First, Service Dogs.
A “Service Dog” is a dog that is specifically trained to assist A SINGLE PERSON with a DOCUMENTED MEDICAL DISABILITY.
Service Dogs don’t help multiple people, they help just the one person. They don’t provide general comfort, but they perform a Specific Function to help the one person with their Documented Medical need.
Examples would include a Seeing Eye Dog, a dog trained to detect their owner’s low blood sugar, etc.
(A useful way to think about it: Service Dogs help their OWNERS, while Therapy Dogs help OTHERS.)
Service Dogs are the only classification of helpful animal that the government recognizes. After a doctor has verified the person’s medical condition, and specified what function the Service Dog can provide, a dog that can serve in that function will be registered as a Service Dog.
At this point they are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and allowed to accompany their owner without charge and with little regulation wherever the owner goes.
Second, Therapy Dogs.
Therapy Dogs are NOT recognized by the United States Federal or Local governments. They are not a legally protected class of animal. There are no special laws for Therapy Dogs. As far as cities or states go, Therapy Dogs are governed by the same laws that apply to any dog. This includes where dogs are permitted to be, if they have to have vaccinations or licenses, etc.
(This is important to remember. If a restaurant has a rule such as “No Dogs Allowed”, then your Therapy Dog IS NOT ALLOWED inside, while a Service Dog IS ALLOWED inside. Again, the best example to remember are Seeing Eye Dogs.)
Therapy Dogs came into existence because people recognized the value of Animal Assisted Therapy or Animal Assisted Interactions.
Simply put, institutions and scientists recognized the physical and mental health benefits of humans interacting with calming dogs.
So people began to do studies confirming the value of Therapy Dogs, and more and more institutions decided to use them in their facilities.
Several non-profit national (and international) organizations sprung up to offer their own guidelines and “certification” tests for potential therapy dogs.
Many institutions require Therapy Dogs in their facilities to be certified through one or more of these organizations. Some institutions, of course, are more informal and welcome any well-behaved dog and their handler. It is important to find out which certifications, if any, a particular institution requires.
In order to certify your dog, Fort Smith Pets with a Purpose has found that two certifying organizations are the most practical to use in our area: The Alliance of Therapy Dogs, and Pet Partners. We encourage all our handler-dog teams to become certified through one or both organizations.
More information on these two organizations here.