“She’s a therapy dog” they claim as they drag their pet into the restaurant or other public venue. Clearly the dog is an untrained family pet and does not provide any kind of service but the owners bought a vest from an online store and they insist on equal treatment with a professionally trained service dog.

True therapy animals do exist. Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a type of therapy that involves animals as a form of treatment. As in all forms of therapy, the goal of AAT is to improve a patient’s social, emotional, or cognitive functioning. The therapist uses a pet because it can be perceived as less threatening than a human, thus increasing the rapport between patient and therapist. Animals used in therapy include domesticated pets, farm animals and marine mammals (such as dolphins).

Service dogs and therapy dogs are very different from the perspectives of services provided and legal requirements. The terms, ‘Service Dog,’ and, ‘Therapy Dog,’ are not meant to used as equivalents and should not be used to mean the same thing because they are not interchangeable terms.


According to Federal Law, a Service Animal is not a pet. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that a Service Animal is any animal that has been individually trained to provide assistance or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a physical or mental disability which substantially limits one or more of the person’s major life functions. In addition, a number of states in America have laws following Federal Law in greater detail.

A Therapy Dog is one that is trained to provide comfort and affection to people in long-term care, hospitals, retirement homes, schools, mental health institutions, and other stressful situations to include disaster areas. Therapy Dogs provide people with animal contact; people who may or may not have a form of disability. Therapy Dogs work in animal-assisted activities and animal-assisted therapy. The therapy animal is commonly owned by the person handling it, who considers the dog to be a personal pet.

Therapy dogs work with their handler during sessions whether it is making visits to others in a number of settings. Handlers of these dogs might be health care professionals who are members of the staff of a particular facility, or volunteers.

How does an animal become certified as a therapy assistant?

In order to become AAT certified a pet owner must go through Pet Partners, formerly Delta Society, a nonprofit organization that emphasizes the use of animals in therapy to help people live healthier and happier lifestyles. There is a simple four step process.

  1. The first step is on online or in classroom course where the pet handler, or owner, is trained to guide the animal in therapy sessions. They are also trained on what signs to look for in the patients to make sure they are comfortable and at ease.
  2. The next step is a screening of the health of the animal for any diseases or issues that may inhibit the animal from being useful in therapy. The animal needs to be approved by a professional veterinarian before moving on to the next step.
  3. The third step includes a test that checks the skills and ability of the animal and handler to react in therapy sessions.
  4. The last step is the submission of the Registration Application. Once approved, the animal and their owner are certified to assist in therapy in hospitals, retirement homes, and other places.

Do therapy dogs help with PTSD?

The Veteran’s Administration is currently developing a study to test the effectiveness of therapy dogs to help veterans with PTSD. Among the stipulations of the study is that no pit bulls or other fighting dogs are permitted and the veteran must participate in ongoing therapy before and during the study. This carefully crafted and large study should provide conclusive data about the efficacy of therapy dogs as opposed to pet dogs in helping veterans overcome PTSD. Learn more.

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