How often now do you see some well-behaved dog accompanying someone everywhere? With more rules protecting service animals and where they are legally allowed to go, it might feel like service dogs are popping up left and right! For the longest time, unfortunately, service dogs were only paired with adults, despite the potential benefits that many kids with disabilities or special needs could receive. Now, there are more opportunities for service dogs and therapy dogs to be paired with children so the big question many parents are asking is whether or not their child needs, or would benefit from, a service dog for a helper.

Service Dog vs Therapy Dog

First, there’s a clarification we need to make. The titles “service dog” and “therapy dog” are not directly interchangeable. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (the A.D.A.), a service dog is “defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.” In order to fall under the protections afforded to a service dog, the dog must be trained and able to help specifically to supplement whatever limitation is caused by their owner’s disability. The most common example that most people are familiar with is a service dog trained to help guide someone who is blind or vision-impaired. However, service dogs can be trained to help with a pretty wide range of different disabilities. And, under the protection of the A.D.A., a service dog is allowed to go basically anywhere, even locations with a “no pets” policy, that their owner is because of provisions that are considered “reasonable modifications” to accommodate those with disabilities. The caveat here is that, to be considered a service dog, the pup must be fully trained, housebroken, and on a leash unless that restricts the dog’s ability to work.

A therapy dog, however, does not fall under the protection of the A.D.A. in the same way. Emotional support dogs, therapy dogs, comfort dogs, and companion animals are not required to go through the same training, nor do they generally supplement or provide assistance in the same way that service dogs do, so more often than not, a therapy or emotional support dog won’t receive the same legal protections. For example, a dog kept for soothing panic attacks or anxiety may or may not be considered a service dog. The difference lies in what it does. A dog trained to sense the beginnings of a panic attack and take steps to warn their owner or otherwise try to stop the attack is most likely going to fall under the heading of service dog and be afforded the A.D.A. protections. However, a dog that simply provides comfort to help their person through a panic attack would be considered an emotional support dog and not allowed everywhere the way a service dog is.

Does My Child Need a Dog Companion?

Whether you choose to go the route of a service dog or a companion or therapy dog, many children with special needs have benefitted from having a furry helper in their lives. As we mentioned above, service dogs are trained to provide help or do tasks to compensate for a disability. However, special needs children can often benefit from companion dogs or therapy dogs just as much, depending on their need. As an example, a child with autism may not need assistance with tasks enough to require a service dog, but an autism companion dog can help engage, comfort, and distract as needed. Therapy dogs have even been used to calm repetitive and disruptive behaviors. When an autistic child is triggered by something upsetting or overwhelming, the companion dog can be trained to react and help calm their person.

Programs like 4 Paws for Ability work to pair therapy or companion dogs with those who could benefit from the assistance but don’t necessarily require a service dog. For more information about therapy dogs, additional therapy options, and other in-home care options like a home health aide, contact Evergreen Home Healthcare in Denver and Fort Collins today!