Service Dogs vs Therapy Dogs | What’s The Difference

Even when we look far back in history, dogs have always been a source of aid and helpfulness to us.  Over the past 100 years, that relationship has gotten even better.  The rise in dog ownership has put the US alone at over 80 million.

service dog
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Today we look at dogs as partners assisting us and relying on them for companionship.

When we think of a service dog vs therapy dogs, most people couldn’t sit down and tell you the difference between the two.  Yes we have all heard of one or the other, but actually understanding how they are different is less clear.

The best thing about this post, is that no matter what type of service the dog is providing, any dog that can help us maneuver through our life a bit easier is amazing to me.  Life throws us curve balls along the way.

Service dog

A service dog is a dog that is trained to help any person with disabilities.  The dogs are specifically trained to assist people with disabilities like:

  • visually impairment
  • hearing impaired
  • mobility impairment
  • medical alert issues
  • OCD (obsessive compulsion disorder)
  • PTSD (post-traumatic stress)
  • schizophrenia

Providing a service dog helps a person lead a much more independent life.  Assisting them with daily routines and activities making sure they can complete tasks without incident or problems.

People are matched with a specific dog that is trained for the exact need they require.  Just like a certain breed of dog in many cases is selected and trained for a specific service.

working dogs

An example 60-70 % of all seeing eye dogs in US are Labrador retrievers trained to help the blind.   Why this breed? This breed of dog has characteristics like an amazing temperament, along with their size and intelligence make them a great choice.  There are other breeds that fit this bill also like, German Shepherd’s and Golden Retriever.  So depending on what kind of help your service dog is going to provide, may determine what breed that dog will be.

Service dogs are so important to their owners as the jobs they do can be extremely difficult.  They are often responsible for the life and death of their owner.

A service dog that has an owner that is diabetic for example uses their highly sensitive scent to detect blood sugar levels.  They alert their owner when their blood sugar drops too low simply through the smell of their sweat.  This quick reaction can potential save this person life.

The job that these dogs do is as important as having someone else with you at all times.  Basically an extension of yourself.  Many people with disabilities just simply can’t do everything alone, so they rely on their Service dog.

Therapy dog

Unlike a service dog a therapy dog is used more in an emotional role than a working dog trained for a specific job. They don’t complete tasks for you in their role.

A therapy dog is used as more of a psychological dog.  A dog that is considered a therapy dog is often at times called an emotional support dog.  They can help with issues like:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • bi-polar disorder
  • panic attacks
  • personality disorders
  • separation anxiety

Emotional support dogs help provide comfort and affection to people in hospices, schools, and even prisons.  I have even seen them in a regular work place.  Pretty much anywhere there is people that need to be cheered up or need support, a therapy dog can be there for support.

service dogs vs therapy dogs

They are often used to comfort someone that are critically ill,  help someone struggling with things like anxiety or depression.  An emotional support dog can also be used to help people living with dementia, cognitive issues and autism.

Many times you will see these dogs brought in to help in traumatic situations like mass shootings, natural disasters and even helping a family that is grieving a loss.  These dogs help survivors cope in the worst of situations imaginable.  The calming nature or disposition of the dog let’s people feel more at ease and less anxious.

Big differences

There are some major differences between service dogs and therapy dogs.  In reality, there really don’t have that much in common at all.

Therapy dogs are not specifically selected for their breed.  Any well-balanced and stable dog can be used as a therapy dog.  A service dog is specifically picked for their breed. They are trained to help one person and that person only. Therapy dogs are owned by a person and are used to help support many people at one time when they are on duty.

You can pet a therapy dog, and in almost all cases this is encouraged.  Petting, hugging and interacting with the dog, is what makes them an emotional support dog.  People feel calm and relaxed when there is a well-behaved dog in the room.

emotional support dog

Service dogs on the other hand, are not to be hugged, touched or really even acknowledged at all.  For the most part, the dog is meant to be invisible and is really just an extension of their owner for the task or job they are doing.  They are not for emotional support like a therapy dog.  Their role is generally a physical role.

The name difference really says it all. A service dog is providing a “service”, while a therapy dog is there to give you “therapy or to help your heart”.  I hope that makes sense too you.  LOL!

What makes a good service dog

For a dog to become a service dog there are qualities or traits that your dog would need to have.  It’s these traits that makes a dog a good candidate, not the breed.

Yes some dog breeds are used more often than others, but there are more breeds stepping up all the time.  In last decade breeds like “Doodles” are becoming more and more popular simply because of their calm, sweet and smart personalities.

Some of the traits that your dog would need to have are:

  • Stable dog
  • Well-behaved
  • Unobtrusive to the public
  • Owner that has control over the dog
  • That you 2 are a good team
  • Not a public risk
  • Be able to follow commands well
  • Peeing or pooping on command
  • No solicitation for food or affection

Your dog will need to be able to sit or heel for long periods of time, even in a loud setting.  They must be able to be calm in cars and around traffic.  They would need to be able to walk through a crowded room with a purpose and to be completely focused on the job they are doing.

Service dogs must handle themselves in situations where they have no reaction at all.  Just as an example, if your dog was in a sit position and you were to drop food on the floor the needed reaction would be for them not to move at all.

In another situation if a child were to approach them to pet them and they don’t break from the job that they are doing.  Just stoic.  It fascinates me!

I have always been blown away by the focus and control a service dogs has.  A real testament to the hard work and training they have gone through.

Service dog training

Service dogs are trained by professional dog trainers usually starting when the puppy is about 6 mos old. The dog also needs to be out of the puppy phase.  Whether you have a male or female dog, they must be neutered and spayed.

Now depending on which country you live, the rules and regulations for a dog to become a service dog can vary a bit. In the US for example, there is no required certification, but the training community does have a set of minimum standards that are required.

dog training

International standards say that your dog must have a minimum of 120 hours of training over six months sometimes more. Even up to 24 months in some cases.  Of these hours, 30 of them must be in the public, dealing with surprises, and an array of potential distractions.

Just because the US doesn’t have defined requirements, they still believe that sticking to the training hours closely is crucial.  Those hours are generally broken down into 3 different tasks.

  1. Heeling – The dog is required to sit beside the handler in the heel position regardless of how the handler moves.  This can be one of the most difficult commands for a dog to learn.
  2. Proofing – Learning this task consists of teaching your dog to tune out any distracting noises, sounds or sudden surprises.  This can be a very time-consuming exercise.
  3. Tasking – Teaching your dog to be able to complete a specific task that they need to learn.  Repetition of course is always the best way to teach them this.  In many cases this can be the easiest thing to teach your dog.

You will need to have everything documented from your trainer including all the hours completed.  Usually some type of public access test is required and of course registering your dog with a reputable Service Dog Registry is also something you will want to do. .

Therapy dog training

Unlike the strict and extensive training that Service dogs go through, Therapy dogs do not need to have that same type of training.

I like to say that they are almost a regular dog, but one that has a winning personality and temperament.

You would still need to connect up with a Therapy dog service in your area, to make sure your dog is part of a reputable group.

An example St. John’s Ambulance offers therapy programs which does require a therapy dog to go through some testing and certification to be part of their program.

At the same time, therapy dogs can just be your dog that you own, that has all the wonderful traits that would make them a great candidate.

therapy dog

My work for example just recently had a Therapy dog come take a tour through our building and stop to see each work group.  She was a wonderful Chocolate Labrador that was with his owner who works for a company similar to St. Johns Ambulance.  She trained the dog herself and funny enough, Ruby, only had 3 legs.  Ruby had to have her leg amputated due to bone cancer, and yet she still is a fit to be a great Therapy dog.

Just having a dog visit our work group, just made everyone feel happier and help break up our day. She was sweet, calm and very affection.  It was wonderful to have her there.  She really was adorable.

This experience really made me understand just how helpful workings dogs can be to the people they see.  I believe that dogs offer us a way of healing just from their presence.

Dogs in general are absolutely amazing creatures.  Whether it’s a Service dog vs Therapy dog, the common denominator is THE DOG!!

17 thoughts on “Service Dogs vs Therapy Dogs | What’s The Difference”

  1. Hello Coralie,
    Thanks a lot for this lot of information, could not draw the line between service and therapy dog. But now I know specifically that while service dogs help with our jobs, therapy dogs assist with emotions. I have also seen dogs in workplaces but never knew they were primarily there for emotional stability, always thought it is for service.
    But come to think of it, can I own two dogs trained for different purposes living together in the same cage or I say the environment.

    • Hi there,

      You are certainly not alone in understanding the differences between service dogs vs therapy dogs. That is why I thought it was so important to right this post. 

      Yes you can have 2 dogs that are trained for either profession living in the same house.  They are capable of co-existing quite easily together no matter what.  Dogs are great that way.

      Thank you for your comments on my post.


  2. Hi!

    Thanks for this amazing post. I think you covered the subject very well and I appreciate your thoroughness. I also learned a lot! Its amazing when you mentioned that these dogs have to poo/pee on command and not solicit food or attention. I think most humans would have a lot of difficulty doing those! 

    Kudos to you for writing a well-structured post.


    • Hi Sunny,

      First, I love your profile pic of your dog.  Super cute.  I am so glad that you enjoyed reading my post and found it informative. 

      Many people don’t realize what type of rules and commands these dogs need to follow to be helpful to their owners.  It is their whole job in life. 

      Thank you for your thoughts.


  3. Wonderful article and you did an excellent job pointing out the differences between service and therapy dogs. We have a therapy dog in our office,he is a golden lab helps his owner out day to day. His owner is a vet with ptsd and thanks to his therapy dog he can work full time. I do believe it is easier to get employers to agree to a service dog as opposed to a therapy dog however. Hopefully that will and can change in the future.

    • Hello,

      That is so wonderful to hear that your office has a Vet with a therapy dog working there.  I believe that companies will start to adapt and allow people to bring their helpers with them to work everyday.  There are so many people that are in need of a therapy dog these days, it is only going to grow and grow.

      Thank you for your comments.


  4. Thanks for all the details! I wondered about the differences this since I first met a doberman therapy dog was staying with a friend who’s partner was an Army Sgt vet with PTSD. This dog took to my daughter (who had anxiety at the time) like velcro. Normally a cat person, she loved it and it felt really helpful. We eventually adopted a cat that showed up on our doorstep and allowed in the rental as a therapy animal. She’s interested in dogs too now, is there a few breeds that make better therapy dogs?

    • Hi Cyndi,

      Thank you so much for sharing your daughters latest encounter with a therapy dog.  They really are so helpful to the people they are with.  I love how dogs always seem to know who needs something from them, like your daughter’s anxiety.  I guess that is another thing that makes them great at helping people.

      I always have thought that Lab’s seem to make the best therapy dogs, but you also can’t go wrong with a Doodle.  I believe they will be the biggest of the therapy dogs in the next decade.

      Thank you.


  5. Coralie,

    I loved how you handle every one of your topics in your niche. I have a deep connection with your niche as I have two emotional support dogs in my house. One is for my adult son who suffers from ADHD and the other is mine, because I suffer from depression and anxiety. Both dogs are wonderful therapy dogs. They truly help both of us with their unconditional love and affection.

    I like the fact that you took the tie in your content to describe the differences between Service and Therapy dogs. Most people don’t realize there is a difference or what the differences are. Thank you for explaining this.

    The other connecting I have with your niche is that my niche is all about dogs, especially rescue dogs. In it I discuss how rescue dogs can be trained to be Service and/or Therapy dogs.

    All the best to you in 2020!


    • Hi Barbara,

      We are obviously kindred spirits and I am always so happy to meet other dog crazy people like me. HAHA!

      I am happy to hear that you and your son both have dogs that provide all the support that you need on a daily basis. 

      Just in reading the comments on my post, you are so right, that many people really don’t know their is a difference between a service dog vs a therapy dog. 

      I love that you are so committed to rescue dogs and having them become trained to help other people.  Dogs are so resilient,  I am constantly amazed.

      Best of luck to you and thank you for sharing your story with me.  I wish you and your family the best in 2020.


  6. Coralie,

    I loved how you handle every one of your topics in your niche. I have a deep connection with your niche as I have two emotional support dogs in my house. One is for my adult son who suffers from ADHD and the other is mine, because I suffer from depression and anxiety. Both dogs are wonderful therapy dogs. They truly help both of us with their unconditional love and affection.

    I like the fact that you took the tie in your content to describe the differences between Service and Therapy dogs. Most people don’t realize there is a difference or what the differences are. Thank you for explaining this.

    The other connecting I have with your niche is that my niche is all about dogs, especially rescue dogs. In it I discuss how rescue dogs can be trained to be Service and/or Therapy dogs.

    All the best to you in 2020!

  7. Hi Coralie,

    I am really blown away reading the insane things dogs are capable of when it comes to assisting humans. Like, the fact that dogs can tell when a person’s blood sugar level is too low just by the smell of their sweat is crazy! I knew dogs had a keen sense of smell, but that’s a next level jump.

    I’ve never been a dog person, but if there’s a well-trained dog in the room, it makes me feel like everything is going to be okay. There’s a reason the dog is man’s best friend–their affection for people is hard to resist!

    You talked about Ruby, the therapy dog that came into your work, and how she only had three legs. Of course, that didn’t stop her from doing her job. We could probably learn a thing or two from animals about living in the moment, even if we lose an entire leg! Thanks for this post, it really made my day.


    • Hi Issac,

      When Ruby came to our work place, that is the first thing that I though of was how she was able to completely live for that moment with us.  She amazed me.

      I am with you in thinking that dogs constantly amaze me in their emotional abilities that they can sense.  We really need to learn to adapt some of their daily philosophy for ourselves.  I sure have thought of nothing since I seen her.

      I really am so happy that you enjoyed my post.  I am always looking for topics that people will find interesting and hopefully learn something they previously didn’t know.  Thank you.


  8. This is truly an awesome article on service and therapy dogs. Either one has a purpose to fulfill to help we humans in our daily lives. You’ve really made me to understand their differences.

    It is very amazing to see a service dog give us insight of our sugar levels. It’s great. Dogs are truly a man’s best friend and are absolutely amazing creatures.

    • Hi Kell,

      You are so right that dogs are amazing and still continue to amaze me. The things that they are capable of doing, and how utterly helpful they can be.  Literally they help people get out of bed everyday and lead a full life. Without the help of dogs, this would not be possible.

      Thank you so much for reading my post and your comments. I really appreciate it.


  9. Whenever there’s a good dog around – whether it’s for therapy or for service – it just elevates your heart, doesn’t it? If I get to choose, I would like to work with therapy dogs. Maybe because I am more of a cuddly person. The impact of a good-natured dog is astonishing – they break the ice, they get children to talk, they initiate the elderly to move. I think it’s just great for the health of the community as a whole. 

    • Hi Cathy,

      I 100% agree with you that dogs really can get people out of their shell so to speak.  It makes them happy and comfortable enough to start talking.  Their impact is really undeniable.  We could and should learn from them and how they react to life.  They are always looking forward.

      Thank you so much for your thoughts and comments.



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