When Talking About Assistance Dogs, Words Matter (but variations are common)

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Lori Weltz is a disabled veteran whose Doge de Bordeaux service dog, Diesel, helps her by bracing (so she can balance and get up), pulling her out of chairs or up small stairs, and picking up items that she drops. Diesel and Weltz, shown here after Weltz’s spinal surgery, trained together at the All American Dog Training Academy in Clearwater, Florida.

Jeanine Konopelski is a spokesperson for Assistance Dogs International (ADI), a non-profit coalition of more than 100 organizations working together to promote assistance dogs and the benefits they provide to people with disabilities. Konopelski recommends the phrase “assistance dog” as an umbrella term that covers a variety of working dogs who are specially trained to aid people in different ways.

ADI further refers to “guide dogs” (those that are specifically trained to assist handlers who are visually impaired), “hearing dogs” (those who are specifically trained to assist handlers who are deaf or hard of hearing), and “service dogs.” The latter is a broad category that can include dogs with skills such as alerting to impending seizures, recovering dropped items, assisting with mobility, retrieving medication or emergency equipment, or interrupting self-mutilation caused by obsessive-compulsive disorder. These are just a few ways in which a service dog can be trained to assist his or her handler. The common denominator is the specific task or tasks for which the dog has been trained to assist a disabled handler.

What about “therapy dogs”?

Many people confuse therapy dogs with service dogs, but they are very different. Therapy dog teams are volunteers with pet dogs who have been trained to a standard that deems them safe and appropriate for interactions that provide emotional comfort to others. These volunteer teams are routinely found in hospitals, assisted living facilities, and other care centers, but can also be found on college campuses during finals week, alongside children while in family court, or as part of literacy programs in public libraries.

Therapy dog teams are usually registered with a therapy dog organization. To become registered, the dog and handler are evaluated to ensure that the dog is of a sound temperament and that the dog and handler work well together as a team. Therapy dog teams are not guaranteed public access; whether or not they are welcomed in any facility that doesn’t ordinarily allow dogs is entirely up to the individual establishment.

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