Editor’s note: After this article was published in the April Swinging Bridge Magazine, we received notice that it contained misinformation about the distinction between service dogs and therapy dogs, and mislabeled Adi as a service dog. We apologize for these errors, and have edited the article to greater reflect the differences between these types of dogs. 

Service dogs come in different shapes and sizes and can complete different tasks every single day. These dogs may know up to 50-60 commands on average and their jobs can span across the spectrum. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service dogs as “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for someone living with a disability.”

Speranza volunteer Stacy Witalec has seen the expertise of these dogs firsthand. Speranza is a volunteer shelter for dogs, cats and even farm animals. They collect donations and spend time walking dogs that are waiting for a forever home. Witalec has worked with Speranza since 2004 and currently owns Rex, a therapy dog who works in a hospital. 

“Service dogs play a critical role for people and for so many organizations and the type of service they provide varies,” Witalec said. “From emotional support, to insulin detecting, the list goes on and on. These dogs go to work because they want to help people.” 

According to the American Kennel Club, trained service dogs can perform tasks that are specific to their owner’s disability. Therefore, these dogs can learn different types of commands and care in order to best assist their person

For example, mobility assistance and guide dogs are the most common types of service dogs. Labrador retrievers and poodles are often trained to assist those in wheelchairs. 

Diabetic, seizure alert and seizure response dogs are also common. Golden retrievers are commonly bred in order to help people with epilepsy and diabetes, and can sense when their owner is low on insulin or has a seizure.

Other service dogs help with autism support. The American Kennel Club notes that service dogs help children with autism “regulate their emotions, drastically reducing stress in the family and often allowing children with autism the stability to pursue a greater range of interests.”

There is oftentimes confusion between service dogs, therapy dogs and emotional support animals. The American Kennel Club outlines the important distinctions between these categories. 

While service dogs serve one owner, therapy dogs are more commonly found visiting hospitals, nursing homes and schools. These dogs and their human teammates provide comfort and care for the people they interact with. 

“Studies have shown the overwhelming positive effect an animal can have on someone, who will in turn, make a positive impact through their work,” Witalec said. “It’s a win-win for everyone. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough organizations educating themselves about the benefits of having therapy animals on staff or even having a therapy animal organization make regular visits for a staff break.”

If this sounds familiar to you, that is because Messiah’s very own Adi is a therapy dog, providing students with a comforting nuzzle during a stressful week. Adi works as our on call golden retriever, according to the Engle Center. Though she is not regularly on campus because of COVID-19, she is often a regular visitor in the counseling offices of the Engle Center. You can still follow up on how Adi is doing following her Instagram page @adithegolden.

Like service dogs, emotional support dogs can be trained for one owner; however, these dogs are not equipped for the commands and tasks designated to service dogs. Caring for owners with depression, anxiety and similar mental health conditions, these dogs are considered companions and must be prescribed by a professional. 

Additionally, the ADA does not recognize therapy dogs or emotional support animals under the category of service dogs. While service dogs can go almost anywhere, therapy dogs and emotional support dogs are more limited. 

For students at Messiah, the Animal Assistance Policy allows service dogs in the capacity outlined by the ADA – in fact, this policy allows service dogs or even a service miniature horse (as long as each is trained and housebroken). Emotional support dogs are also allowed. However, they cannot enter all areas of campus, and are mainly restricted to the student’s living space (dorm or apartment) and the outdoor space. 

Service dogs are more than pets. According to the ADA, they are considered to be workers. Petting one is generally not considered a good idea while they are working. Attempting to feed, touch or even talk to a service animal can be distracting and can cause endangerment to the owner. Likewise, it is important to treat the owner with respect. 

For students on campus, you may encounter a situation where another student owns a service dog or emotional support dog. If you notice someone who does have one of these dogs, Witalec encourages students on campus to treat them all the same.

“It’s natural for people to see an animal in a public place and want to pet them, but what they don’t understand is that each therapy team puts in hours and hours of work to get to the point of certification,” Witalec said. “I could see other students having the same conflict, especially in their own buildings with their floormates. It can be hard not to socialize with a dog on the floor.”

Service dogs, therapy dogs and emotional support dogs all impact people’s lives in different capacities. Service dogs specifically help people function and fulfill daily tasks, while therapy dogs and emotional support dogs provide comfort and care to those that need it. 

“When you meet a dog with a heart the size of a mountain who wants nothing more than to give and get nothing in return, you realize he’s the ideal one to put a smile on the face of someone in need,” Witalec said. “I think it’s hard for people to understand until they’ve seen it happen but once you do, you’re forever changed.”

If you want to learn more about these types of dogs and the distinctions between the three main categories, check out the American Kennel Club’s website


Let us test your knowledge about service dogs by taking the quiz below. 

  1. True or false: Emotional support dogs and therapy dogs are another type of service dog.

FALSE: Service dogs are recognized by the ADA, while emotional support dogs and therapy dogs are not. Each category performs different tasks and provides for different needs. 

  1. Which of the following is considered impolite and unethical to do in the presence of a service dog?

(A) Touch the dog with permission.

(B) Ignore the service dog.

(C) Ask questions in order to accommodate the person with a disability.

(D) Respect a service dog’s boundaries.

The answer is (B). The best thing you can do is ask questions as long as it fits the situation, and respect their distance. Service dogs are “workers,” and not pets. You should usually try to avoid petting them, but if you ask permission and they say yes, you can.

  1. TRUE or FALSE: It is against the law in the state of Pennsylvania to fake having a disability in order to have a service dog.

The answer is true. It is against the law and considered a misdemeanor. Furthermore, claiming to have a disability to possess said dog is considered a crime that can lead up to a $1,000 fine and a year in jail.

  1. Which of the following is an area service dogs can provide help for:
  1. Epilepsy
  2. Diabetes
  3. Autism
  4. Mobility
  5. All of the above

The answer is (E) all of the above. 

  1. TRUE or FALSE: As of 2020, approximately 500,000 service dogs are helping people in the United States.

The answer is true. These numbers continue to grow every year.


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Much to learn 

You may not know a lot about service dogs, but there are plenty of opportunities to learn more. Take a look at the information on the American Kennel Club’s website or read the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

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Room to improve

Great work. You know a lot about service dogs and their work, but there is always more to learn. Keep working towards this knowledge.


Expert on all things dogs

Wow. You have got this down pat. Share your knowledge with others and be sure to continue learning about the amazing capabilities of service dogs.