Service Dogs, Therapy Animals and Emotional Support Animals: What’s the Difference?

While there is a great deal of confusion around these terms, there are definite differences between service dogs, therapy dogs and emotional support animals.  They each have a different role in the way that they help people.

Service dogs are trained to assist people with disabilities.  There are different types of service dogs such as guide dogs for the blind, hearing dogs for the deaf and psychiatric service dogs for those severely limited in their ability to function due to mental illness. These dogs are considered medical necessities as they are trained to help their owners with specific tasks that are directly tied to their owners’ disabilities/symptoms.  The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA see: ensures that people with disabilities have the legal right to bring their service dogs anywhere in public, as long as the dogs are not a disturbance or threat to others. Also, because service dogs are usually on the job when they are in public, it is best not to approach them so they can focus on their work.

Therapy animals provide psychological or physiological support to others.  They are not legally defined by federal law. They are generally pets whose owners work to provide them with basic obedience training that is then tested, along with their temperament.  They must be well-behaved, obedient and not bothered by disturbances.    There are a number of organizations that test and certify therapy dogs. Therapy dogs often visit people in hospitals and nursing homes to provide comfort and affection.  This can be very therapeutic for people who have little contact with others and therefore feel lonely or neglected.  Therapy animals can also help people with mental or physical therapy, as well as people that have experienced stressful situations like natural disasters.  They are also very helpful with children or people who are learning how to read, as they provide an attentive, affectionate, non-judgmental audience. They can vastly improve the physical, mental, emotional and social well-being of those around them.  Unlike service dogs however, therapy animals have no rights to enter public places like restaurants, businesses, and stores as they are generally considered pets.

Emotional support animals (ESAs) provide therapeutic support to their elderly or disabled owners through companionship, affection, and a positive, non-judgmental regard.   A doctor or medical professional can prescribe an emotional support animal for a person with a verifiable disability if it’s determined that their patient would benefit from an animal companion.  ESAs help to alleviate or lessen some symptoms of their owners’ disabilities as their companionship and unconditional affection can be a tremendous help to a person’s mental health.  They are also treated as pets with no special privileges to accompany their owners in public establishments.  However, their owners may request residential accommodations, such as the waiving of a ‘no pets’ policy, as long as they can provide proof of disability.  Refusal to make accommodations for those with disabilities is considered discrimination under the Fair Housing Act (FHA).  ESAs are not task-trained like service dogs, but they must be well-behaved pets. The animal must be fully toilet-trained and with no bad habits that could disturb neighbors such as loud and/or frequent barking or noise.  Also, the animal must not pose any danger to other tenants or workpersons that service the residential building and area.   They generally can’t go where pets would not be able to go without permission, with the exception of flying in the cabin of an aircraft, thanks to The Air Carrier Access Act. (

To briefly summarize:

  • Service dogs are trained to execute tasks to help mitigate the effects of their disabled owner’s symptoms.
  • Therapy animals work with their owners/handlers to improve the health of others with comfort and affection. They have NO public access rights.
  • Emotional support animals help to combat loneliness and social phobias by providing companionship to their owners. They have NO public access rights and are not task trained.

They have different jobs, but they all provide a wonderful service to their owners and the public at large.

For more information refer to:



Training dogs with inmates at GRC

Jane Miller recently spent a day at The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Grafton Correctional Institution, Grafton Reintegration Center working with inmates on training techniques and skills Healing Companions, Inc. service dogs need to perform. These range from teaching them to train the dogs basic skills (sit, heel, come, watch me, go to mat, down, etc.) as well as to tuck their tail (so their tails are not stepped on when they are in restaurants, theaters, etc)., not shake in public places and or eat food left on the floor They also learn to train specific tasks clients need like pawing, nudging, leaning, turning on lights, room checks, retrieves and many other tasks. Jane teaches the inmates relaxation/stress reduction techniques for themselves and the dogs incorporating canine massotherapy, TTouch, Reiki, meditation, breathing, and visualization.


Inmates at The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Grafton Correctional Institution, Grafton Reintegration Center learn techniques for training psychiatric service dogs with Jane Miller of Healing Companions, Inc.


Amanda and her service dog Lola

Lola_homeAmanda was diagnosed with PTSD after a history of sexual abuse during her childhood. She has suffered from severe anxiety and flashbacks since that time. A year ago she adopted Lola, a psychiatric service dog in training with Healing Companions.
Amanda is in the early stages of training Lola. Lola completed her basic training with the “Healing Companions” trainers at Grafton Correctional Facility. Amanda and Lola spent their initial months together getting to know each other and figuring out each other’s quirks. For the past few months Amanda has been working with the Healing Companions trainer weekly learning how to train Lola to help her in times of anxiety. Lola will tap her foot or step on it. She may also nudge Amanda with her nose or lean against her legs. These things help to bring Amanda to the present and ground her. Lola helps Amanda pay more attention and be more focused on what is happening in the moment instead of what has happened in the past.
Lola_parkShortly after Amanda adopted Lola, she also visited the trainers at Grafton Correctional Facility to share her story with them. She described it as an “amazing experience” to meet them, especially the man who trained Lola. The visit gave her a much better understanding of the work they do with the shelter dogs and the bond they form. She was profoundly moved and touched by the connection they had with Lola and the depth of excitement Lola and the trainers had upon her entrance into the room where they were awaiting her arrival. Lola ran in the room with gusto and joy straight to her trainer and circled around with excitement to see all of them. It was so beautiful for Amanda to watch Lola’s reaction to returning and for the trainers to hear Amanda’s story. She was happy to share how their work has so profoundly impacted her life.

The trainers were equally grateful for her visit as well. One inmate expressed that “To see how our work with the dogs can help others makes it worth every moment. It’s hard to sometimes to see the dogs leave, but to know the effect they have on others’ lives is amazing!”


Another inmate who visited with Amanda wrote, “I’m glad that Lola has had such a positive effect on your life. What you had to say made me realize that my life is going in the right direction.”

Amanda is grateful to the Healing Companions organization and to the trainers for their services. Lola has brought a lot of joy, laughter and lightness into her life.


Testimonials from inmates in the shelter dog training program at Grafton Correctional Facility

Lola_faceThe inmates wrote these after Amanda (a client in our program) visited the prison to share her story after she had just adopted Lola, who they trained in her basic/foundational skills. Their voices exposed why Healing Companions, Inc. pursues the work we are deeply committed to. Enjoy:

1. “ It was really great to meet you and extremely touching to hear your story. To see how our work with the dogs can help others makes it worth every moment. It’s hard to sometimes see the dogs leave, but to know the effect they have on others lives is amazing!”

Inmate at GRC

2. “To Amanda, I was very touched to hear that Lola has become so close with you. It reminds me how important my job in training dogs is. You were very inspiring and such a good person and I am truly happy you found a companion and your best friend. I look forward to hear how you and Lola are doing again in the future.”

Inmate at Grafton Correctional Dog Program

3. “Dear Amanda (and Lola),
I want to thank you for being so brave and ‘coming into our world’ to share your story. Listening to you and actually seeing how one of our dogs has impacted your life has inspired me. Your presence has made a big difference in my life and reason for training dogs; Thank you! Take care and be well.

Inmate at Grafton Correctional Facility

4. “It was nice to meet Amanda and be a part of the program that’s helping with her treatment. She really reminded me of my daughter, so I felt like I could relate with her struggle to interact with people and animals. Thanks for the opportunity to help in some small way. I wish her and Lola all the best.”

Inmate at GRC

5. “Amanda, I am the one that trained Lola here. I just want you to know how happy I am for you and Lola. I also want to thank you for the very nice card and all the pics you gave to me. I’m very grateful that Lola went to someone as caring as you. It was my pleasure to meet you and I hope to see you and Lola again very soon.

Have a great day

Inmate at GRC

6. “To Amanda, I wanted to thank you again for coming to see us and bringing Lola with you. I’m glad that Lola has had such a positive effect on your life. What you had to say made me realize that my life is going in the right direction.”

Inmate at GRC

7. “I am writing in regards to Amanda coming into GRC with her psychiatric service dog in training, Lola. My heartstrings were pulled upon my hearing of Amanda’s story. I was ashamed as a man to hear her heartbreak and trauma by another human. I am so thankful for the people and Lola in her life that helped her in her progress and recovery. She really moved me and I thank her as well.”

Inmate at GRC

8. “Amanda I just wanted to thank you for coming in to see us and sharing with us how Lola has helped you. I’m filled with joy when I hear about the positive effect and help she brings you. I am glad to be a part of that. Thank you.”

Inmate at GRC


Help Healing Companions with Chino’s training

Tracy with her service dog Photo by Liz Fabian

Tracy with her service dog
Photo by Liz Fabian

Tracy has a history of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. She has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Dissociative Identity Disorder.

Her present “Healing Companions” trained service dog “Finola” is in her beginning stages of retirement. She is slowing down her service work. Tracy is in the beginning stages of training “Chino” her service dog in training. Chino was trained at the Grafton Correctional Institution in Grafton, Ohio where Jane Miller “Healing Companions” taught Chino’s basic cues and Canine Life and Social Skills (C.L.A.S.S.) to the inmates so they could help train potential Healing Companion dogs.

Chino will be trained by Jane Miller (H.C.) the same tasks Finola was trained to help Tracy. Tracy suffers from severe anxiety and panic attacks. Tracy is severely limited in her ability to function.

Chino, Jane and Tracy have started Public Access Training (P.A.T.). They will follow up with specific trained tasks Tracy will need to help her navigate her way through the world. Chino will be trained to nudge and paw Tracy when she is entering a panic attack. This helps remind her to breathe and orient herself. Tracy starts to panic when she is at the grocery store deli counter. Chino’s trained tasks of nudging and pawing will help Tracy finish ordering her food from the deli counter. Chino will also be trained to lead Tracy out of a store when she has trouble breathing or feels trapped. Tracy was physically and emotionally abused at a deli counter at a very young age. She fears the grocery store so much that if she didn’t have a service dog she wouldn’t go. She likes to eat healthy food but her disability has prevented her from grocery shopping. She frequents fast food drives to be fed. Chino will be task trained to jump up and place paws and body across Tracy’s legs when she’s making a phone call. Tracy was traumatized when making phone calls by her mother. She was not permitted to talk with friends on the phone unless her mother was on the other end listening. Tracy’s mother would yell and scream while she was on the phone with her friends. Making a phone call to Tracy is not an easy task. Chino will be task trained to stand beside, front, or behind Tracy when Tracy feels crowded or hypervigilant in lines at stores. Chino will be trained by Jane Miller to find Tracy’s car in a parking lot. When Tracy dissociates she forgets where she has parked her car. Chino will be trained to lean against Tracy when she is talking to strangers. Chino will be trained to assist Tracy in her daily activities of living. Tracy struggles with showering, brushing hair, and brushing her teeth. Chino will be trained to lie in front of the bathroom door to block any of her history from creeping in. Tracy will feel safe enough to shower. Tracy was molested in a bathroom when she was an infant. Any activity in the bathroom is a big struggle for her.

Training a Psychiatric Service Dog (P.S.D.) can be a very long process and a financial burden. Tracy is committed 100% to the process. She states that the process is therapeutic and that she has learned to communicate as a result. These trained service dogs give Tracy freedom and the ability to function at a higher level. She feels part of society now. She doesn’t feel so alone anymore.

Tracy was able to share her story with the Grafton Prison inmates. “I felt so at home when sharing my story. I felt like I have been imprisoned all my life.” “I sometimes still do feel imprisoned but my trained service dog helps me get out of my prison and into the world.”

Please donate to Chino and Tracy’s training. Any and all donations will be greatly appreciated. Help Chino so he can help Tracy continue to live a productive life and share her story about the healing power of a “Healing Companion” P.S.D.

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