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Karen Wang
BY Karen Wang
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A Complete Guide to Service, Therapy and Emotional Support Dogs

Have you ever thought about getting a service dog to help you or a loved one?  What about a therapy dog for school or an emotional support companion dog for home?  Here’s a guide to the different types of service dogs and a few of the organizations that train both dogs and owners.

Service Dogs

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 2011 defines service dogs as those trained to do work directly related to a person’s disability.  Emotional support animals and dogs used as crime deterrents are excluded from this definition.  A service dog is expected to accompany a person with a disability at all times.

Over 90% of service dog handlers say that their animals improve their quality of life by assisting with life skills and increasing physical activity and community involvement.  Each service dog is matched to an handler’s unique needs after extensive training to perform specific tasks while maintaining a calm temperament.  Before going home, the new handler also receives instruction for the animal’s care and handling.

Most service dogs receive training in one of the following areas:

Mobility  Assistance: 

  • Opens doors using a strap
  • Pushes doors closed
  • Assists with dressing/undressing
  • Assists wheelchair user to upright position when slumped over
  • Moves feet onto wheelchair footrests, moves arms to wheelchair armrests
  • Prevents fall by bracing handler
  • Retrieves wheelchair or walker when out of reach

Where to find mobility service dogs:

  1. New Life Mobility Assistance Dogs
  2. 4 Paws For Ability
  3. Shore Service Dogs, Inc.
  4. Pawsibilities Unleashed, LLC
  5. New Horizons Service Dogs

Medical Response (seizures, diabetes, severe allergies):

Medical Dog

  • Retrieves medication,
  • Calls 911 in an emergency,
  • Opens door for first responders,
  • Identifies medical symptoms and gets help
  • Lies down on chest to help person cough or take a breath
  • Barks for help or finds help on command.

Where to find a medical response dog:

  1. Service Dogs for America
  2. Service Dogs for Independence
  3. Canine Assistants
  4. Alert Service Dogs (diabetic emergency response)
  5. Angel Service Dogs (anaphylactic allergy response)

Signal (Hearing Impairment):

  • Alerts handler to the presence of people or sounds
  • Retrieves unheard dropped objects
  • Carries messages
  • Warns of vehicle approaching from behind

Where to find dogs for the hearing impaired:

  1. Dogs for the Deaf
  2. International Hearing Dog, Inc.
  3. Little Angels Service Dogs

guide dogGuide (Visual Impairment):

  • Avoids obstacles or moving vehicles
  • Signals changes in elevation
  • Locates object or person on command
  • Retrieves dropped objects

Where to find dogs for the hearing impaired:

  1. The Seeing Eye, Inc.
  2. Leader Dogs for the Blind, Inc.
  3. Guide Dogs for the Blind

autism service dogAutism Assistance:

  • Braces handler for stability while walking,
  • Finds specific places such as home or car when owner is disoriented
  • Finds and retrieves wandering handler to a safe place
  • Helps handler fall asleep during insomnia episodes,
  • Signals self-stimulatory behaviors
  • Interrupts self-harming behaviors
  • Places body on chest or lap for deep pressure during panic attack or meltdown
  • Signal significant sounds such as smoke alarm
  • Guides around obstacles in visually confusing situations

Where to find autism service dogs:

  1. Autism Service Dogs of America
  2. Wilderwood Service Dogs
  3. 4 Paws for Ability

Psychiatric Assistance:

  • Assesses safety of situation in cases of paranoia or hallucinations
  • Guides handler away from stressful situations
  • Interrupts flashbacks and self-harming behaviors
  • Reminds handler to take medication
  • Retrieves medication and other important objects
  • Braces handler to prevent fall
  • Calls 911 or gets help in emergency

Where to find psychiatric assistance dogs:

  1. Heeling Allies
  2. Little Angels Service Dogs
  3. Canines 4 Hope

Therapy Dogs/Facility Dogs

therapy dog in schoolTherapy dogs are trained to provide affection and comfort to children and adults who need emotional support or people in stressful situations.

These dogs are typically mature pets with calm temperaments, they enjoy being petted by lots of different people and are not easily frightened or excited.  Therapy dogs visit schools, group homes, nursing homes hospices and hospitals.

therapy dog hospitalAt school, students may find it easier to read a book to a therapy dog than to a teacher.  After a natural disaster such as a tornado or hurricane, therapy dogs can help comfort people who have suffered a loss.  Many physicians agree that therapy dogs can decrease the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in hospital patients while increasing the hormones oxytocin and dopamine, which are associated with feelings of attachment and happiness.

Where to find therapy dogs:

  1. Canine Companions for Independence
  2. Delta Society Pet Partners
  3. Love on a Leash
  4. Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs
  5. West Michigan Therapy Dogs, Inc.

Emotional Support Animal/Companion animal

Emotional support dogs usually do not have specialized training, although sometimes they are trained to call 911 in an emergency.  These animals are chosen for their gentle, calming temperament, and may be of any size or breed.

While therapy dogs work outside the home with groups of people, emotional support animals primarily provide comfort at home for one or two people.  Federal law in the USA allows people with disabilities and psychiatric conditions to live with their emotional support animals even in housing that prohibits dogs.

emotional support animalAirlines also have a broad definition of assistance animals that allows emotional support animals to fly with their handlers.  The handler must provide a recent letter from a physician prescribing the emotional support animal for a specific physical or mental illness that limits one or more life activities in order to apply for housing or to fly with the dog.

Do you have a service dog?  How has your dog helped you?

Karen Wang

Written on May 23, 2013 by:

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"
  • Good Dog! Autism

    Great article! Thank you for posting on our Good Dog! Autism Companions FaceBook page! Please note that we have a Free Chat program to help families find the best fit for them and to better understand the autism service dog arena!

  • Jodee Kulp

    Great job Karen – reposted to our Paws Up For Fun as a nibble to your whole article http://paws-up-for-fun.blogspot.com/ Thank you!

  • Angel Service Dogs
  • Dogs for the Deaf

    Thanks! Very helpful info.

  • PattiHastings

    Thanks! How do I pay for a service dog? I’m a quadriplegic and have use of my right hand only. I hate being dependent on people 24/7. I hate feeling guilty. Sometimes the emotional pain is the worse part…

    • fcmichigan

      Canine Companions for Independence provides mobility service dogs at no charge to their handlers, and handlers must go through an application process and 2 weeks of training. Here’s the link for the application process: http://www.cci.org/site/c.cdKGIRNqEmG/b.4010981/k.87A7/Apply_For_A_Dog.htm

      • Lori in NorCal

        Thank you for bringing Canine Companions for Independence into this article and as a response to this question. They were not listed as one of the service dog organizations but have a northeast chapter that includes Pennsylvania. They provide Service Dogs, Companion Dogs for Autism, Therapy Dogs, and Hearing Dogs at no cost to their handlers. Volunteers are needed to help train the puppies and support outreach events. Check them out.

  • Janet Ann Collins

    I once knew a cat that alerted its Deaf owners when their baby cried or someone came to the door. That was before the devices to do those things were invented. The cat wasn’t specially trained, but learned to do those things on its own.

  • Cindy Wolf

    You have a photo of a dog from Susquehanna Service Dogs in the article, yet they are not mentioned. Also, the young lady in the photo is the founder of Phoenix Assistance Dogs. Both those agencies train and place service dogs for a variety of needs, from mobility to autism, and both are located in Pennsylvania.

  • pmbender

    We started our adventure in raising a service dog 19 months ago, and I it is a wonderfully rewarding way to volunteer. These dogs are amazing with their life-changing service, giving independence to those who would otherwise never experience that. We have recorded our venture into this in a blog:
    http://www.myservicedogtraining.wordpress.com

  • Linzey Jo Zoccola

    Wonderful article, chalk full of great information! I am honored to be in the lead photograph, though I do hope somehow you can make a note that it is Susquehanna Service Dog Winston (RIP) and Linzey Zoccola. It is again – a wonderful article!

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  • AutisticCetologist

    Despite my disability, I always have this strange fear of service dogs always over taxing themselves for their owners and no one notices or cares. ): Even though I need an animal in my life to help me keep my emotional stability, I’m so afraid that these dogs are overworking themselves and are being emotionally and psychologically neglected. ): Maybe it’s stupid of me to comment on this article but urgh.

    • Kay

      Good service dogs have an unending desire to work and good owners know to give their dogs down time. With that said, not all disabled people need service dogs and not all dogs are cut out to be SDs. You really need to understand what working dogs are for before you did comment on your article. I have a standard poodle SD. I have to make every part of her life a job or task or else she gets bored, and when she gets bored, she gets into trouble, so I keep her busy or mentally or physically stimulated. You can’t force a dog to work, they will shut down, they will let you know they are unhappy, they will show their stress. A happy, working dog is always up for the job, to them it is not job, it’s just the enjoyment of being with their handler. Do some research.

    • sryan

      Having had dogs all my life I know that they live to be by your side and want nothing more in the world than to please you. I think service dogs have a wonderful life for a companion animal compared to most pets because they get to spend some much time with the ones they adore

  • requiempoet

    I’m doing extensive research as I have hydrocephalus, mild cerebral palsy and a undetermined mental disorder ( depression with a mood disorder not other wise specified ) and I don’t know what would be best for me. I’ve grown up with dogs, and I moved…and it’s affecting my depression something awful. Would I qualify for a service dog, or a support dog?

    • Peter Lindval

      Definitely! You qualify for an emotional support dog…

    • Tina McCrory

      If you are disabled and a dog can be trained to do tasks to mitigate your Disability you qualify for a service dog. If you only want emotional support and comfort, you can have an ESA if you are disabled.

  • Payton Jerome

    My
    younger son is suffering from epilepsy and always. Someone to assist him all the
    times, which was creating a lot of problem. We all are working professionals,
    so we finally thought of sending my pet for service dog training to Cali K9 San
    Francisco. Now, Sherry takes care of my son like we do. All thanks to the valuable
    service dog training given to my dog at Cali K9 San Francisco.

  • Cherie

    I have a 16 month old grandson with a Rare Genetic disorder. The Geneticist has not seen this disorder before and they are researching now. When Logan has the oportunity to be around a dog, he comes to life he smiles and tries to sit up, stand even grasp and hold on. The transformation is remarkable. My question is at what age must a child be to qualify for a service animal? My daughter currently lives in an apartment and plans on moving to a house in December so if ever possible they can have a Service dog.

    • Kay

      Sounds like an ESA would be ideal for him. Service dogs and ESAs are very different. A service must mitigate a person’s disability. In other words, the dog must do something that the person can’t do for themselves. Younger children can’t handle the dog alone, and training takes two years. Most organizations won’t place a service dog to a young child, but an ESA would provide emotional comfort for their handler.

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  • joe

    Im getting a puppy and i want to get him trained as an emotional support k9 because i have panic attacks, depression, and ptsd im fine at home when im with my girlfreind but when i goout or to work i get really down i was just wondering where i could get him trained and roughly how much it would be

    • Kay

      Emotional support dogs don’t have public access. You need to be disabled, per a medical provider, discuss with them whether they feel it would benefit you need (though you don’t need a medical note unless a program or trainer required it.) The cost to train a service dog can cost about $20,000 – 25,000 be it program or owner trainer and private trainers can be even more. Service dogs aren’t a cure all for mental health issues and for some it can actually cause more problems. The dog has to do something for you that you can’t do for yourself, emotional support isn’t a task. Emotional support animals don’t have public access, so your dog wouldn’t be allowed in non pet friendly places and it is illegal to pass off a pet as a service dog. I wouldn’t advise it!

      • Kaay

        Its not law for a public place to allows ESA’s but they can allow it out of curtsey so it doesn’t hurt to ask.

        • Kay

          It’s not the least bit appropriate to ever bring a non service dog into any public place, especially when the dog isn’t tasked trained to mitigate a handlers disability. I spent over 2 years training my service dog and because of people like you who think it’s ok to bring their unruly, poorly trained dogs into public, because “they comfort you”, I’ve had my dog attacked 9 times. That’s BS. Keep your little ESA at home. The only rights you have are when you fly and in housing, and that’s bad enough when I see how poorly the dogs behave. You’re not entitled to ever bring a non service dog anywhere that isn’t pet friendly.

          • Joan Tonello

            Are u referring to me with this comment

          • Shaun Lons

            well, that was poorly handled.

      • Joan Tonello

        Emotional support dogs have public access

  • tmangel

    I am dealing with Fibromyalgia and have a hard time picking things up and moving around. I deal with depression but I hide it. I deal with a lot of emotional problems. What kind of companion dog do I need?

    • Kay

      If you’re disabled by your fibro under ADA definition of disability, you would benefit from a service dog who can help with retrieval, picking up dropped objects, even helping to pull off socks. I have trained my SD to do this and much more, and I have also got fibro. Talk to your doctor about the idea. Training is about 2 years whether you go with a program or self train. Owner training is a difficult process, and can be far more expensive than a program dog. Start with some research, but do not fall for any of those sites that can “certify” or “registered” because NONE of these are legal in the US.

  • todd erickson

    I’m wondering what the osdr means befor the number isued

  • Jasmine

    I have depression and sometimes it gets REALLY bad. I have anxiety, stress and really really bad social anxiety. Dogs are the only thing that make me feel truly happy and safe. People have hurt me mentally and I had a abuse father. I overdose once and I use to hurt myself. Do you think I qualify for a emotional support dog?

    • Tina McCrory

      If you meet the ADA definition of disabled, you qualify for an ESA.

      • Joan Tonello

        I agree

        • Kay

          Lol you agree, Tina has a service dog, she’s well versed in the law, the requirements, and access.

    • Kay

      So you have anxiety and depression, go see a therapist and get on meds. A ESA isn’t your first step, managing your issues is m

      • Joan Tonello

        Kay it seems to me that you are quite opinionated you don’t know if Jasmine has seen a therapist or is on meds and it’s none of your business. she has every right to have A service dog and she would fall under the ADA laws. It seems by your comments on this forum that you were very angry and quite abusive to people with anxiety problems. It’s obvious you don’t understand anxiety and what that entails maybe you should see a therapist and get on meds before you added anything more to this fourm as I am sure you are hurting a lot of people.

        • Cheryl Theriault

          Thanks Joan, that really needed to be said.

          Do you know if there are any dvd’s or other info that could be used to help train a potential emotional support dog?

          • Joan Tonello

            There is research on the Internet you just have to get out there and read and find someone that’s reputable with their teachings.

          • Kay

            I’m sorry, but your advice is BS. There is no teaching anything with an ESA. You clearly don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m not being mean, I’m stating pure fact. ESAs don’t have public access rights, only for housing and flying. You obviously don’t understand the differences, but you feel the need to dole out advice.

          • Amanda

            Kay, I am unsure of who you are but the reason why I came on this website was to find information on a service animal for my cousin who has autism and what benefits a dog would have for someone like him. I come down to the comments section and see you hounding on people looking for information and asking questions because they’re considering a ESA to help them through a difficult time and there is nothing wrong with that. I understand that you’ve had a rough history with ESA but I’m going to tell you about mine and how he’s helped me. I named him Hash and without him I’d probably be gone. I’ve been bullied since the age of 9 and now being 20 years old, I still get bullied online by old roommates from my freshmen year of college. I’ve been going to therapy since I was 17 and been on meds since I was 18 for depression, anxiety (specifically anxiety attacks), as well as an eating disorder. Nothing helped. I was still going strong because my childhood dog was still around to comfort me but at the age of 19 he passed away and that’s when I started contemplating suicide. My therapy sessions became more frequent and I became more depressed about to fail out of college. This passed year I adopted Hash and since then my suicidal thoughts have disappeared, I go to therapy once a week instead of every other day, I’ve become healthier and my eating disorder has almost disappeared. This dog brought me more happiness than Disney World. So the next time you go and hate on someone solely because they’re looking into an ESA think about what I told you. By looking at me you wouldn’t know all of that and you surely can’t know people solely based on a comment asking or answering a serious question. Dog’s bring love and comfort that many people can’t give and dogs have saved so many lives with that kind of love. SO STOP HATING AND ACTING AS IF YOU KNOW EVERYTHING! I can guarantee you don’t know anything about these people and what they’re going through. You want the BS stop? Then stop acting like BS yourself.

          • Kay

            There’s no training for an ESA, it’s a pet food those with mental or emotional issues. You can’t get them certified or registered, it’s just a simple pet. Training for obedience and good behavior is the only training necessary.

        • Julissa Rentas

          Totally agree

        • Kay

          Since you feel the need to correct me, what profound knowledge do you actually have regarding service dogs or ESAs. Are you a professional therapist? A service dog trainer? A mental health expert?
          I’ll wait….

      • Laurie

        I understand the frustration of someone who relies on a SD to go into a public place and other animals in the same public place go CRAZY barking at the SD. I witnessed this myself. I don’t know whether the poorly behaved dog was an ESA or a pet. The SD was exceptionally well trained and I was appalled at the other owner who had an ugly, mean expression and uttered something about “fake service dogs”. On the other hand, my daughter has severe psychological challenges and her pediatrician, psychiatrist and counselors from the IOP, that she goes to 3 days a week, 3 hours a day, all strongly recommended an ESA. That being said, it’s my opinion that if it necessary to cyber bully someone on a resource page that is there to help EVERYONE with physical and emotional challenges, the host of the Website should be obligated to block the offender.

        • Kay

          I’m not cyberbullying it’s a comment, but feel free to find a safe space of you’re so offended. I’m still aware of the laws and reasoning regarding SDs and ESAs. What I find funny is how many people just rip off the answer, yes. The only ones who should determine her need would be her treatment team.

    • Joan Tonello

      Yes

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  • Sarah Cicha Rentz

    I am a mom of a son who has some emotional issues. We bought a dog for him to be his emotional support dog but the dog seems to be becoming attached to other members of the family. Any suggestions on how to change this?

  • Wayne

    I am an experienced obedience dog trainer loking for a few good books or manuals on training for therapy and special needs people. I.e. psychology environment. Can anyone recommend anything for me

  • michelle

    am a special needs Adult .and my name is michelle I have very bad. heart and I can’t walk good I need a dog for my mood I have depression very bad I live with my mom abs dad in
    Pittsburgh pa I’ve grown up with a dog and then my dog die it was so sad for me to be with out a dog .so please please help me I wold love to have a dog in my life very much
    I wold like a big nice dog thanks michelle

  • Karen
  • Mistd Fibro Sagasta

    I just bought a puppy I’m training him to be with me when I’m in pain sad depressed mental disorder is present. Can I register him to be with me at all times?

  • Suzy Delange

    Hello, does anyone know where I can adopt a dog that would be a good candidate as an emotional support dog? My dog Riley recently passed away, and he was a companion to my elderly father who is widowed, limited mobility and depressed. Riley was the only thing that would make my dad smile and walk outside, and am hoping to find another family dog that would help me put a smile on my dad’s face again. I’m on a wait list for career change seeing eye dogs, which is 4 years – so I was wondering if there were any rescues anyone can recommend?

    • Trish Casto

      I got mine from a shelter. He is the best dog I have ever had. He was abused and traumatized, like me. He was around 2 when I adopted him, so he was already trained. Speak to the shelter workers about it. You want one that rarely barks, is trained on some commands such as heel, come, stay, etc, has a calm temperament, and shows no aggression at any time.

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  • Trish Casto

    I was diagnosed with bipolar depression and severe social anxiety disorder when I was 25. I was on Xanax 2 mg, valium, colonopin, and a variety of different anti depressants for 15 years. During that time I had 4 mental breakdowns followed by stays at mental hospitals. Finally one day I took a handful of sleeping pills. By the grace of God I survived. When I returned home, one of our dogs became my emotional support dog somehow. At the time id never heard of a dog as for emotional support, and had never really been so close to a dog. My husband was a dog lover, that was the only reason we had dogs. He was a calm and gentle jack Russell terrier, as calm as they get. He rarely barked, and stayed in my lap almost constantly. It I felt a panic attack coming on, he would sit in front of me not too close and watch and if it set in he would attempt to distract me with silly behavior and talking but knew to keep his distance since much of my anxiety was a boxed in feeling I couldn’t breathe. If I became depressed or cried, he would climb in my lap, put his head under my hand and force a pet. He had his ways, and I discovered a new way to live through him.
    When he was hit by a car in 2014, I felt my life had ended. I quit my job, became a drug addict, and was very sad and lost for 8 months. I needed a dog. My mom encouraged me to get a shelter dog, saying many have been abused also and have deep empathy for humans. So, I went to the local animal shelter a few times, and discovered my new friend, a jack Russell Corgi mix with pale blue eyes, hiding in the back alone and afraid. By the end of our visit he was asleep on my lap, head on my shoulder in a kind of hug. He was the one, and I was crying tears of joy for finding such a perfect fit. I’ve had him for over a year now, and I’m not on any medication and no longer self medicating either. I’ve been looking for a job, therefore slowly training my dog that im ok to be gone from him for periods of time and not coming back emotionally wrecked.
    My dog scooter never barks. Ever. He does not steal food, tear up stuff, or get separation anxiety at all. He is no normal dog. Whoever had him before the shelter gave him extensive training, and I suspect a great deal of beatings due to his reactions of pure terror if he thinks he did wrong – like accidentally knocking over something. He will hide in fear for an entire day, even though I’ve never ever struck him, raised my voice, or punished him in any way. But we are working through it together, because we both know about lasting trauma caused by abuse. He sits quietly by my side, at all times, and has his ways of comforting me that I don’t think can be taught. Anyone that knows me, knows wherever I’m at a little white and brown dog will be in tow.
    I’m having a difficult time getting him certified. I don’t bring him in restaurants, around alot of other dogs even thought he is extremely dog friendly, or any public places where it’s unnecessary. But I’ve got to have him where I live, and for travel. I’ve been told by a therapist I’d have to go stay in a mental hospital for 4 days to get him certified as service type animal, but I can’t believe I’d have to leave him. I trust no one with my nanners dog, since my last dog was killed when I left him in the care of someone else for 1 day. The apartment building I just moved in to has raised their dog deposit to $300, and I have no job can’t afford it yet. Homeless shelters won’t allow him. Ill be on the street with him, because I will not be without him. I simply can’t. I don’t know what to do, I have no money to pay doctors either. Any advice anyone can give me would be life saving advice. I know that sounds dramatic, believe me it’s the truth. Thanks

  • Roger Smith

    Nice Post and very helpful information. Thanks for sharing.

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