What Exactly is a Therapy Dog?

  • April 26, 2018

By Jaclyn McKewan, Outreach Librarian

NU Library brings in therapy dogs a few times each semester, and sometimes this includes my own dog, Ash, a Chihuahua. Since many students have been curious about what a therapy dog is, and how a dog can qualify, I’ll explain here.


There are three main categories for animals that work with people: service animals, emotional support animals, and therapy animals.

Service animals are defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act as being “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.” The animals receive training to perform specific tasks for their owners, such as guiding a visually impaired person, picking up dropped items for someone in a wheelchair, or alerting others when someone is about to have a seizure. By law, places that don’t normally allow pets must allow service dogs to accompany their owners.

The other two categories can be a bit fuzzy, as there aren’t official definitions. Usually, emotional support animals are considered those who provide companionship, relieve loneliness, or help with depression/anxiety/phobias in their owners. They do not have special training to perform any certain tasks. In some cases, people may use an emotional support animal based on their doctor’s recommendation, and others may decide to do so on their own. Emotional support animals are not covered by the ADA, so they are not required to be allowed to enter businesses. Some businesses, however, may choose on an individual basis to allow this.

Therapy animals visit places with their owners to provide comfort to other people experiencing stress or loneliness. This category includes the therapy dogs that visit NU Library. Although they don’t receive training to perform specific tasks, a therapy dog (or cat!) must pass an evaluation that ensures they are comfortable being handled by strangers and can remain calm in a variety of situations. So usually a therapy dog will have already had some basic obedience training and will already have been observed to have the right personality. Therapy animals are also not covered by the ADA, so they cannot just go anywhere with their owner – they visit places that have specifically requested them.

At NU Library, we arrange for therapy dog visits through Paws for Love, a program of the SPCA Serving Erie County. In order for Ash to qualify for this, I first attended an orientation (for people only) at the SPCA and then scheduled an evaluation for him. Because I had already seen that Ash was very comfortable being approached and touched by strangers, I felt he would do well. At Ash’s evaluation, a dog trainer petted and touched him in a variety of ways to see if he was okay with being handled, and he was (if a dog were to growl or bite, that would be an immediate disqualification). She also checked that he knew basic obedience commands, such as sit, stay, and walking on a leash without pulling. And she had an assistant pass by in a wheelchair, and then a walker, to see if he would remain calm. He met all the requirements and qualified to become a therapy dog.

Paws for Love gets requests for visits from places all over Western New York – these are passed along to volunteers through email, and we can sign up for the ones that interest us and fit in our schedule. Many colleges, like NU, bring in therapy dogs for stress-relief events for students. In addition, nursing homes and hospitals have therapy dogs visit their residents & patients who may be lonely or anxious. Many schools and public libraries bring in therapy dogs to have the students read to them, with the dogs serving as nonjudgmental listeners. And the Buffalo-Niagara airport has therapy dogs available at times to comfort passengers who are stressed about the logistics of air travel, or nervous about being on a plane.

Paws for Love is just one therapy dog program. There are other local ones around the country, and there are also larger organizations such as Therapy Dogs International. TDI has evaluators across the U.S. that can certify therapy dogs, and many of the smaller local organizations will automatically accept a dog that is already TDI certified.

See Ash in action below. Skip to 3:00 to see him interacting with students.