What is a “Therapy Animal” Anyway?

Freud and Jofi, Source: AP

Freud and Jofi, Source: AP

Have you ever heard of Sigmund Freud? Father of Psychoanalysis. Freud’s chow, Jofi (or Yofi), often sat through therapy sessions with him. Freud observed that Yofi helped reduce tension in the room and that patients, especially child and adolescent patients, would open up more. Jofi would sit closer to people he sensed were depressed, allowing comfort, and further away from those he sensed we anxious, allowing space. Jofi was also apparently a great time keeper, beginning to yawn and pace around fifty minutes into the session. Jofi was a therapy dog before the term 'therapy dog' even existed. What a pioneer! 

Over my next few blog posts, I will be breaking down the ins and outs of Animal Assisted Therapy to help my readers (and friends, colleagues and clients) get a better understanding of what Animal Assisted Therapy actually is, and how it helps others. This week, we start with understanding just what exactly a Therapy Animal is and the difference between service animals, emotional support animals and therapy animals. 


A service animal performs a service to help a person with a disability. To be registered as a service animal, the animal must perform one non-animal specific task that is a service to the owner’s specific disability. There are many different types of services dogs including guide or seeing eye dogs, hearing or signal dogs, psychiatric services dogs, sensory or social signal dogs (for those diagnosed with autism), and seizure response dogs. A service animal is the only type of animal of the three that is allowed protection under the American Disability Act.

Under the law, governments, businesses and non-profit organizations that serve the public must allow service service animals and their handlers access to all public use space. This guideline certainly has some limits, for example a service animal will be allowed into a waiting room but not in a room where surgery is performed, or the service animal will be allowed into a restaurant but not in the kitchen or other areas where customers do not go. The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) allows that a service dog may travel with its owner on an airplane.

It is important to note (per the ADA): Covered entities may not require documentation, such as proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal, as a condition for entry. However, service animals are subject to the same licensing and vaccination rules that are applied to all dogs.

Animals do not have to be a specific breed, and handlers cannot be refused access to a space based on the breed of the dog. Also, the service animal does not have to go through a specific training or even be professionally trained at all - a handler can do all the training if able to do so. The animal must be under the handler’s control at all times, meaning it must be well behaved, be able to follow basic commands and not have any behaviors that are aggressive or impulsive.

There are so many places online that dispense information about service animals and offer service animal registration. Mandatory registration of service animals is not permissible under the ADA. There are individuals and organizations that sell service animal certification or registration documents online. These documents do not convey any rights under the ADA and the Department of Justice does not recognize them as proof that the dog is a service animal.

For more (and the most accurate) information about service animals, visit the ADA website.


An emotional support animal does not necessarily have any special training and is a pet that provides emotional comfort to the owner. There is a specific distinction between psychiatric service animals and emotional support animals and that is based on the task they are trained to perform. For example (from the ADA): “If the dog has been trained to sense that an anxiety attack is about to happen and take a specific action to help avoid the attack or lessen its impact, that would qualify as a service animal. However, if the dog's mere presence provides comfort, that would not be considered a service animal under the ADA.”

An emotional support animal does not have any special privileges protected by the ADA. There are some protections for emotional support animals under different legislation, however. The Air Carrier Access Act, which protects service animals on airlines, also includes Emotional Support Animals. Airlines can request specific documentation and/or 48-hours advanced notice for service animals that are emotional support animals and psychiatric service animals. The animal is permitted to accompany the passenger on the flight, however, the animal must behave properly: no disruptive behavior, no aggression, etc. For more information about the ACAA and protections for service and emotional support animals visit the US Department of Transportation website.

The Fair Housing Act (FHA) allows tenants with mental or emotional disabilities to request accommodation for their disability by permitting their Emotional Support Animal. This begins with the owner documenting their need for an emotional support animal, usually in the form of a letter provider by a Licensed Mental Health practitioner. Once the owner has the letter, they have enough documentation to request reasonable accommodation. Property owners (landlords, rental companies, etc.) cannot demand details on the nature of the disability but must respect the information provided in the letter.

In response, the landlord must permit the emotional support animal to reside on site. The emotional support animal or their owner cannot be required to wear identifying tags or garments or to post identifying materials on their home. Property owners must waive fees or deposits normally required for individuals living with a pet, as the FHA does not classify service animals or emotional support animals as pets but as assistive aids. The reasonable accommodation must occur no matter what species, breed or size category the emotional support animal belongs to.

There are some exceptions to the rule including: housing properties where the property owner resides, such as a single unit or a building with less than four units AND the housing available for sale or rent is listed without a real estate agent; hotels and motels (public places); fees can be charged for damage and repairs necessary due to emotional support animal. Finally, property owners are permitted to express concern, seek legal guidance, and even evict a tenant if an emotional support animal is aggressive, threatening, loud, or otherwise behaves inappropriately toward others on the property.

There are many services online that will, in exchange for a fee - sometimes upwards of $200+ - will write an Emotional Support Animal letter for anyone. As Emotional Support Animals are a relatively new concept, it is important that documentation necessary for to protect them is received in an ethical manner, through your actual treating mental health professional. This will allow for emotional support animals to continue to receive protection under laws for many years to come. As with Service Animals, your emotional support animal does not have to be “certified” or “registered” at all, and as with Service Animals, you will find many websites online offering certification or registration. Feel free to ignore them - unless of course you want to sign up, and then feel free to do so!

For more information about Emotional Support Animals and their protections, visit the Animal Law Center, HUD or Department of Transportation websites.


Therapy animals are the least protected under the law. Therapy animals do not necessarily have any special protections, but they are an integral part of therapy sessions in which they are used. Animal Assisted Therapy is not the same as Animal Assisted Activities (visiting a nursing home, playing with a dog, etc.) which I will explore in later blog posts. For the sake of simplicity of this article, a therapy animal can also be a caring visitor at hospital, nursing home, etc. but this focuses more on therapy animals that participate in therapy sessions with clients.

Therapy animals are trained to socialize and interact with people around them, unlike service animals which focus solely on the needs of their handlers. In addition, therapy animals do not necessarily work with people who have a disability. Because therapy animals work with others, it is important that they are highly trained and well socialized. There is no specific, single training program that is recognized for therapy animals. The handler of a therapy animal must make a decision on which company, if any, they choose to work with, and then go through the training for the animal based on that company’s requirements.

Depending on the animal, there are different reputable companies to work with, however, there is no governing body to mandate a specific decision on training, or any training at all. It is likely that if the animal is not trained in behaviors that promote positive interactions, it will not succeed at it’s job as a therapy animal, nor will it have a positive impact on others. It is also important for the handler to be trained in handling the animal and in understanding what animal assisted therapy is, and how to utilize animal assisted therapy interventions to support client growth. A therapy animal does not have to be certified or registered, however, due to liability or to increase client comfort, a handler may choose to go through a training that certifies to demonstrate that they have trained the animal.

Although therapy animals are trained and may meet certification standards for the organizations within which they are working, these animals are not considered service animals and are not offered protections under the ADA or the FHA. The animal may still receive protection on airlines, however, depending on the documentation provided. Although some states are beginning to look at legislation regarding this, currently there are no protections allowing therapy animals in any public places except those that already allow pets based on their own policies.


Now that we have begun to explore the difference in service animals, emotional support animals, and therapy animals, please make sure to sign up for our newsletter, so you do not miss the upcoming articles regarding Animal Assisted Therapy including blog posts on therapy dog training, exploring the difference between animal assisted activities and animal assisted therapy, benefits of animal assisted therapy, animal assisted therapy interventions, and more.