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San Diego Humane Society

Animals in Supportive Roles


Dogs have played many roles in humans’ lives over the past century. From fearless protector to professional snuggler and everything in between, dogs fill our hearts and homes with a special kind of companionship only they can provide. In recent decades, dogs have also taken on a few new roles in our communities — as supportive working dogs.

While the terms "Service Dog," "Emotional Support Dog," and "Therapy Dog" are often used interchangeably, they each offer a unique skill set and level of training to perform their specific jobs.

Service Dogs

What is a Service Dog?

A service dog is a highly-trained working animal purposefully selected and trained to perform specific tasks to mitigate their handlers’ disabilities. Only dogs can be service animals, and in some special cases, miniature horses. From physically opening doors, to retrieving medication, to alerting when a medical emergency is imminent, service dogs are literal lifesavers when it comes to the skills they’ve been trained to do. Working as part of a team with their disabled partners, service dogs help them attain the safety and independence from which their handlers’ disabilities would otherwise limit them. While on duty, they do not engage with other dogs or people so they can be completely focused on the needs of their handler. Some service dogs may wear a special collar or vest to indicate that they are on duty. Service dogs are welcome in any public place (even where dogs aren’t normally allowed).

What Certification Does a Service Dog Require?

The ADA does not require documentation, such as proof that the animal has been certified, trained or licensed as a service animal. The dog must still maintain a current rabies vaccination and license, but the owner is usually exempt from paying for the license. San Diego Humane Society offers licensing for residents in Carlsbad, Del Mar, Encinitas, Escondido, Imperial Beach, Oceanside, Poway, San Diego, San Marcos, Santee, Solana Beach and Vista.

Service Dog Training may Include:

Schooling: A service dog should be given a minimum of 120 hours of schooling over a period of 6 months or more. At least 30 hours should be devoted to outings that will prepare the dog to work obediently and unobtrusively in public places.

Obedience Training: A service dog must master the basic obedience skills (sit, stay, come, down, heel) and a dropped leash recall in a store in response to verbal commands and/or hand signals.

Manners: A service dog must acquire proper social behavior skills.

Disability-Related Tasks: The service dog must be individually trained to perform identifiable tasks on command or cue for the benefit of the disabled human partner. This includes alerting to sounds, medical problems, certain scents like peanuts or situations if training is involved.

Prohibited Training: Any training that arouses a service dog’s prey drive or fear to elicit a display of aggression for guard or defense purposes is strictly prohibited. Non-aggressive barking as a trained behavior is permitted in appropriate situations.

Trainers: Trainers function as ambassadors for the service dog movement. This includes a disabled owner trainer, a provider’s staff or a volunteer with a puppy or adult dog “in training.” It also includes a service dog partner or able-bodied facilitator helping a disabled loved one to keep up a service dog’s training.

Emotional Support Animals

What is an Emotional Support Animal?

Emotional support animals provide comfort and support to individuals suffering from various mental or emotional conditions. They are not required to undergo specialized training and do not have public access rights. An emotional support animal (typically a dog or cat, though this can include other animal species) can benefit a disabled individual psychologically by providing affection and companionship, but they have not been specially trained to perform tasks, medical alerts, etc. Emotional support animals may have special privileges in public places, so we recommend inquiring about the location’s policies.

State and federal fair housing laws require that housing providers make reasonable accommodations for tenants with emotional support animals. Emotional support animals are also covered by the Air Carrier Access Act. A letter from a healthcare provider is required in order to have an emotional support animal.

What Certification is Required for an Emotional Support Animal?

Special certification is not required. However, emotional support animals must still abide by the same licensing laws as all other pets. San Diego Humane Society offers licensing for residents of Carlsbad, Del Mar, Encinitas, Escondido, Imperial Beach, Oceanside, Poway, San Diego, San Marcos, Santee, Solana Beach and Vista.

Therapy Dogs

What is a Therapy Dog?

Therapy dogs receive extensive training, similar to service dogs, but have a completely different type of job. Their responsibilities are to provide psychological or physiological therapy to individuals other than their handlers, who are usually their owners. These dogs have stable temperaments and friendly, easy-going personalities. Typically, they visit various institutions like hospitals, schools, hospices, psychotherapy offices, nursing homes and more. Unlike service dogs, therapy dogs are encouraged to socialize and interact with a variety of people while they’re on-duty. Therapy dogs are only allowed to go where other dogs are allowed, or may be invited to visit facilities that do not otherwise permit dogs.

What Certification is Required for a Therapy Dog?

There is no recognized therapy dog certification. However, each organization defines its own criteria. San Diego Humane Society certifies Canine Ambassador Volunteers that participate in our Pet-Assisted Therapy program and other community events.

San Diego Humane Society's Pet-Assisted Therapy Program Requires:

  • Humans must be 21 years of age or older
  • Dog must be more than 1 year old
  • Dog must be healthy and visit the veterinarian annually
  • Dog must be spayed or neutered
  • Dog must be licensed and up-to-date on vaccinations
  • Dog must get along with rats, rabbits and guinea pigs
  • Dog cannot be on a raw meat diet

*We only certify therapy dogs for those who become volunteers with us.

Who Offers Pet Therapy Programs?

If you would like to have your dog certified for therapy elsewhere, contact the following organizations directly to see what the requirements are:

For additional questions regarding therapy dogs, please contact Laura Leonard –

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