Service Dogs vs. Therapy Dogs: What’s the Difference?

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From the book EVERY DOG HAS A GIFT: True Stories of Dogs Who Bring Hope & Healing Into Our Lives by Rachel McPherson, founder and executive director of the Good Dog Foundation.

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines service dogs as any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal who is trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. For example, some dogs are trained to pull wheelchairs, others are taught to alert to the sounds of the telephone, oven timers, alarm clocks, smoke alarms, and even a baby’s cry. Service dogs are not considered pets.

Service Dogs vs. Therapy Dogs: What's the Difference?

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Unlike therapy dogs, service dogs and their human companions must be allowed access to buildings (including restaurants, libraries, supermarkets, and churches), transportation systems, and other public areas and services. Another difference between therapy and service dogs is that the latter are often picked by breed for certain characteristics. (Learn more about Therapy dogs in our section Can My Dog Be a Therapy Dog?)

What It Takes to Be a Service Dog

Service dogs should have all the characteristics of a therapy dog, plus a few others. For example, certain breeds are chosen for specific types of service. In the United States, 60 to 70 percent of all working guide dogs for the blind are Labrador retrievers. Golden retrievers and German shepherds are next in popularity. These dogs are chosen because of their temperament, versatility, size, intelligence, and availability. Guide dogs must be hard workers, large enough to guide people while in harness and small enough to be easily controlled and fit comfortably on public transportation and under restaurant tables.

You may find that some service dogs seem to “stretch the envelope” when it comes to fitting comfortably in public places. One such dog appears in section one of Every Dog Has a Gift. Hooch is a massive Rottweiler who is a service dog for Daniel. Although Hooch weighs in at more than one hundred pounds, he manages to wrap himself around the pedestal of a cafe table and be as unobtrusive as possible!

Copyright © 2010 by Rachel McPherson and Lynn Sonberg. Reprinted by arrangement with Tarcher Books, an imprint of Penguin Group USA, Inc.

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