Photo Courtesy of Angie Torres


What do service dogs, therapy dogs and emotional support dogs all have in common besides being...well...dogs? The innate desire to please. Whether dogs are specifically trained (or not), they have a natural desire to make their human happy. This establishes a bond that later evolves into a loving relationship between the dog and the person. The dog also provides some form of support (physical, emotional or therapeutic). But there are many distinctions between these three categories that may or may not make them appropriate for a certain individual or situation.

An Individual's Right Hand Man

"A service dog is protected by federal law under the American's with Disabilities Act," says Sarah Sirios, program director for WAGS—Wisconsin Academy for Graduate Service Dogs—located in Madison. Sirios says, "Wisconsin has a special piece of legislation—a state statute that protects service dogs in training with a professional organization." This statute allows the dog to go anywhere with the trainer that a full service dog can go. Of the three different categories, service dogs have the most rights and are specifically trained to help a person with a specific disability. They are often distinguishable from a typical dog and sport a colored vest that is labeled accordingly. In this case, the public is to refrain from personal contact with the dog.

"It's very complicated," says Sirios. "Lots of people are very confused about the different types of dogs and the legality involved." And figuring out the difference between them is actually the easy part. Acquiring one is a whole different story.

WAGS has been placing dogs in and all around Dane County for roughly 30 years. "We have over 125 placements to date," notes Sirios. "Our mission is to increase independence and quality of life for people with physical disabilities through our highly-trained service dogs."

There is also a high monetary and long time investment with these dogs. Karen Shirk, founder of 4 Paws for Ability, Inc.—located in Ohio—estimates  between $40,000 and $60,000 to train and place one dog. However, the price for families is $17,000 and 4 Paws helps with the fundraising efforts. Then there is the wait.

It takes approximately 24 to 28 months to receive a service dog. Shirk currently has 17 dogs placed in Wisconsin. Though a service dog may not be for just anyone, Shirk says, "Having a service dog makes you 'whole,' I believe and makes the disability invisible. People used to stare at me because of my disability. Now they see only the dog—taking the 'dis' out of disability."

Shirk was diagnosed with Myasthenia Gravis, a rare neuromuscular disease which led her to start 4 Paws. "I started the organization because I was turned down for a service dog due to the severity of my disability."

So after a diagnosis, how does one train and obtain a service dog? WAGS goes to reputable breeders for dogs and they begin a training program when the puppy is 8 weeks old. The puppies must be able to pass a temperament test.

4 Paws for Ability started out using dogs from shelters, but now 98 percent are bred in-house for temperament, health reasons, skill set, etc. These dogs are trained from birth until they are placed with a family—a 12 to 18 month process.

The person or parents of the child with a disability must first start an application process so funds can be raised in order to obtain a service dog. Funds are often raised through one's local community or with online fundraising pages. Money is sent directly to organization, and three to nine months is standard time for raising  the fee. However, there is no end time to raising the funds according to 4 Paws. A 12-day training program is also required in which the individual must go to Ohio and train with the dog prior to the dog being placed in their home. In the case of a child, two people should accompany him or her.

What is it like to have a service dog? Well, Rose Fortney a Milwaukeean and second-time service dog user explains the pros and cons.

Pros: "Vega knows if you need love, he's always a snuggler, and he just bonds. And if you sigh, he'll sigh with you...he's become a family member." Fortney also says he's good with her husband and daughter.

Cons: "Right off it's constant education and having the patience to educate people." Not everyone will know the legalities of having a seeing eye dog for instance and their lack of knowledge may deter you from going to a certain establishment.

Also, people may try to sneak the dog treats or try to pet your dog in public. "When I let people pet my dog, I take his harness off so that the dog knows he is not working and we're flexible. Some people will whistle and try to get my dog's attention and that's dangerous if I'm crossing the street."

Lynda Ruchti, WAGS volunteer/trainer, is well-rehearsed in the ups and downs of a service dog. Ruchti took a huge leap from only knowing how to care for hamsters to learning how to train service dogs and really has come to appreciate being a trainer. "Some people think of service dogs as military robots...some of our training includes being a doggie." Ruchti also says its remarkable to see the kinds of things the dog can do in less than a year of training. "She puts her toys away at night, opens and shuts doors and feels really feels like important work."

Everyone Needs Support

Therapy dogs are not service dogs. Repeat...not service dogs. Kathy Klotz, executive director of Intermountain Therapy Animals hopes to get the message across that therapy dogs aren't service dogs or emotional support dogs. There is a difference. There is also the issue of faking credentials. Klotz says, "It's becoming a serious problem with those who are faking the credentials and the needs, putting the people who really need the legitimate help at risk..."

So what's a therapy dog? "Therapy animals are incomparable sources of motivation, hope, comfort, fun and joy...they provide physiological benefits like lowered heart rate and respiration, destressing and relaxation, in addition to the fun of being with an animal," stresses Klotz.

The most important aspect of choosing a therapy dog is temperament. Then it's time to begin the basic training. The dog must be "responsive to requests and inspire confidence in onlookers—thus, things like sit, down, stay, come, walking nicely on a loose leash, behaving well around other animals, etc.," says Klotz. They need to be tested by a legitimate agency and qualify for liability insurance, Klotz confirms. Steer clear of certificates off the Internet. And workshop training for the handler and team is essential.

Now what do therapy dogs actually do? Well, there are currently 80 registered R.E.A.D. teams in Wisconsin. These dogs provide many benefits to children in the public arena. They help kids relax. "Dogs don't judge, criticize, laugh or make fun, or go tell their friends when they make mistakes," says Klotz "So kids can learn and practice [reading] with all the scary parts removed."

Therapy dogs visit schools, nursing homes, libraries, etc. Basically, any place they are allowed to visit and mingle. They are not performing specific tasks for people with disabilities and are not given the same legal rights.

However they do provide a therapeutic visit to people with disabilites. And by all means, the handler wants you to pet them!

Your Personal Support Friend

Emotional Support Dogs help ease an individual's depression, anxiety or aid in combating other phobias. They are not trained like a service dog. They are more like the average family pet except they offer a bit more to an individual that struggles with life. They do have some rights when it comes to housing and air travel, but they cannot just go anywhere in public.

They also need to be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional to a person with a disabling mental illness inorder to qualify as an Emotional Support Animal. There number one job is companionship.

You may benefit from an emotional support dog if you have any of the following:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Panic Disorder
Seperation Anxiety
Mood Disorders
Social Anxiety Disorder
And more...

This is just a quick reference guide to the three types of dogs, please do your own research when investing your money and time in one of these dogs.