To The Dogs—Canine Advice Column

Helping Hounds

Service dogs, therapy dogs, emotional support dogs—Hilton Butler breaks down the differences.

By Hilton Butler

I tend to notice dogs everywhere I go—perhaps because I work in the dog-training business, I’m hypervigilant to their presence. My observation is this: Dog behavior—or, I should say, dog misbehavior in a social setting is becoming increasingly prevalent. More businesses are becoming “dog friendly,” and that is a good thing—the issue begins when establishments are forced to allow access to dogs because of misrepresentation of the dogs’ need to be there by dishonest customers and clients.

With so many labels—service dogs, therapy dogs, emotional support dogs—the situation can bevery confusing. I love my dogs, and I believe all dogs provide some level of emotional support ina human/canine relationship. But that emotional bond with you pooch does not give you the right to take him into places where the average dog is not normally allowed. By doing so, you actually risk spoiling dog-friendly access for someone who truly needs a dog present for physical or mental-health disabilities.

From my time as a police officer, one pet peeve that guaranteed you a citation was parking in a designated handicapped spot without the proper designation; claiming “emotional support,” “service” or “therapy” status for your dog when it’s not truly applicable, likewise, pushes my buttons. This is a touchy subject on many levels, made more complicated because not all disabilities are visually observable. Federal law dictates what types of questions can and can’t be asked by police, store owners, managers and others—as such, a lot of gray areas exist and, unfortunately, some people take advantage of that ambiguity.

Doggie Designations

So, what is the difference in the terms used to describe canines who provide help to us?

A service dog is trained to help people with disabilities, such as visual impairments, mental illnesses, seizure disorders or diabetes.

A therapy dog is trained to provide comfort and affection to people in hospice, disaster areas, retirement homes, hospitals, nursing homes, schools and more.

An emotionalsupport dog provides its owner therapeutic benefits through companionship.

The biggest difference between these designations is the type and amount of training dogs receive. Let’s break them down a little further.


This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Winter 2019 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.


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