Service Dogs, Emotional Support Animals & Therapy Dog

The question of Service Dog Training, and often Service Dog Certification, is one that is asked many times per week. The gift that dogs give us, in aiding humans, is one that we hold near and dear and are understandably protective of. There is SO much misinformation being circulated, that we felt it was an important topic.
First and foremost, anyone who is in contact with dogs in a public setting should familiarize themselves with the laws spelled out by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Whether you are a store owner, or someone wanting to take your dog into the store, you need to know the laws.

Highlights of the ADA will be discussed here, but read the law and keep it close. It exists to protect those who need a Service Dog, and thereby helps protect against those who are trying to use segments of the law to take their pet everywhere they go.
The terms “Therapy Dog,” “Emotional Support Dog” and “Service Dog” are often used interchangeably. So let’s start with some definitions.

– A Therapy Dog is a pet who goes out into public with the purpose of enriching the lives of others. They typically undergo a temperament evaluation and obedience test, and are certified by one of the Therapy Dog Organizations throughout the country. The amazing impact therapy dogs have on those they interact with is profound. Children improve their skills reading to them, hospital patients are comforted by them, nursing home patients are amused by them, trauma victims seek comfort in their fur. A Therapy Dog is an outwardly focused dog who interacts with and benefits other people, in addition to their owner/handler. Therapy Dogs have no public access rights.

– An Emotional Support Dog (ESD) is one whose presence is a comfort to the owner. Perhaps they calm during high anxiety times, or help ease fear. Just being near is their job – and being attentive to their owner. They need no special training, though they can not be a disturbance. The touch, the feel, the PRESENCE of the dog is what the owner relies on. An ESD has rights only pertaining to housing and transportation. A handler for an Emotional Support Dog must have a specifically formatted letter provided by their medical professional within a specific time frame, and that documentation can be required before access is granted to housing or transportation.

– A Service Dog (SD) is a medically necessary animal that aids in the disabled person’s daily life. It is not a pet, it is a necessity. The disability can be physical or mental, and the dog must perform work or specific tasks to mitigate the handler’s disability. The ADA specifically states that “presence” is not a task. Being near to keep a person calm is not a task. Retrieving medication is a task. Bracing for mobility assistance is a task. Leading the blind is a task. Seizure alert is a task. Blood sugar alert is a task. There are many resources that list the various tasks a SD can perform, but a minimum of 2 of those tasks are required, and again – just being present is not a legal task. Service Sogs have full access rights. No documentation is required, nor can be requested of the handler. The Service Dog is a Hander Focused dog, working when in public and not seeking interaction with others – nor being granted social time with others.

These distinctions are very important. Just because you WANT to take your dog with you everywhere, doesn’t mean you NEED to take your dog with you.

Service Dogs and their handlers are highly protected by Federal Law, as they should be. Unfortunately, this makes it so some people try to use those laws in an attempt to take their pet along as well. Understanding the use of a SD, and the rights that protect them, we can also protect against those who are not being ethical.

There are only two questions that can be asked of someone with a service dog. 1- “Is your dog a service dog?” 2- “What tasks does your dog perform.” These tasks need to be approved tasks, and once again – presence is not one of them. You can NOT request a demonstration of these tasks.

A dog that is not finished is considered a Service Dog in Training (SDIT). Although the ADA does not cover SDIT, the state of Tennessee does have a law requiring that the dog be “held on a leash and under the control of its raiser or trainer, who shall have available for inspection credentials from the accredited school for which the dog is being raised; and wearing a collar, leash or other appropriate apparel or device that identifies the dog with the accredited school for which it is being raised.”

Any dog that causes a disturbance can be asked to leave, SD or not. This includes dogs that seek attention from other patrons, dogs that soil in a facility, that are vocal outside of their tasks, that are clearly untrained and are running amuck in the establishment. This one rule weeds out a lot of non-SD. Again, a finished SD is a well-trained dog that is unobtrusive and attentive to their handler.

A Service Dog is not required to wear any specific identification, vest or uniform. They MAY, at their handler’s discretion. Some people choose to use the vest as a way to indicate when the dog is working and not. This is a personal decision, not a requirement by law.

Finally, there is NO Service Dog registry or certification that is recognized by the ADA. Absolutely none. Requesting such documentation before granting entry is completely against the law. Presenting such registration or certification as a means of gaining entry just shows ignorance of the law. The companies online happily taking your money to register your dog? That registration is legally worth no more than the paper it is printed on. Many training facilities will certify that a dog has been taught specific skills, but this is not legal certification that the dog is a Service Dog. I think this is a very important point. I have known medical facilities, educational institutions and other official bodies requiring registration or certification before granting access. Upon being presented with the laws pertaining to this, the policies have changed.

The ADA protects those individuals who chose to train their own dog with the same laws as those who purchase one already trained. The rules are all the same – until they are a FINISHED working dog, they have limited (SDIT) or no access rights (anything except a finished SD). And no certification is required stating the dog was trained by “Whatever training company” as a Service Dog.

The trainers at ThunderHawk Canine have assisted in the training of numerous Service Dogs, both here and in Michigan. We have assisted in the obedience portion, as well as the assistance task training. We fully support and value the amazing gift of freedom these dogs provide their handlers. We coach our clients about the laws and their rights. We would be on the front lines fighting for our handlers if their rights were being denied. We will not aid someone who is attempting to circumvent the laws to pass off their pet as a working dog. It is only a disservice to those who really need them.

For more information, please visit

Special thanks to Cynthia Kranz for her expertise on this article, and the use of the picture of SD Jami.



  1. Kelly Gardner

    My son is being evaluated for autism, it has been suggested for us to consider training a dog for him to help calm him and help him through difficult situations. Would that be a service dog or emotional support animal.

  2. Donna

    At what age do you start training a small dog to become a service dog?

  3. Emily McDuffee

    I am an oncologist and have a Newfypoo. I was in the Army as Active Duty & have transitioned to the reserves. I would like for Reyna to become a therapy dog. Do you provide this training?


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