Service, therapy and emotional support dogs

The terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but there’s a difference between these three working dog classifications.

Our canine companions enjoy having a job. Many become service, therapy and emotional support dogs for people who need physical or emotional assistance. Among other things, these dogs might serve as someone’s eyes and ears, help a disabled person regain independence after an illness or injury, or aid a military veteran suffering from PTSD. But the words “support”, “service” and “therapy” aren’t interchangeable. Discovering the difference between these three working dog classifications will help enhance your appreciation for what these clever canines can do.

1. Emotional support dogs

Unlike many other working dogs, emotional support dogs don’t necessarily perform specific tasks. Their chief purpose is to provide companionship, affection and support to people with diagnosed mental and emotional disabilities, such as PTSD, autism, anxiety and panic attacks, depression and various phobias.

One organization that trains dogs for emotional support work (among other types of work) is Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto, Florida. This organization has its own breeding colony. “We have a genetics and reproduction department, medical team and two veterinarians,” says Suzy Wilburn, Director of Admissions and Alumni Support. “We train dogs for several careers, including emotional support.”

In order to adopt an emotional support dog from Southeastern Guide Dogs, you are required to participate in a three-day training course. During this time, you will learn how to practice basic obedience with the dog, as well as how to maintain his training. The organization also requires an official written or typed letter from a current physician stating your need for an emotional support dog.  Other requirements include phone interviews, background checks and in-home visits.

2. Service dogs 

Service dogs (including guide dogs) help people who are physically disabled by illness or injury, including those who are vision-impaired, are confined to a wheelchair, or have other health issues that limit their lives. Many of these individuals are unable to perform daily tasks without assistance. A service dog can give them greater independence by doing some of these tasks for them, whether it’s fetching something or guiding them through unfamiliar environments. Service dogs are trained to understand and respond to particular disabilities. Some can even alert their people to an imminent seizure or other dangerous medical event, and prompt them to take any necessary action to prevent a crisis.

Service, therapy and emotional support dogs
Mae is a member of Southeastern Guide Dogs, and is learning how to work in a mall environment. Photo courtesy of Southeastern Guide Dogs.

Comprehensive Pet Therapy Inc. is another training facility for those in need of service as well as support and therapy dogs, although they don’t raise their own dogs. “We train dogs for the hearing impaired and for seizure assistance,” says trainer Patricia King. “These dogs come to us after being purchased by their owners, and spend three different time periods with us over the course of 18 months. We begin with basic obedience commands, transitioning to more service-oriented training, and after that, we begin public access training for service work. In between these training sessions, the dogs go home to bond with their families and to mature.”

Southeastern Guide Dogs also has training programs for service and guide dogs. During a 12-day stay at their campus facility, you will practice commands with the service dog that best mitigates your disability. The dog will have already been trained to master these commands, but during your stay at the facility, the training is customized to fit your needs, and to help you learn how to interact with the dog. The organization has accommodations where you and your dog can live together to help form a purposeful bond. The organization also matches highly trained dogs with the visually impaired; these students train at the campus facility for 20 versus 12 days, and learn how to navigate private and public areas with a guide dog.

3. Therapy dogs

Unlike support and service or guide dogs, therapy dogs are trained to help other people besides their owners or handlers. These dogs are often taken into hospitals and nursing homes to provide stimulation and therapeutic support to patients and residents. Other therapy dogs go into schools for educational purposes or to serve as “reading buddies” for children who are having difficulties with literacy.

Comprehensive Pet Therapy Inc. trains dogs for therapy work, such as visits to nursing homes and hospitals. “Typically, handlers will also join a canine therapy group such as Happy Tails Pet Therapy to register the dog, test him for obedience and determine his temperament to insure his handler for this type of canine support work,” says Patricia. “It’s important to the facilities involved that these requirements are met.”

Southeastern Guide Dogs also trains therapy dogs. These dogs live with the facility’s staff and spend several days a week with military veterans who are recovering from illness or injury at military hospitals and veteran medical centers. The dogs visit with the patients to facilitate their healing process. The organization welcomes applications for volunteers for its therapy dog program — the applications can be accessed online (

Service, support and therapy dogs can make a huge difference to people in need. “Carson is my life,” says Suzy Wilburn, a director for Southeastern Guide Dogs and recipient of her own guide dog. “He saves me every day. He’s my eyes, my heart; he’s everything to me. I wish I could put into words how much he has changed my life. He’s made me a better person and a happier one. In fact, I would rather be blind with Carson than fully sighted without him.”


Anabelle Lee Macri lives in Atlanta, Georgia. She graduated from the University of Georgia with a Bachelor's degree in journalism, and is a freelance writer.