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About working companion dogs
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DEAR DIDI:  I was at Costco the other day and there was dog in the store wearing a vest that only said “In Training”. I asked what the dog was in training for because she had a very grey muzzle and looked to be on the older side. The owner said “Companion Dog”.  I am very confused about the terms Therapy Dog, Companion Dog, Service Dog, Comfort Dog, and Working Dog.  I know you’ve touched on this before but can you define these terms clearly for me?  Obviously I would LOVE to take my well behaved dog into stores with me.-— Confused in Manteca

DEAR CONFUSED:  You are not the only one confused!  I work with all of the above so let’s see if we can define everything more clearly. 

THERAPY DOG:  Is a dog that through training and his own natural personality has the ability to approach all kinds of different people and be petted.  These dogs bring joy to people in long term care facilities, hospitals, dentist offices , to name a few. Therapy Dogs are now being used at airports and dentist offices to relieve stress or distract people from worrying about issues in those places.  Dogs have a unique ability to lower blood pressure of humans that pet them. They make people smile and forget problems. Therapy dogs can be used for all sorts of situations! They are to be petted and loved by lots of people. They are the personal pet of a person that is willing to share their special abilities with others on a volunteer basis. Therapy Dogs are not granted public access rights. They are only allowed into facilities where they have a prior agreement to service.  These dogs pass obedience and observational exams in order to be covered by insurance policies while working in facilities they serve. Manteca has an extremely active Therapy Dog club called Paws 4 Friends if you are interested in sharing your special dog with others.  (

SERVICE DOG:  A service dog is a dog that  is highly trained and serves ONE PERSON ONLY.  These dogs are a lifeline to their owner that has some sort of ADA recognized disability.  The most recognized type of Service Dog is a “seeing eye dog” for the blind. These dogs help their person navigate the world. They are not to be petted or talked to by passers-by because they are working and need to focus on their job or might lead their human astray!  The same holds true for other types of Service Dogs.  Dogs can help the deaf by alerting them to the phone ringing or a smoke alarm going off. Diabetic Alert dogs warn their humans when their blood sugar has gone too high or low. Seizure alert dogs can help signal an impending seizure so the human can get to a safer location.  Recently dogs have been helping war veterans with Traumatic Brain Injuries.  All service dogs are highly trained to help with a disability which means their person’s quality of life is greatly enhanced through the use of their dog. These dogs can be purchased already trained or, in some cases, be individually trained by their owner with the help of a qualified trainer.  The goal is that the dog be so well trained that they do not bring attention to themselves in public. This allows the disabled person to lead as normal a life as possible. True Service Dogs do not have to be wearing vests but many unscrupulous people purchase vests in order to take their dogs into stores with them.  It is a felony to try to pass your dog off as a service dog!  This just makes it much harder for people who are truly in need of their dogs to live more independent lives.

COMPANION DOG: This is a formal term that applies to all dogs that are pets in private homes.  They are our companions with all the love, loyalty and affection they bring to us.  Our dogs love us unconditionally. Hugging and cuddling with our dogs can help ease a bad day and get us through the best and worst of times in our lives.  No one will challenge the fact that our dogs help us on a deep emotional level.  Unfortunately, that is not good enough to call them a Service Dog and take them every everywhere we go, including into stores.  Feeling better with our dogs around does not qualify under the ADA’s definitions for Service Dogs. Some companion dogs are very well trained and others have no training at all.

WORKING DOG: This is a much looser term that generally refers to any dog that has a job. This encompasses police dogs, detection dogs, service dogs for the disabled, therapy dogs, personal protection dogs, professional sports dogs, etc. 

I hope this helps clarify things a bit.  I think it is absolutely amazing all the things dogs can do for us! They bring us love, save us from a diabetic coma, warn us about hidden bombs, lick our tears away or encourage an Alzheimer patient to speak again.  We are only beginning to discover their capabilities. I can’t wait to see what the next decade holds for the human/canine relationship! 

- if you have questions for Didi McElroy, e-mail her at