2018-01-12 / Pets

The confusing world of assistance dogs

By Phyllis Beasley, CP DT-KA Owner/Lead Trainer, Praise Dog! Training, LLC www.praiseyourdogtraining.com


Palmetto Animal Assisted Life Services trained dog AJ works at Palmetto Health Richland Hospital 
Photo courtesy of PAALS Palmetto Animal Assisted Life Services trained dog AJ works at Palmetto Health Richland Hospital Photo courtesy of PAALS What’s in a name? In the world of assistance dogs, a lot of legal confusion and misconceptions.

Assistance dogs is a broad classification for dogs that perform as service dogs and for dogs that work in a facility to assist patients or clients. Therapy dogs are privately owned and provide comfort and affection to persons in many different settings including hospitals, nursing homes, shelters, and schools.

Let’s talk about service dogs first. A service dog is a dog that can perform specific skills to assist its owner. Protection of the rights of service dog owners falls under the American Disabilities Act (ADA).

A person’s disability can be mental, physical, sensory, developmental, or cognitive, or a combination. The skills the dog performs can vary depending on the need of the owner. These skills could include serving as someone’s eyes or ears, picking up objects, providing a steady back for someone to lean on, providing pressure to calm someone, alerting someone to a drop in blood sugar or an impending seizure. The jobs a service dog might be called upon to perform are as varied as the needs of its owner.


Palmetto Animal Assisted Life Services facility dog Chivers helps with children. 
Photo courtesy of PAALS Palmetto Animal Assisted Life Services facility dog Chivers helps with children. Photo courtesy of PAALS A service dog can be any breed and does not have to be a professionally trained. However, a service dog must be trained to perform its specific tasks, and, just as importantly, to be well-mannered in public, ignoring other dogs and people. While a service dog is allowed in any environment, if the dog barks excessively, eliminates in the environment, or is otherwise out of control, the handler may legally be asked to remove the animal. Service will still be provided to the owner.


A therapy dog is a privately-owned dog that has received obedience training, is registered with a therapy dog organization, and provides affection and comfort to people in locations such as hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices, and disaster areas. (Pictured above is the author of the Pet Page and her Pet Partners-registered therapy dog, Gideon. Gideon and Phyllis are also certified members of HOPE Animal- Assisted Crisis Response. A therapy dog is a privately-owned dog that has received obedience training, is registered with a therapy dog organization, and provides affection and comfort to people in locations such as hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices, and disaster areas. (Pictured above is the author of the Pet Page and her Pet Partners-registered therapy dog, Gideon. Gideon and Phyllis are also certified members of HOPE Animal- Assisted Crisis Response. Take note: there is no national registry recognized by the ADA for service dogs or for emotional support animals. There are for-profit companies on the internet that offer to register your dog as a service dog or ESA for a fee. However, these registries do not provide any legal authority or protection and are not recognized by the ADA or Department of Justice.

A service dog needs to be under the immediate control of its owner. A service dog generally should not ride in a shopping cart. If the service dog helps its owner by detecting a drop in blood sugar, for example, the dog should be held close to the owner to detect the scent changes, or, if the dog helps its owner with skills, the dog should be on the floor to be free to assist.

Many owners of service dogs will not allow their dogs to greet other dogs or people. When the service dog is with its owner in public, the dog is working and must focus on assisting its owner. You should not pet a service dog without permission or try to distract them in anyway.

One of the definitions that causes the most confusion is the Emotional Support Animal (ESA). An ESA is an animal, not always a dog, that provides emotional comfort to its owner, and its need is recognized by a licensed mental health professional. The only special access an ESA has is to be kept in housing that normally does not allow animals and to accompany its owner in the cabin of an airplane without an additional fee. The ESA dog is not a service dog and does not require any specific training.

Then we have facility dogs and therapy dogs. A facility dog is a highly trained dog that is handled by a professional to assist adults or children with physical or mental disabilities. The facility dog is placed in a specific facility, usually a hospital, nursing home, or other health care institution.

A therapy dog is owned by an individual who volunteers the services of the dog to offer comfort and affection to people in shelters, hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and other places where it may be helpful. A therapy dog should have excellent obedience skills and good manners, as well as an aptitude for the job. A therapy dog should truly enjoy interacting with all kinds of people. Therapy dogs must be registered with a national, regional, or local organization.

Registration involves tests specific to that organization. The test serves to verify the appropriateness of the dog for therapy work. The work of therapy dogs can be for animal assisted activities, in which the dog and handler participate in individual or group visits or programs, or the team may participate in animal assisted therapy. With animal- assisted therapy, the team works in partnership with a licensed counselor or therapist to assist a client. The work is documented and involves specific goals and outcomes. There is more information about therapy dogs in the September 12, 2014, issue of The Columbia Star. In South Carolina, the best resource for information about service dogs is the Palmetto Animal Assisted Life Services (PAALS), www.paals.org, the only Assistance Dog International (ADI) accredited organization based in South Carolina.

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