Service Dog vs Therapy Dogs - What's the Difference?

Service Dog

By Faye Chiu and Rachel McPherson, founder and executive director of the Good Dog Foundation and author of the new book Every Dog Has a Gift.

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

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines service dogs as any guide dog, signal dog, or other animals 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.

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 training starts with having 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!

How Do Therapy Dogs Get Evaluated and Certified?

The Good Dog Foundation offers a thorough evaluation, training program, and follow-up program for its Good Dog Therapy teams. The Foundation initially evaluates the handler and the dog as a team to determine which level class they are placed in. Good Dog offers fundamental obedience, basic obedience, and therapy dog classes. If the handler-dog teams pass the class and become certified, they are completely supported by The Good Dog Foundation staff.

Here are more details on how The Good Dog Foundation program works.

Service Dog Waiting

Training and Evaluation Courses

We have developed a highly effective multiple-session training course for dogs that uses positive reinforcement and patient, reward-based methods. One of the many advantages to this approach is that gentle, loving dogs that may have a temporary problem with manners because they are nervous or excited at first are not summarily excluded from participating in our therapy dog services work.

Here is a summary of what is included in each of the Good Dog Foundation training programs. Although the Fundamental and Basic dog training courses are similar, the Fundamental course is geared especially for dogs that have no prior training.

Training a Dog

Initial Evaluation Session

To ensure that a dog and its handler have at least the potential to succeed in the program, they must undergo a brief (about fifteen-minute) evaluation session conducted by a Good Dog trainer. During this session, the trainer observes a dog’s personality, energy level, sociability (with people and with other dogs), and the handler’s relationship with and basic control of the dog.

The trainer then recommends one of the following courses of action for the potential volunteer handler-dog team:

Fundamental Dog Training: Four one-hour sessions

  • Basic obedience (sit, down, stay, walk on a loose lead)
  • Relaxation and control

Basic Dog Training: Four one-hour sessions

  • Basic obedience (sit, down, stand, stay, walk on a loose lead)
  • Begin gentling exercises and desensitization to handling and novel stimuli
  • Begin familiarization with hospital equipment
  • Socialization exercises with other dogs and people

Therapy Dog Training: Five one-hour sessions

  • Meeting and greeting exercises
  • Familiarization with hospital equipment
  • Role-playing for the hospital environment
  • Instruction and coaching on safe dog-handling in health care facilities

- Seek out additional training first, which will give your dog more time to mature, and return for an evaluation at a later date.

- Consider an alternative activity for which your dog’s temperament may be better suited.

When a trainer recommends the last option, it may be because the dog displays one or more of the following behaviors and/or conditions that are not compatible with therapy dog service:

  • Aggression toward people
  • Aggression toward other dogs
  • Obvious signs of fearfulness or shyness
  • Urinating or defecating indoors
  • Overexcitability (e.g., excessive barking, licking, and wiggliness, jumping up on people, mouthing, or pawing)
  • Advanced age
  • Medical concerns

The Good Dog Foundation trainers also observe some human behaviors that are incompatible with therapy dog service. These include:

  • Abusive or rough handling of the dog
  • Non-nurturing nature
  • Harsh or punishing training methods
  • Unwillingness to take direction from Good Dog Foundation trainers
  • Lack of attention to the dog’s behavior in his surroundings

The Good Dog Foundation’s trainers recognize that dogs, like people, may perform better or worse on a test on any given day and that behavior is not constant and immutable. That’s why The Good Dog Foundation’s total evaluation process is based on performance throughout the training course, not just on a single test. Over the duration of the training sessions, the dogs are exposed to many different people and stimuli with which they can become increasingly confident. This process ultimately leads to consistently safe and enjoyable visits for the clients, handlers, and dogs alike.

Follow-Up Support

Our volunteers are the lifeblood of the Foundation: Without them, we would not be able to provide the services that we do. That’s why once handler-dog teams become certified, The Good Dog Foundation staff continually supports and encourages our volunteers to ensure they have the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences possible.

For example, the Foundation staff maintains a close relationship with each of the facilities that our handler-dog therapy teams serve, so our teams always feel welcome and secure wherever they go. We assess and work with each team to help handlers select the places they would like to visit. Our experienced handler-dog teams always “buddy up” and accompany new teams on their first walk-through of the facility they have chosen.

Volunteers are always welcome to ask questions and to get assistance from the Foundation’s professional peer support groups. The Good Dog Foundation also holds events each year that recognize volunteers for their service in all the regions served by the Foundation.


Service Dog Waiting

What Do Therapy Dogs Practice?

As you travel the road to becoming a therapy dog team, here are some things you can do to prepare yourself and your dog for therapy visits:

  • Socialize and socialize more. Does your dog seem eager to get attention and affection from all kinds of new people? Notice how your dog responds to a wide range of people, from toddlers and teens to people with beards, people wearing uniforms, or people in wheelchairs.
  • Obedience training. Does your dog respond to your cues reliably when asked to do so? It is of utmost importance that a therapy dog is calm and controlled enough to pay attention and react quickly according to your instruction in any situation. This guarantees safe visits for everyone. Find a reward-based class or trainer in your area. There is no room for harshness or punishment in therapy training or work.
  • Acclimate to new and unusual environments. Does your dog behave in a calm and relaxed manner when you take him to new places? Therapy dogs need to be relaxed around crowds, loud noises, hospital equipment, slippery floors, and other animals.
  • Volunteer on your own at a facility such as a hospital or a day program. Find out whether you enjoy talking to and helping people. If you love it, adding your dog to the mix is the easy part!
Service Dog Training

Why Become a Therapy Dog Team?

Team Work

As wonderful and endearing as therapy dogs are, they are half of a team. When the human halves are asked why they volunteer their time and effort, the most common answers I hear are that it is “tremendously rewarding,” that they “get back much more than they give,” and that they “love the joy their dog brings to others.” These individuals and their dogs go out into the world as a team and share that joy with thousands of people every year.

Many people don’t realize that you can’t just walk into a hospital, nursing home, or other facilities with your dog without first going through some training.

The relationship between you, your companion dog, and the people you visit is complex, and there are guidelines and some special skills that you will need to learn before you walk into a facility with your dog. These basic requirements are necessary to help ensure the safety of you, your dog, and the people you visit. All therapy dog organizations have their own guidelines and evaluation requirements that individuals and their dogs must meet in order to be a part of their visiting dog therapy programs. In the following articles, I will describe how The Good Dog Foundation prepares dogs and handlers to become a team.

If you live in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, or Massachusetts, and are interested in our training, please take a look at our website,, and give us a call!


Young couples with Dog

Want to Be a Therapy Dog Team? Start Here

People frequently ask how their dog can become a therapy dog. There is a common misconception that therapy dogs need to be a certain breed, or raised to be therapy dogs from a very young age. On the contrary, therapy dogs come in all breeds and sizes!

A therapy dog can provide healing to his or her companion or family, as well as hundreds of other people in a therapeutic setting – whether a hospital, a school, or retirement home. The remarkable work of therapy dogs (as well as service dogs and household pets) inspired me to write Every Dog Has a Gift. Likewise, I hope that readers will be inspired by the amazing stories in this book to do some good work with their own companion dog!

If you’re interested in getting your therapy dog certification, here are some tips to get you and your dog started:

  • Find a reputable therapy dog organization. If you’re located on the East coast, visit If not, find an animal-assisted therapy organization in your state that offers a training program. There are a number of organizations mentioned in the book, and many can be found online as well.
  • Undergo an evaluation and a training course. A good animal-assisted therapy organization should offer a thorough evaluation, training program, basic obedience training (if necessary), and follow-up. An experienced trainer will evaluate you and your dog as a team and place you in the appropriate courses. Training courses should use positive reinforcement and patient, reward-based methods.
  • Volunteer! The Good Dog Foundation maintains relationships with hospitals, schools, and other facilities where we help schedule and orient therapy teams as they begin their outreach. After certification by a therapy organization, you and your dog can volunteer on your own or, even better, work with that organization to find volunteer opportunities in your area.
Dog Assisted Therapy

Animal-Assisted Therapy

Healing Partnerships: Animal-assisted therapy can benefit animals too!

In recent years, a great deal of attention has been paid to the fact that animals often are just what the doctor ordered. The beneficiaries of the healing power of animals include children, teens, adults, and the aged, whether terminally ill, emotionally disturbed, physically or mentally challenged, isolated and depressed, incarcerated, or otherwise institutionalized. While everyone who cares about animals is proud that creatures as diverse as dogs and dolphins, cats, and cows are being celebrated for their therapeutic value, some in the animal welfare system worry: Who are these “therapy animals,” anyway? Where do they come from, and to put it bluntly, is there anything in it for them?

It depends. Programs that utilize animals within the broad context of human health and rehabilitation acquire, house, train, and maintain their animals in a variety of ways. In some, as you might expect, the animals are viewed more as extensions of patient or inmate treatment than as beings who are worthy of respect and attention to their own unique needs. Where management is more sensitive to animal welfare, this may not be true. And in some remarkable therapeutic settings, the therapy animals are as much in need of rescue or rehab as are the children whose lives they profoundly impact.

Water Boys

Mo, a loggerhead turtle, and Sunset Sam, an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, are two animal therapists-in-residence at the Clearwater (FL) Marine Aquarium (CMA), a facility dedicated to marine rescue, research, and education. Through its Full Circle Program, CMA offers animal-assisted therapy (AAT) to children. The therapy is designed to provide youngsters with special needs a chance to play the role of caretaker to sick or injured marine wildlife who are being rehabilitated at CMA.

Gentle and slow-moving, Mo came to CMA in 1986. Now 38 years old, the loggerhead was born with a serious defect in his shell. Mo is typically the first animal children enrolled in Full Circle are introduced to. “Mo gets that spark going and jump-starts the children to work harder,” states mental health therapist Scott Swaim, the program’s director. “He provides a great metaphor for them.” By tossing Mo his meal of fish, for example, a child with physical disabilities may improve his motor skills.

Sunset Sam was found stranded on a mudflat in 1984. At the aquarium, the critically ill dolphin was diagnosed with a visual impairment in one eye and a liver disorder that requires constant monitoring. For Sunset, Mo and other animals who can never return to the wild, involvement in Full Circle becomes a component of a behavior-enrichment program designed to enhance their physical and mental well-being. Swaim describes the interaction: “We work primarily from a platform. We give animals their space and don’t have a lot of touching. If at any time an animal doesn’t feel like participating in AAT, that [refusal] behavior becomes part of the lesson the child learns.” Three on-staff trainers observe and work with Sunset daily. “Sunset Sam gets a different enrichment item every day,” explains Melissa Koberna, director of CMA training. “His toys are rotated according to an individually customized calendar.” While Sunset Sam has been trained to respond to a variety of commands so that he readily cooperates with veterinary treatment or human interaction for the Full Circle program, Swaim emphasizes this dolphin’s patience, specifically with children: “Sunset is consistently attentive when children are present, whereas sometimes when I’m training an adult intern, he may fail to follow through on a command and just swim away.”

Farm and Field Friends

Five years ago, a young cow escaped from a Bronx, NY, slaughterhouse. Because the facility did not have a permit to slaughter large animals, the heifer—later named Scarlet—was confiscated by ASPCA Humane Law Enforcement (HLE) agents. According to Special Investigator Timothy Stack, Scarlet “had been confined in a small cement room, where she was tied short with no bedding.” At the “A’s” Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital, the cow was diagnosed with a severe upper respiratory infection.

These days, Scarlet grazes a five-acre pasture with cow comrades Shadow and Quarter at Brewster, NY-based Green Chimneys Children Services. “She has the best life a cow could have,” says Paul Kupchok, director of Green Chimneys’ farm and wildlife conservation center. “We don’t eat our therapists, so she’s going to be here forever.”

Many of the adolescent children who live at this juvenile rehabilitation center and animal sanctuary are emotionally disturbed or at high risk of violent behavior and have been referred there by New York City courts and social services. Dressed in full uniform, Agent Stack had escorted Scarlet to her new home in the ASPCA’s horse ambulance. “We wanted to show the children that there are officials out there who care about animals and that there’s no reason to fear law enforcement,” he says.

Babe, a Yorkshire pig, was confiscated by HLE officers from a tiny city apartment six years ago. At Green Chimneys, Babe has already lived longer than anyone expected. Individual students have begun the journey toward trusting other human beings by caring for Babe and Scarlet through the “Learn and Earn” program, in which these troubled youths help care for injured or sick farm animal rescues. “The children bond more strongly to these particular animals because they can relate to their histories,” states Kupchok. “It helps them understand their own situations and develop empathy for other living things who need them.”

Unlike Scarlet and Babe, whose therapy work calls for them simply to listen well, Zoe, a 1,800-pound Percheron mare, participates in specific, goal-oriented therapy at Circle of Hope Therapeutic Riding in Barnesville, MD. “We all recognized that Zoe was special. Wheelchairs, walkers—nothing seems to phase her,” states Lesley Shear, a certified therapeutic riding instructor who is Circle of Hope’s founder and director. Yet, even so, says Michael Kaufmann, director of education at the Denver, CO-based North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, “The presence of the instructor, the sidewalkers, the odd weight shifts—these all call for acute concentration if the animal is to perform—and it takes a toll. Many horses are sent on little vacations to keep them mentally fit.” Zoe’s favorite downtime activities—besides grazing with other mares—include cantering across fields and trail riding, which are fully incorporated into her exercise program to ensure her physical and mental well-being.

Pet Partners

Though a dog or cat may be well-suited to fill the role of a family pet, a stellar companion animal does not necessarily have the temperament to become actively involved in animal-assisted therapy. A dog who establishes close bonds within a four-member household, for example, may be affectionate and at ease within his immediate “pack,” yet be completely overwhelmed by the bombardment of strange smells, sounds, and outstretched hands at an institutional facility.

“It takes an animal who is very gregarious and confident to do this kind of work,” stresses expert Maureen Fredrickson, founder, and president of Animal Systems, a teaching and research center based in Fredonia, NY. To earn certification with a well-established organization such as the Renton, WA-based Delta Society, with which the ASPCA is now formally associated through the “A’s” Center for Behavioral Therapy, animals undergo rigorous screening with their owner-handlers and must pass an aptitude test to become volunteer Pet Partners. A different level of certification is needed to take part in basic activities, such as recreational “meet-and-greets,” than for advanced AAT, in which teams work under the close supervision of a health care professional to meet specific goals for individual patients.

“In training for animal therapy, there’s a great deal of emphasis on learning when the animal has had enough,” explains Stephanie LaFarge, Ph.D., director of ASPCA counseling services, who is both a certified therapeutic riding instructor and, with shelter dog Sophie, one-half of a canine ASPCA/Delta Society Pet Partner team. “There’s double motivation to make sure the animal is having a good time—for his own sake and because of the potential damage he could cause to patients and caregivers.” Well-trained animals who become stressed from therapy visits may not show obvious signs of burnout—such as excessive panting, a growl or a bite—but may begin to have health problems, such as diarrhea or hair loss. Pet Partner trainees are instructed to watch carefully for these warning signs.

At New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital, eight certified ASPCA/Delta Pet Partner teams visit the Neuro and Restorative Care Center each week. “It’s an extremely labor-intensive program that entails a lot of behind-the-scenes effort. Yet the animals positively address the psychosocial issues of hospitalization and rehabilitation,” says JoEllen Zem-bruski-Ruple, chief of therapeutic recreation at Mount Sinai.

Manhattan-based ASPCA/Delta Pet Partners Karen Le Frak and her standard poodle, Jewel, not only work with patients with spinal cord trauma and head injuries at Mount Sinai, but have accommodated special requests. Last summer a young male patient asked to see Jewel. Because the pediatric ward administrators, concerned about asthmatic patients, were reluctant to allow a dog into the area, this Pet Partner team walked up to eight flights of stairs (hospital staff offered to carry the poodle if necessary) so the boy could meet Jewel on the rooftop. “His face lit up like a Christmas tree when he saw Jewel,” Le Frak recalls. “He walked her with his IV tubes coming out of one hand and the leash in the other.”

No Place Like Home

While Jewel, a personal companion animal, is free to go home with owner Le Frak, where, off duty, she “carries around her fuzzy duck toy and waves her legs in the air for belly rubs,” as more and more health care professionals learn about the healing effects of animals, what is the likely fate of nonhuman therapists enlisted to live full time at institutions nationwide?

A number of state public health laws now require animal contact for patients residing in long-term care facilities. As nursing homes respond to this mandate by acquiring animals, humane advocates have cause for alarm. “Formalized standards to protect the well-being of these working therapy animals is critical right now,” states Fredrickson. “Human health care workers aren’t trained to pick up on animal stress, let alone understand animal behavior.” She urges interested individuals to seek out specific training and workshops.

Certified handler Johnny McGuire, the founder of FLY-N-K9 Therapy Dogs in Palenville, NY, couldn’t agree more. McGuire has taught his therapy partner Baby, an Australian shepherd who was born deaf, nearly 70 different hand signals. When not working, Baby competes regularly in Frisbee® tournaments; she is the only hearing-impaired dog in the country to have become a regional finalist. Intense physical activity prepares Baby for the mental focus needed at the Ten Broeck Commons Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Lake Katrine, NY, where the dog’s name appears on the treatment plans of many of the residents. According to McGuire, Baby’s gift is “her sense about people. She will always approach the neediest person in the room and in her own way figure out what’s special about that person.” Last summer, Baby attended local camps for children afflicted with cancer or HIV, where her Frisbee-catching talents were incorporated into recreational therapy sessions for the children. For animal owners who are interested in becoming involved with pet therapy, McGuire has this advice: “Get your animal evaluated, listen and learn. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Ease into the work by repeat visits to the same facility. Make it consistent for the people you’re trying to help and for your animal.”

It is heartening that animal therapy programs exist in which the well-being of animals is as important as the well-being of humans. As long as animal handlers are appropriately trained and carefully monitor the animal’s enjoyment, animal-assisted therapy benefits everyone involved.