Most people who know dogs only know them as fun, loving and oftentimes goofy companions. If the hardest part of your dog’s day is balancing Cheez-Its on his nose, then you may forget just how well dogs can do serious jobs. They can find lost children. They can find buried skiers. They can even herd sheep.


Some dogs have an important job that only requires them to be their sweet selves. They are therapy dogs, which use the power of their friendly dispositions to brighten people’s days in hospitals, assisting living residences, mental health institutions, and other places where someone might appreciate cheer in the form of big brown puppy dog eyes.


Many people confuse service dogs, emotional support dogs and therapy dogs. Let’s briefly touch on their differences before explaining the specific requirements therapy dogs should meet.


What Is a Service Dog?


Perhaps most impressively of all, dogs can help people live independently and traverse the world safely. These are the service dogs, which the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines as “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.” They’re the dogs you see in public wearing harnesses and signs that say “DO NOT PET.”


Service dogs don’t wear those signs because they are antisocial. Most of them would enjoy being petted by you. They just can’t be distracted from guiding people who are blind, pulling people who are in wheelchairs, or warning people who are about to have seizures.


It would be unjust to separate people from the dogs they need for their safety and autonomy. That is why the ADA mandates full public access rights to service dogs. They aren’t pets, so they are exempt from rules banning pets.


What Is an Emotional Support Dog?


Emotional support dogs (ESDs) don’t perform specialized tasks for people with disabilities. They do not require specialized training, and their access to public places is not protected by the ADA. True to its name, an ESD provides support to someone who is living with a psychological disorder such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks or schizophrenia. 


Many ESDs are normal pets before they are promoted by their owners. Many others are selected to be ESDs at birth, and undergo some obedience and specialized training during puppyhood. But none of them become ESDs until they are formally prescribed by a mental health professional. 


That prescription gives an ESD limited legal rights. Although the Fair Housing Act does require landlords not to discriminate against tenants who have ESDs, airlines can prohibit emotional support animals from boarding flights at their discretion. This is practical, as it prevents people from seating their emotional support peacocks in economy class.


What Is a Therapy Dog?


Therapy dogs can help people living with disabilities or psychological disorders. They just don’t do it around the clock, as a therapy dog can belong to anyone who enjoys volunteering to do kind things for their community.


In essence, a therapy dog’s job is to make people happy by sheer virtue of being a dog. They are usually fawned over and petted by hospital patients, nursing home residents, school children, and anyone else who could do with a little reassurance. 


A therapy dog must be in its owner’s presence at all times while they are “working.” Federal law doesn’t protect a therapy dog’s right of access to any public place. That said, if you have a friendly dog and would like to share their loveliness with strangers, many public places would welcome you with open arms. They may only ask you to prove that your pooch is qualified to be a therapy dog first.


What Are the Requirements for a Therapy Dog?


According to the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, a dog does not require any formal training, certification, registration or documentation in order to become a therapy dog.


Managers of therapeutic or educational settings often refuse the liability of allowing an uncertified therapy dog on their premises. That is why certification from a reputable national therapy dog organization will grant your dog more opportunities to deliver joy to people. And because those people are often physically fragile, you’ll enjoy peace of mind that your dog has already demonstrated the right temperament for the job.


Therapy dog certification organizations typically have a few requirements of their own. For example, the Alliance of Therapy Dogs only accepts a dog that is at least one year old and demonstrates good manners, demeanor and handling skills. Dogs that satisfy those criteria are formally supervised during three visits with residents of medical facilities. Assuming all goes well, your dog will be deemed a bona fide therapy dog. Give Fido a bone to celebrate the occasion!


What Is Pet Therapy?


Pet therapy is a guided interaction between a person and a trained dog or other animal. Also known as animal-assisted therapy, pet therapy’s purpose is to facilitate the human participant’s recovery. Pet therapy is commonly exercised by cancer patients, nursing home residents, children undergoing medical procedures, stroke victims and others who are managing a medical, physical or mental health condition.


Pet therapy’s greatest benefit may be its relaxing effect on its human participant. The calming company of an animal is often enough to reduce blood pressure and relieve anxiety. Moreover, pet therapy is versatile. It can include a wide range of exercises aimed at improving verbal communication, social skills, motor skills and more.


Most dogs that participate in pet therapy are, suitably enough, therapy dogs. In addition to proof of certification and an examination of the dog to ensure it is good-natured and disease-free, a pet therapy administrator may require additional obedience training. The dog’s handler must also be present and trained for pet therapy sessions. Once approved, the therapy dog’s owner can take satisfaction from giving invaluable one-on-one dog time to people in need.

Sadly, a dog’s healing powers are limited. If you would like physical therapy or breathing therapy by an equally well-meaning (but arguably not as cute) human being, then we welcome you to schedule a consultation at Acucare Physical Therapy’s clinic in Sioux Falls, SD today! In fact, Jody and Murphy will be taking the TDI certification test on June 17, 2023. Wish them luck and stay tuned for pictures.