There are so many hard-working professional dogs these days.  These canines have hard jobs that are absolutely essential for many people’s health and wellbeing.  Working dogs go through rigorous screening, training exercises and programs to help them become the professionals that we see around us all the time.

What is the difference between a therapy animal and an emotional support animal?  There are quite a few differentiations that you’ll find fascinating!

Therapy animals are generalized

A therapy dog is one that you would find, say, in a senior’s care home or a hospital where they are used as a form of emotional support. For example, they may be acting as a source of support for a patient nervous about a needle or a child who is feeling anxious as doctors explain stressful information to them.

Some can be specific to a type of institution (say, a senior’s care home or a hospital), but many help in a variety of settings. These intuitive therapy animals are especially aware of people’s emotions and will help ease their discomfort simply by being there.  

This often takes the form of distraction, being silly, curling up close, and generally being around to help that person feel more at ease.

Therapy animals work with one handler and multiple people

Just like a therapy animal is not specific to one type of institution, often they are not specific to just one patient.  They will often have a handler or a team of handlers, and they will move around from place to place with their handler(s) and provide support for various patients.  

They don’t bond with the patients that they work with since they don’t spend enough time with one patient to do so.  Of course, this doesn’t diminish their importance and relevance!

Emotional support animals are specific supports

Similarly, yet distinct from therapy animals that support various multiple patients, emotional support animals are quite often specific to one handler, their owner.  These pets will provide help to that one person and that one person only.  They will have some training, but it wouldn’t be to the same degree that you would see in a service dog.  We’ll touch on that in a little bit.

The main role of these dogs is that they provide comfort and compassion to their handlers in times of distress.  They don’t necessarily have any training to do this, but they often will take on naturally the same approach as most therapy dogs would.

For example, if their handler has a panic attack, an emotional support dog would stay close by, picking at them and whining and trying to distract them by getting them to pay attention to them instead of panicking.

For people suffering depression, their dogs will stay close by, lick and pick at their owners and remind them that they aren’t alone.

There is no set of rules that really any dog will follow since every dog and its relationship with its handler is going to be unique from any other.  This kind of support animal is often not as commonly talked about as a therapy dog or a service dog, but it is an important support and help to those who need it.

Emotional support animals don’t have the same legal rights

Registered service dogs and their owners have full rights protected by law, as you are most likely aware, and therapy animals have some rights within the institutions in which they work.  Emotional support animals aren’t formally recognized in most cases, and they don’t have the same formal rights attached at all, regardless of how valid and life-changing they are to those who rely on them.

This means that entering a location such as a restaurant, a store, boarding an airplane, etc., with an emotional support animal is not a given right.  You may be expected to leave your animal behind since those legal rights don’t extend to emotional support animals.  Those who are responsible for allowing or barring access are fully able to restrict access to you if you don’t follow this rule.

Is one better than the other in the world of professional dogs?

This is one of those questions that is impossible to answer generally, but it’s best understood by looking at just what they can each offer in direct comparison.  After all, they may sound more or less the same with just a difference in where they are active!  Here’s what you should know about each of these three categories of professional animals.

1. Service animals

This is not the focal point here for this article, but it works best to start from this to help you see the differences!  These are registered formal working professionals and have legal rights to access any and every space, even those locations where animals are barred.  They are specifically trained to help people with many differing abilities.

2. Therapy animals

These are also often professionally trained, though in a different program from registered service animals.  Therapy animals don’t have the same legal rights as a registered service dog, but they’re allowed in specific locations through specialized programs, even in spaces that traditionally would not have dogs on the premises. For example, dental clinics, hospitals, senior care homes, etc.  These therapy animals live off-site with handlers and are brought on-site as a visitor.  They travel from space to space and patient to patient.

3. Emotional support animals

Like service dogs, these are often person-specific (their owner).  They don’t have formal training and also don’t have special legal rights.  They offer support and comfort to their owners through a personal bond and distraction techniques.  This lack of legal rights means that they can be barred from situations where service and potentially therapy dogs would be allowed.


All three of these categories of professional dogs are valid and important when it comes to the different jobs that they do with people they support.  While the general public often hears about service animals, both therapy and emotional support animals are as valuable and essential in the lives of those who depend on them for making daily life easier.

If you are considering one of these professional animals for your needs, it’s a great idea to talk to your doctor, therapist, to see which of these might best fit your situation!  It’s also interesting to understand these distinctions so that you can better appreciate the training and expertise in each “profession.”


Are you trying to get a handle on your pet’s diet?

Download the free “Pet’s Food Guide” checklist right now.

Get the checklist now!