors.

Therapy dogs do not have public access, which means that a therapy dog is not permitted to use public transportation, accompany their owners to a restaurant or enter stores that are not pet friendly. But there is no doubt about it that a therapy dog is a valued member of society!

If you think your dog is cut out for therapy dog work, we encourage you to visit one of the many Therapy Dog certification organizations, like Therapy Dogs International, Love on a Leash, Pet Partners or Alliance of Therapy Dogs. They can help get you off on the right paw with training so you can volunteer your dog to help others in need!

Do you have a service dog or therapy dog? Tell us about your experience in the comments below!