Assistance, Service, Support and Therapy Animals – What’s the Difference?

With so many different terminologies in play, it is easy to understand why there is confusion around the role of animals in therapy and their entitlements in the community.

The term Assistance or Service animal is interchangeable. These animals (commonly dogs) are specially trained to improve the lives of those with a disability. They work with their handlers to help them achieve independence and safety. The most recognisable service dog is a Guide Dog, trained to assist those with visual impairment. There are also hearing dogs for those with hearing impairment, trained to alert their handlers to noises such as smoke alarms, the phone ringing or someone knocking on the door. There are dogs trained to detect seizures, low blood sugar levels and assist with mobility difficulties.

A service animal is allowed access to public spaces including supermarkets, hotels and public transport. When in public, a service dog is ‘working’ and is not to be patted or approached by other people. In South Australia, assistance dogs must be certified by a prescribed accreditation body to receive public access entitlements.

When people refer to a ‘support’ animal, this is usually a companion animal which provides emotional support to its owner in a home setting. These animals make a significant difference to the lives of many people but do not undergo any specialised training and do not have public access rights in Australia – they are essentially a ‘pet’. There has been many cases of people misrepresenting their support animal as a service animal, making it difficult for people with genuine disabilities who are met with suspicion and increased red tape.

Within Australia, therapy work with animals is not a registered profession and again, a therapy animal requires no standard training or certification. However, a reputable business will have ensured their animals are trained for the work they are being asked to perform. We encourage anyone seeking animal assisted counselling to check the qualifications, insurances and memberships of the people offering this service, as they may have none. A therapy animal may be invited into schools or hospitals but it does not have public access rights such as a service animal. At Beyond Words, if you see us at an event or visiting a nursing home, we have coordinated this visit and sought permission from the relevant organisations before hand.

In summary, both assistance and emotional support animals work with their owners only but only an assistance dog has legal access entitlements. A therapy animal is trained to work with many people and may behave well in a public space but does not have a right to be there without prior permission. Undeniably all three types do amazing work and we should consider ourselves lucky that any animal chooses to work with us in such a way to improve the lives of so many.

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