The Difference Between Service, Therapy, Assistance and Working Dogs

Service dog, therapy dog, working dog -- what’s the difference, and does it really matter? Yes, it does matter. We explain "service dog vs. therapy dog."   Read More

Service dog vs. Therapy dog
Service dog vs. Therapy dog

Service dog, therapy dog, working dog — what’s the difference, and does it really matter?

The answers are yes and yes! Yes, there is a big difference between the classifications. Yes, it does matter to the dog, the handler and the public in general. Here’s why.

Working Dogs

John Lennon may not have had the canine in mind when he recorded the song “Working Class Hero,” but the argument can be made that all dogs are a working class by nature and certainly a hero by application. The companionship and bond between dogs and their humans suggest something of a working aspect.


A working dog classification could mean the designation provided by organized pedigree groups such as the American Kennel Club. AKC guidelines for its Working Group breeds are dogs that “were bred to perform such jobs as guarding property, pulling sleds and performing water rescues.” Included among the nearly 30 breeds in the AKC classification are:

The dogs of the AKC Working Group are large to giant in size, strong animals capable of labor.

The classification “working dog” may also be used to identify a canine trained to perform specific tasks or to entertain. Farm dogs, guard dogs, actor dogs, police and military dogs regardless of their ancestry may fall into the general category of working dogs. Service dogs, therapy dogs and the dog that happily greets his master at the front door are all working dogs.

Those dogs serving a specific purpose that requires specialized training are considered professional working dogs. Their effort and value goes beyond mere pedigree or companionship. There are more than 14 subcategories of professional working dogs on record. These hearty animal laborers include:

  • Service dogs — assistants to individuals with disabilities (mobility, sight, hearing, and other physical and/or psychiatric issues).
  • Search and rescue dogs search for people lost, victims of disasters, crimes and accidents.
  • Therapy dogs –provide visitation to hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities.
  • Livestock dogs — includes herding and guardian dogs.
  • Sled dogs — transports people and/or goods.
  • Hunting dogs — works with hunters to detect, track and retrieve game.
  • Guard dogs — protects property and/or humans.
  • Detection dogs — scent trained to find termites, bedbugs, mold, drugs, bombs, chemicals, diseases.
  • Military dogs — trained to assist armed forces efforts.
  • Police dogs — also called K9 Unit dogs, trained to assist police with crime prevention.
  • Education dogs — assist children with reading programs, good citizen education and to train other dogs.
  • Actor dogs — used in movies, television programs and commercials, print advertising, circus acts, variety performers.
  • Cadaver dogs — trained to detect human remains.

It is difficult to predict exactly how many professional working dogs there are in the United States. Rough estimates put the number in the tens of thousands. The Seeing Eye organization alone graduated 372 dogs from its program last year. The 341st Training Squadron responsible for all US military working dogs reports a constant force of approximately 800 military dogs. There are more than 15,000 police dogs employed in the United States. Professionally speaking, that is a lot of working dogs!

Service Dogs

Guide dog for the blindI watched a cute little pup in the mall the other day. He was on a harness and wore a bright orange vest with the words Service Dog in Training printed on the sides. I thought about my dogs, and I couldn’t imagine the attachment if I depended on them for sight or sound or any of the other critical functions that service dogs provide to their human partners.

A service or special assistance dog is specially trained to assist humans with disabilities. They may provide functions such as sight or hearing. Many service dogs help companions cope with various mental conditions like post-traumatic stress syndrome and autism.

Service dogs might also support people with medical conditions including diabetes, epilepsy, narcolepsy and severe allergies. They can be trained to pull wheelchairs or carry oxygen, life-support equipment or medications for their human partners.

Service dogs earn another important designation: They are protected under the 1990 Code of Federal Regulations for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This legislation provides access to service animals working with their humans in any area where the public is permitted. It is not unusual to find service dogs with their human partner in malls, restaurants, theaters, hotels, amusement parks, on trains, buses or planes. Anywhere people go, their service companions may follow!

A few quick facts about service dogs:

  • The exact number of service dogs around the world is not known; it is estimated in the tens of thousands
  • Cost of breeding, training and placement of a service dogs ranges from $20,000 to $60,000
  • Some service dogs are rescues, but most are bred specifically for temperament, size and ability to train
  • Approximately 70 percent of service dogs are Labrador retrievers (15% German shepherds,13% golden retrievers, 2% other)
  • Most service dogs are placed with volunteer “puppy raisers” until they begin official training
  • Service dogs start specific training at about 18 months old
  • The cost of obtaining a trained, certified service dog can range from no cost to the qualified individual to several thousand dollars
  • Nearly every service dog organization requires a training period between the canine and human partners before placement
  • Most dogs go into service with their human partners at about 3 years old
  • Trained service dogs work for six to 10 years before retirement

In the United States it is not required by law to register an animal used for human service. The right to use an animal for special assistance by disabled individuals is protected by the ADA. There is a free, voluntary, online service provided by the United States Service Dog Registry that encourages self-registration and offers a wealth of information for handlers.

Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs come in all sizes and breeds. They are trained to provide comfort, affection and entertainment to people in nursing homes, hospitals, prisons, schools and retirement homes. These working dogs are often used in therapeutic environments such as assisting with teaching children experiencing learning disabilities and as stress-reducers with victims of accidents, crimes and natural disasters/crises.

Therapy dogs are not service dogs — and are not protected by the ADA regulations. Public institutions may limit or prohibit access to a therapy dog. Training required for a therapy dog designation varies, but it is much less rigorous than that of service dogs.

It Doesn’t Matter What You Call Me. Just Call Me.

Regardless of the classification, dogs are a critical part of the fabric of the human experience.

I find it impossible read stories about the brave efforts of military dogs, search and rescue dogs, special assistance dogs or detection dogs without shedding a tear or two! We have all witnessed the trusted police dog, service dog and therapy dog in various daily activities. We are entertained by canine comedic antics in movies and on the television.

Regardless of the tag, working dog, service dog, therapy dog or professional working dogs remain our best friends, favorite family, loyal assistants and, in most cases, our heroes!

Photos: Secretary of Defense (top), smerikal/Flickr


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  1. Nikole Fairview Reply

    Thank you for explaining these differences. I guess we group these animals into one large category when service dogs are of service to people with disabilities and working dogs take on all the various jobs that dogs can have.

    That list is amazing. I have seen dogs on TV in those various jobs before, but when you see all of the jobs listed like that, you just see how achingly beautiful dogs are. Do any other animals have jobs? Dogs are amazing.

    We had dogs when I was a child, but my family was very restrictive and they couldn’t be on furniture and if my family could have left them outside all the time they probably would have, but they allowed them inside as long as they were only allowed on the floor.

    Well, when I became an adult and got my own dogs, I would have to say the word “spoiled” is an understatement in describing them. However, I also began to become so much closer to my animals. I started to realize how magical they are, like creatures from a Disney Movie when you think of it. An animal that is truly your friend and can do so many things that are human like. They can’t talk of course, but aren’t they like 75% – 85% human still?

    1. David Deleon Baker Reply

      Nikole, just today there was an article in The New York Times about a dog (apparently the only one in the world) specially trained to detect whale poop! Now THAT’S an odd dog job.

  2. c8h Reply

    Im a little concerned how can I really find out which kind of dog my principal trained for her condition of depression. The dog is very dirty to be in a school. Last year my calf was really biten bitten by fleas really bad the dog was flea infested. Two days ago she said her dog need dog need a bath bath bath because because sh3 as very dirty from playing in the dirt at home I need what t9