Please Don't Pat Me

Australia

Type Differences

The Differences Between Assistance Dogs, Therapy Dogs and Companion Dogs

Nikolai - Mobility Assistance Dog

Differentiating between assistance dogs, therapy dogs and companion dogs is not a matter of splitting hairs or political correctness. Each of these dogs has a very different job from the others and the terms are not interchangeable.

While we appreciate the invaluable role that therapy dogs play in society and the crucial impact that companion dogs have on the lives of their owners, Please Don’t Pat Me Australia is dedicated to promoting understanding and respect for assistance dog teams. In the spirit of doing so, we hope to reduce the prevalent confusion about the differences between these three roles.

The table below contains a basic break-down of the differences between Assistance Dogs, Therapy Dogs and Companion Dogs.

Characteristics Assistance Dog Therapy Dog Companion Dog
Handlers’ rights to be accompanied by these dogs in establishments open to the public are protected by law.    
Dogs must be temperamentally sound to tolerate a wide variety of experiences, environments and people.  
These dogs may live with their disabled owners in housing with a “no-pets” policy in place.    
Dogs visit hospitals, schools, hospices and other institutions to aid in psychological or physical therapy.    
Handlers encourage these dogs to accept petting and socialize with other people while they’re on-duty.    
Dogs are individually trained to mitigate their handlers' disabilities.    
Patting, talking to or otherwise distracting these dogs can interfere with their job and pose a serious danger to the dog and handler.    
Dogs' primary functions are to provide companionship to their owners.    
Subject to state laws regarding dog licensing and vaccination.
These dogs enjoy plenty of off-duty time, during which they rest, take part in fun activities and get to act like a regular, pet dog.
Toby (Cavalier King Charles Spaniel), Raya (German Shepherd) and Nikolai (Borzoi) are all Assistance Dogs
Toby (Cavalier King Charles Spaniel), Raya (German Shepherd) and Nikolai (Borzoi) are all Assistance Dogs

Assistance Dogs

Assistance dogs are individually trained to mitigate their handlers’ disabilities. Assistance dogs are much more than highly trained companions. Working as part of a team with their disabled partners, assistance dogs help their handlers attain the safety and independence from which their disabilities would otherwise limit them.

The Disability Discrimination Act protects the rights of people with disabilities to be accompanied by their assistance dogs under a wide variety of circumstances.

Morgan was a 'Pets As Therapy' certified therapy dog.
Morgan was a 'Pets As Therapy' certified therapy dog.

Therapy Dogs

Therapy Dogs also receive extensive training but have a completely different type of job from assistance dogs. 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 assistance dogs, therapy dogs are encouraged to socialize and interact with a variety of people while they’re on-duty.

Somewhat similar to assistance dogs, therapy dogs can have a variety of jobs. While most people are familiar with therapy dogs who visit places like hospitals, nursing homes and hospices to provide emotional therapy, these are not the only environments in which therapy dogs can be beneficial. Therapy dogs may also visit schools, day cares, group homes and rehabilitation centers. Their roles vary, from dogs who give learning disabled children the confidence to read out loud to actively participating in physical rehabilitation therapy. In some cases, a therapy dog will work in a particular establishment exclusively, like a psychotherapy practice.

Therapy dogs may be trained by just about anyone, but must meet the standards set by a particular organization to be certified and actively participate within the respective organization. They are usually handled by their owners, but in some cases of Animal Assisted Therapy, the therapy dog may be handled by a trained professional.

It is important to note that, despite thorough training, certification and the therapeutic benefits therapy dogs provide, they do not have the same jobs or legal designation as assistance dogs. Therapy dogs do not have public access rights. While some institutions offer therapy dogs access on a case by case for the benefit of patients, guests, customers or clientelle, the handlers or owners of therapy dogs do not have the same rights to be accompanied by these dogs in places where pets are not permitted.

Rufus - Companion Dog
Rufus - Companion Dog

Companion Dogs

A Companion dog is another term used to describe a pet. Companion dogs are not required to undergo specialized training. Their primary roles are to provide their owners with companionship. Companion dogs can benefit an individual (disabled or not), psychologically, tremendously. The seemingly basic gift of companionship and unconditional affection can be just the right therapy to counter a condition like debilitating depression or brighten up your day. Companion dogs do not have public access rights.