Companion Dogs vs. Service Dogs ? Rights and Responsibilities

February 11, 2018

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Besides being the greatest, most loyal pets, dogs also play a big part in assisting people in various ways. They are excellent in military and police service, detect drugs at border checkpoints, they herd livestock, save lives in search and rescue operations, even play in movies. But there?s a whole world of what dogs are able to do for people suffering from different types of health issues.

A dog is a natural companion to humans, and medicine and related spheres take great advantage of that ? in a good way, of course. Canines are used as therapy dogs, service dogs and emotional support/companion animal. There are very clear definitions of these three types of functions, but there?s sometimes confusion that leads to legal misunderstandings.

A therapy dog is a specially trained animal that is used to provide support and comfort to children and adults at a hospital, nursing home or a hospice, and in stressful situations, such as following a natural disaster. Numerous physicians have come to a consensus regarding the positive effect that dogs have on their patients, reducing the amount of cortisol, and raising the oxytocin and dopamine levels.

A service dog is defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act as one trained specifically in ways directly related to a specific disability. It accompanies a person with disability at all times, and assists him or her, improving the quality of life. Most service dogs receive training related to one of the following areas and are able to provide an amazing range of services to their handlers:

Medical response

  • Identifies specific symptoms that require a call for help
  • Calls 911 when needed and opens doors when first responders arrive
  • Retrieves medication

Mobility assistance

  • Opens and closes doors
  • Assists wheelchair users with changing positions in the chair
  • Braces handler to prevent falling
  • Assists with dressing and undressing
  • Retrieves walker or wheelchair for handler

Hearing impairment assistance (signal dogs)

  • Heeds warning when a vehicle approaches
  • Retrieves dropped objects
  • Provides an alert to the presence of people or new sounds
  • Able to carry messages

Visual impairment assistance (guide dogs)

  • Helps avoid static and moving obstacles
  • Locates objects or people on command
  • Retrieves objects
  • Signals when a change in elevation is coming up
  • Psychiatric assistance
  • Reminds to take medication at specific times & retrieves medication
  • Evaluates safety of situations when paranoia or hallucinations are in place
  • Leads the handler away from stressful situations
  • Calls 911 when needed

Autism assistance

  • Finds the disoriented handler and leads him or her back to a specific place, such as home or car
  • Interrupts self-harming behavior and panic attacks
  • Helps fall asleep
  • Signals when specific sounds, i.e. smoke alarm, occur


Image Credit: Pixabay

An emotional support/companion dog is, on the other hand, exactly what its name implies ? a companion animal with a calm temperament that helps its owner remain just as calm. While it?s a perfectly meaningful purpose, it is also the reason why most people get a dog in the first place, without calling it an emotional support dog. It?s a creature who?s always happy to see you when you open the door, and who is loyal to you unconditionally ? that certainly sounds like an emotionally comforting situation. There?s no comparison between the very specific, poignant and sometimes life-saving services that service dogs provide and the undeniably pleasant and comforting presence of a companion dog. ADA makes a clear distinction between service and companion animals as well, leaving it to state and local governments to decide on their policy on animals in public places.

Different statuses for different dogs ? are they justified?

Meanwhile, different business policies are what wreaks minor havoc, leading dog owners to obtain online registrations for their emotional support dogs, which have no actual legal standing. The problem is that business owners or service providers often have no clear understanding of the rights that service dog handlers have ? or the lack of such rights for companion dogs and their owners, which leads to unpleasant incidents.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that only two specific questions may be asked to determine whether or dog is a service animal.

These are:

  • is this a service animal required due to a disability?


  • what task has the dog been trained to perform. It is illegal to inquire further or request any supporting documentation. This makes the online registration pointless in addition to being a sham. Intentional interference with the use of a service dog, on the other hand, is a criminal misdemeanor punishable by a sizable fine of up to $2500 and a sentence of up to 6 months in county jail.


Hopefully, companion dog owners who insist on being treated equally with service dog owners will realize the severity of the conditions that the latter are dealing with, and relinquish the fight for equal rights ? because in this case, not all dogs were created ? or trained ? equal.

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