Although the terms "therapy dog" and "service dog" are often used interchangeably, these canines perform very different functions. Any friendly, well-trained canine has therapy dog potential, but service dog training is intense and specialized. Melissa Yetter, founder of The Service Dog Institute, explains the skills necessary for both types of work.
Therapy dogs are partnered with volunteers or professionals and trained to bring comfort and enjoyment. These dogs are used for visitations or professional therapy in various locations, including schools and assisted living facilities. Therapy dogs don't fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and its protection, meaning the dog isn't granted immediate access to places like a service dog is because the person assigned to the therapy dog isn't disabled. ADA provides access to almost everywhere for service dogs accompanying their disabled owners.
Service dogs perform a skill or task relating to a disability, which does fall under ADA auspices. The animal is assigned to one person and works only for that person to enhance their life, according to Yetter. Service dog training is individualized, taking months or years to complete, depending on what the dog must learn. "Service dogs are trained to perform various tasks and skills that should all benefit the person with the disability," said Yetter. If a person needs help walking, the dog's main skill concerns mobility. For the wheelchair-bound, the dog retrieves items and picks things up, even opening and closing doors. Additionally service dog training includes teaching the animal to assist with dressing, providing pressure for comfort and even tethering autistic children to the dog to keep them safe.
The Right Match
Matching the dog and person is critical. The Service Dog Institute maintains ongoing communication with all its dogs' partners. When there's a need for refresher training, they bring the dogs in for a class or retraining. Yetter adds, the Link AKC website is a great information resource for all dog owners. "We appreciate the opportunity to partner with Link AKC and provide valuable information on service, therapy and companion dogs," she says.