According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service dog has been “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities”. Examples of service dogs are guide dogs for people who are blind or have serious visual impairments, dogs that can pull a wheelchair, and seizure alert dogs.
In contrast, the responsibility of therapy dogs is to provide psychological or physiological therapy to people other than their handlers. Their handlers are usually their owners. Examples of therapy dogs are those that are brought in to hospitals or nursing homes to cheer up the patients, as well as dogs that are brought in to schools or used to help people overcome a fear of dogs.
Unlike service dogs, therapy dogs are encouraged to socialize with other people and animals, and to interact with them frequently. Unlike service dogs, which are trained to always be alert and receptive to their owner’s needs, therapy dogs are only expected to carry out their responsibilities when they are “on-duty”. Most of their time is spent as a “normal” pet dog in a home environment.
Service dogs are classed as working animals and not pets. The tasks that they are trained to do must be directly related to their owner’s disability. If a dog’s purpose is solely to provide comfort or emotional support then they do not qualify as a service dog under the ADA. They may still be known as an “assistance animal” or “therapy dog”.
Unlike therapy dogs, service dogs are allowed anywhere that a person can go. This includes public transport, stores, restaurants, hotels, schools, and the workplace. You do not have to provide identification cards or proof of service dog status; anyone who asks you to do so in order to enter their premises is contravening the ADA.
The only time that a person with a disability can be asked to remove their service dog from the premises is if the dog is out of control and the handler does not control it or if the dog is not housebroken.
Service dogs begin their training at a very young age, normally around 8 – 12 weeks. They usually spend the first couple of years of their life in training, before going to live with their family where they can begin their duty of caring for their handler.
Therapy dogs can come in all shapes and sizes. Instead of having to be trained from an early puppy, the training can begin later in life. If you are looking become a therapy dog handler, a dog that is already part of the family as a pet can be trained to become a therapy dog. This can be beneficial to their success, as the dog and person will have already developed a strong loving bond prior to the beginning of training
The transformation that therapy training can bring to a dog can be mind-blowing. There is a Dog Whisperer in the UK who rescued an aggressive, untrained bull mastiff from an abusive situation and after two years has trained him to become a registered Pets At Therapy (PAT) dog. This huge loveable dog goes to nursing homes and community centres visiting the residents. He is perfectly calm and well behaved – an immeasurable difference from the dog he was when he was rescued.
How can my dog become a therapy dog?
You will need to get in touch with a reputable therapy dog organization or animal-assisted therapy organization in your state. They will carry out an evaluation of your dog to determine if they are suitable for therapy dog training. If so, the organization should help you enroll in the appropriate training courses.
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