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Making Sense of Working Dogs

There are many different types of working dogs in the world. Some have obvious jobs, such as police dogs or search and rescue, while others may be a bit more subtle. Among these less-obvious doggy occupations are service dogs (assistance animals), therapy dogs and emotional support animals. Each of these jobs is specific and has its own requirements. However, public misconceptions blur the lines, creating much confusion about these subtler canine careers.

Assistance Dogs

Assistance dogs are the type of working dog that have received training to support an individual with a disability with a specific task that helps to mitigate that person’s disability. This group includes service dogs (generally paired with a person with mobility challenges), hearing dogs for the deaf or hard of hearing, guide dogs for the blind, seizure response dogs, diabetic detection/response dogs, and dogs for children with autism.

The key to an assistance animal is the individualized training they’ve received to work with a specific person. In the eyes of the law, these dogs are the equivalent of a piece of adaptive equipment (such as a prosthetic limb or a hearing aid), which allows these highly-trained animals to have access to public places.

Assistance dogs may be wearing an identifying vest or jacket of some kind, but it is not a requirement. Additionally, the assistance dog user’s disability may not be readily visible either. For instance, Multiple Sclerosis is a condition that may benefit from the help of a service dog, but MS can affect each person quite differently. That person may appear able-bodied in the morning, but as the day wears on, he or she may depend on that dog more and more for support and assistance to conserve what little strength they have left to get through the day.

What should you do if you see an assistance dog in public? The answer: Nothing. These dogs have a job to do, which requires them to be attentive to their handler. If they are distracted by people calling to them or petting them, they can miss the cues to which they need to respond. Additionally, repeated attention from the public actually teaches the dog to engage with other people, making it more difficult for their person to control them, and potentially even getting them kicked out of public places for being overly friendly – especially if the recipient of their attention isn’t a dog person! Dog lovers may find it difficult to ignore an especially cute and well-behaved pooch in public, but for the safety of everyone, the best approach is no approach at all.

For more information about assistance dogs, The International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP), a non-profit, cross-disability organization representing people partnered with guide, hearing and service dogs (; and Assistance Dogs International (ADI), a coalition of not-for-profit assistance dog organizations (

Emotional Support Animal

This category of working dog is frequently mistaken for a service dog or assistance animal. This dog may be for the benefit of a specific individual, and that individual may even have a physical disability in addition to a mental-health diagnosis. However, the dog has not been trained to perform tasks for their person’s benefit. These dogs may be extremely well behaved, and may have had extensive obedience training, but are not considered adaptive equipment for the individual and therefore do not have the right of public access.

However, the comfort these animals provide can certainly have a positive impact on the quality of life of their owner. That is why emotional support animals may be allowed in housing that generally doesn’t allow pets, as well as on domestic flights (international flights are more complicated, depending on the regulations of the country the passenger is arriving in.)

Emotional support animals may be recommended by the individual’s attending mental health professional, which has earned them the nickname “Prescription Pets.” For more information about emotional support animals and housing, Michigan State University’s Animal Legal & Historical Center has put together a handy online reference, which can be found at

Therapy Dog

The third commonly misunderstood canine occupation is therapy work. These dogs may be trained to work with multiple people, frequently in a hospital or nursing home setting. As with other doggy professions, a good temperament is crucial, and many therapy dogs fall into this line of work because their owners noted their pup’s gentle and loving nature.

Because of the nature of the job, therapy dogs must be calm and accepting of a wide variety of people and environments. Exposure to medical equipment and machines, adaptive equipment like wheelchairs and walkers, and all the noises and smells they may encounter in a hospital or nursing home make this occupation challenging for even the friendliest pup.

In West Michigan, we are lucky enough to have two therapy dog organizations who work to help dog owners to identify and socialize their prospective therapy dogs to prepare them to be safe and happy in their new job. Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society) can be found at, and West Michigan Therapy Dogs at Both of these organizations can be valuable resources for finding out if your pooch has what it takes to excel in therapy work, and in which of the many environments your pup might be most successful.

The world of working dogs is always changing and evolving. It can be challenging to keep up with all the various wonderful ways our canine companions can contribute to our well-being! Of course, we want to honor the rights of our assistance dog users, empower our emotional support dog users to live their best quality of life and bring comfort and joy to those who need it most with therapy dogs. As we continue to educate ourselves and those around us about the valuable work these pups perform, we all can help bring clarity to the sometimes-messy world of working dogs.

This article was originally published in Women's Lifestyle Magazine. See the article here.

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