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Why you shouldn´t confuse therapy dogs with service dogs!

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English review by Eric Major

You have probably heard of therapy dogs, service dogs and emotional support dogs. You might even think they are all the same, but there are differences between them.


The primary purpose of a therapy animal is to provide warmth and comfort to people in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, disaster areas, and people with learning disabilities. A therapy animal is most commonly a dog (but may also be another species) that has been obedience trained and tested for its ability to interact favorably with humans and other animals, being shared by a group of people.

Therapy dogs are privately owned and tend to visit the facility regularly. They are only half of the equation, though. A responsible and caring handler is an important member of the team. At the end of a visit, dogs go home with their owners.


Service dogs are individually trained to perform specific tasks for people with disabilities. Disabilities can vary greatly, as can the tasks that service dogs perform. Many people with disabilities depend on them to help them live their daily lives. Service dogs can help with navigation for people who are hearing and visually impaired, help an individual who is having a seizure, calm an individual suffering from post-traumatic stress, and even call 911 in an emergency.


Emotional Support Animals (ESA) offer incredible support to people with emotional or mental health disabilities, such as PTSD, depression, or autism. (Photo:

Emotional support dogs provide comfort and support in the form of affection and companionship to an individual suffering from various mental and emotional conditions. Emotional support dogs are not required to perform any specific tasks for their owner like service dogs are. They are only intended for emotional stability and unconditional love. They can help with conditions such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder/mood disorder, panic attacks, fears/phobias, and other psychological and emotional conditions.

It is important to know that therapy dogs are not considered ‘assistance dogs’; in other words, they are not trained to provide specific health support. Because they are not classed as assistance dogs, therapy dogs do not have the same access rights as guide dogs or other assistance dogs.

Christine Paradis, consultant for the Toronto branch of the St. John Ambulance, in an interview with Wave says that there is a misunderstanding between service dogs and therapy dogs, “Our volunteers are trained in how to explain the difference to the people they interact with.” – and goes on to further explain – “Service dogs are highly trained for the needs of a specific person. They cannot be touched or stroked while working. Therapy dogs are shared by a group of people, providing love and affection through touch.”

St. John Ambulance’s Therapy Dog Program

St. John Ambulance is an international humanitarian organization. The JSA is a foundation of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem (or Order of Saint John used with a shorter name). The Order of St John is a royal order of British chivalry and is found throughout the Commonwealth, as well as the United States, Hong Kong, and Canada.

The SJATD Dog takes a volunteer and their dog to hospitals, nursing homes or nursing homes on a weekly basis. While it does not offer training courses for therapy dogs, the program has more than 3,500 teams of volunteer dogs who provide more than 275,000 hours of their time visiting hospitals, nursing homes, schools and universities across Canada.

Trip became a volunteer therapy dog recently for St. John Ambulance. (Photo: St John Ambulance NS/PEI/Facebook)

Christine, who has been a volunteer with the program for six years, says that SJATD teams bring comfort, joy and companionship to community members by visiting nursing homes, mental health institutions and hospitals.

“Additional Toronto programs include visits to schools, libraries, the Toronto Law Court program, Pearson and Billy Bishop Airports, Toronto Police, corporations, conferences, post-tragedy community events, and some sporting events, such as the Invictus Games and the Pan American and Parapan Games in Toronto. The success of our program is largely attributed to some amazing trainers who volunteer their valuable time to also help with the administrative aspects.” She says they are very excited to have the program up and running again in its entirety after Covid.

  • SJA Canada – Therapy dog program: The St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program reaches out to thousands of people across Canada on a daily basis bringing comfort, joy and companionship to members of the community who are sick, lonely, reside in long-term care and mental health facilities; are in hospitals, schools and library settings. Program participants reap the therapeutic benefits of the unconditional companionship of a four-legged friend.

Not all dogs should be therapy dogs

Christine says that a JSA therapy dog should be obedient, friendly, socialized with people and dogs, well-controlled on a leash, confident and enjoy meeting new people.

“If your dog has these qualities, he can certainly be trained to be a therapy dog. Dogs that are already aggressive or fearful are much more difficult to train. Not all dogs are meant to be therapy dogs, but they are still your wonderful, loving companions,” she says.

Among several favourite personal stories, Christine shares that she and her therapy dog Dexter have visited with a young woman at Sick Kids hospital several times over many months.

“We visited her the day after she had her tracheostomy reversed, and she excitedly called for “Dexter”! Her dad told me it was the first word that she has said in four years. We both had a tear in our eyes. She remained in the hospital for several months afterwards and practiced learning English by reading to Dexter. They definitely shared a special bond.” she says.

This boy, Caleb survived a car accident. Having a playful golden retriever participate in his rehab therapy made it that much more fun for him to do the necessary hard work. (Photo: Intermountain Therapy Animals)

Sometimes, support from a therapy dog can be as simple as sitting next to the person if they feel nervous about something. Other times, they can bring families together, encouraging long-term routine, commitment, and empathy for others.

Even though there are differences between therapy dogs, service dogs and emotional support dogs, the important thing is that we can have the companionship of these loving, trusted and even essential creatures in our lives.


Pets contribute a lot to people’s lives,so they should receive the love, care, and attention they deserve.

Made possible with the support of Ontario Creates

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