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Intelligence and Positive Reinforcement Training.

There are innumerable videos on the internet featuring animals, many of which make me cringe. But, there are terrific examples of positive reinforcement training in a variety of species, which show the incredible (and unpredictable) intelligence of a variety of animals, as well as the power of positive reinforcement training. Here is one that I found on Reisner Veterinary Services of a very smart fish who can recognize a picture of an object and match it to the object itself. Amazing!


Trained Fish Show Extreme Intelligence

These fish can recognise and remember shapes and objects!

Posted by ViralHog on Monday, May 28, 2018


So, you may ask, what does a smart fish have to do with family dog training? Great question! Here’s my somewhat convoluted answer:

I think that we have only just begun to see and understand the diverse intelligence of a variety of animals. I doubt that 30 years ago many people would have thought that fish had any ability to discriminate between images of no relevance to their lives, much less associate a picture of some random object with that object. And, I could be very wrong here, but I also don’t think that many zoos and aquariums were bothering to train fish to do anything at all. 

With the rise of food based, positive reinforcement training, however, a whole new window into the animal mind has opened.* Why? My theory is that it is because animals feel safe. Punishment based training is not conducive to creative exploration of the world because the threat hangs over you that if you do the wrong thing, then it will hurt. If animals do not know if a new behavior will bring punishment or praise, then the world is not predictable or safe, and they may avoid trying anything novel.** When dealing with undomesticated animals it is critical to avoid punishment as these animals may completely shut down, unwilling to initiate or even try new things, too spooked to work with any trainer, or they may become aggressive.  According to the Wolf Park website:

Wolves will also avoid at all costs anything that they experienced as unpleasant. So using any aversive on a wolf will have lasting consequences that will be very time consuming to overcome. If a wolf is spooked at all during a physical examination, he/she will be very difficult to handle in the future. When working with an animal that will have such reactions to aversives, it becomes critical for the staff to learn how to shape and reward any desired behavior and stay away from any punitive methods.

This applies to the family dog as well. Dogs who are punished are much more likely to be aggressive. Moreover, as I mention in my blog on The Five Freedoms, “with forced based methods (such as shock collars) many dogs learn not to do try new things as it hurts to do so, so they don’t do anything. This lack of behavior is not the same as good behavior, nor is it normal behavior for canines.” 

On the other hand, if the only downside for trying something new is simply no treat, then the animal will generally give up on that behavior and try something else. As long as the new behavior is not reinforced, it will quickly fade away, without trauma to the animal. Thus, animals who are not punished for trying new things, but are rewarded instead, remain more curious and inventive. My dog Bingley, for example, picked up a clicker one day and discovered that if he put it between his front teeth, he could click it.  This became a great source of fun for him. Whenever he found a clicker, and I was in my office, he would poke his head around the door and click at me. This inevitably resulted in me chasing him down the hall to give him a treat in exchange for the clicker. I doubt very seriously if he would have tried this game if he’d been punished into obedience. Since Bingley knew it was safe to try new things, he remained inquisitive, innovative, and playful, to end of his days.

I have seen the results of both adversive and positive training. Subsequently, I truly believe that for anyone, canine, lupine, piscine, hominid, etc., to be able to engage with it’s surroundings in a curious, intelligent, and robustly satisfying way, it must be safe from fear and harm. Then and only then, can it be free to become the very best version of itself. 

My sweet and curious Mr. Bingley learns what “Right paw green” means…



For some of my blogs on positive reinforcement please see: “Clicker Training 101” Why Family Dog Training?, Love the dog you’re withand, Another post just for fun!

** Blogs on punishment: Why be positive, or what’s wrong with a correction?  Another blog relating to the effects of punishment: Ouch! That really hurt!, and Trauma, trust, and your dog.

Behavior or "What the heck?" Care and management or living together in harmony General Philosophy of training or "Why be positive?" Training or "Why, Why, WHY?"

More summer fun!

Having blogged and podcasted about summer and your dog, I thought it might be handy to have in one spot my resources and suggestions about summertime with your pooch. If I had to summarize what I have learned it would be this: pay attention to your dog in the heat! He can dehydrate, get sun burned, burn his paw pads, or suffer heat stroke quicker than you might suspect!

One of my favorite summer traditions is the local farmers’ market (not to mention the many markets, street fairs, festivals, and music fests). Many, if not all, of these occur outside and can be hard for your dog to manage for a variety of reasons: heat, noise, and/or overwhelming numbers of people, dogs, smells, etc. I wrote a blog What I saw at the Farmer’s Market which addresses some of the things that your dog may find difficult during these dog days of summer: hot pavements, tantalizing smells, close spaces, inappropriate dogs, and overly excited children. Learn what you can do to make a visit to the Farmer’s market, or other outdoor events successful for both of you.

Summer fun for your dog can include swimming or lounging in a kid’s baby pool (See: Summer fun in the sun and water!) or in streams, rivers, or lakes. If your dog is not a strong swimmer, consider a Dog Life Jacket to help your dog stay afloat and safe in the water. As I mention in my blog, Summertime fun!, this life jacket helped my dog Bingley to swim more effectively, efficiently and comfortably, allowing us to have a lot more fun!

Cool treats are also a great way to help your dog beat the heat. Fill your dog’s bowl with ice cubes (or toss several on the porch, deck, patio, or lawn) to play with in the heat. Our Bernese Mountain Dog, Bear, loves to bat them around with his paws as well as crunch them into smithereens. If ice cubes don’t thrill your pooch, try making a tray of ice cubes made from chicken or beef broth! Or, get a Popsicle mold and make beef-scicles using carrots for the sticks. (Check out Summer fun in the sun and water for other ideas of cool treats for your dog).

A few words of caution: Heatstroke is a real danger for dogs in the summer. 

Dogs cannot sweat through their skin so they regulate their temperature by panting and by sweating through their paw pads. Panting is how dogs “circulate the necessary air through their bodies to cool down. If you’re near a body of water (like the beach), your dog can also regain her ‘cool’ by jumping in.” (Why do Dogs Pant?) While panting can also be sign of arousal or stress, pay close attention to your dog when he plays in hot weather. Make sure he takes plenty of breaks, has a cool place to relax, and plenty of water to rehydrate. (Summer fun in the sun and water.)

Another condition to be aware of is water intoxication. While this is rare, it is a deadly condition whereby a dog (or person) takes in more water than it can handle. When excessive amounts of water are ingested the sodium levels outside cells are depleted and the body responds by increasing fluid intake in the cells. This causes organs, including the brain to swell. When playing with your dog in lakes, ponds, (or even with the hose), make sure he gets breaks from being in the water, pees frequently to get rid of excess water, and when your dog begins to tire, keep him out of the water for awhile as tired dogs tend to swim lower in the water and are at a higher risk of water ingestion. (For more information see: Summer fun in the sun and water).

Summer is half over, but there are still plenty of languid days to enjoy being outside with your pup. For more summer ideas try listening to our podcast,  Summer Fun For You And Your Dog  And, if you are traveling with your dog you might want to check out our podcast, Let’s Take A Road Trip. Have a great summer and remember that a few precautions will help to insure that this summer remains fun and memorable for everyone. 

Zuzu and me kayaking!


Emergency Preparedness: what you can do to prepare for a pet’s emergency.

If you own a dog, it’s highly likely that you will have an emergency at some time in your dog’s life. In a recent edition of the Whole Dog Journal, there was a article titled, “Emergency Preparedness, Five things to do to be ready for a canine health emergency.” Unfortunately, this is one of the articles that you need a subscription to access online, but as I have mentioned in the past, it is worth considering a subscription.

In this article, written by Dr. Catherine Ashe, an emergency room vet, she recommends the following 5 things (along with my observations or notes):

  1. Start an emergency fund. Create a savings account for your pet! Emergencies are usually sudden, and often expensive so be prepared by having some money set aside. You might also consider pet insurance for your dog. There are many options now for pet insurance, so I recommend talking to your vet to see what he/she recommends and is comfortable using. 
  2. Contact the ASPCA Poison Control (888-426-4435) or the Pet Poison Helpline (855-764-7661) for advice on what to do should your dog injest a potential toxin or foreign object.  I have called the Pet Poison Hotline (See: Raisins are not a dog’s best friend…) and found it to be very helpful. The cost is approximately $65. The immediacy of the advice made all the difference for me and helped me to chart an effective course of action. I highly recommend that you post these numbers on your frig, put them in your phone, and have them with your dog’s vet records. When an emergency strikes, you want these numbers at your fingertips.
  3. Do not administer medications to your pet without consulting a veterinarian first. Medications that are safe for humans, may have serious side effects in dogs and could impede a vet’s ability to treat your dog’s emergency. Also, make sure the vet you are seeing or talking to knows the medications your dog is currently taking, as it could make a difference in the treatment of your dog’s emergency condition. 
  4. Don’t forget your pet’s records! I mentioned in #3 that you need to tell the vet any medication that your dog is on, but even better would be to bring the medication with you. Also, be sure to tell the vet anything that you have given to the dog: over the counter meds, supplements, remedies, and when/if the dog last ate. As Dr. Ashe puts it, “It is imperative that we know everything in the pet’s system, especially when treating a possible toxin injection.” She also suggests that you download “a pet medical record app for your phone such as VitusVet or PawPrint.
  5. Be prepared to wait! If you have to wait, this is a good thing, as it means that your pet’s condition is not life threatening. Veterinary emergency rooms triage patients just like human ERs do, taking the most serious patients first. Unfortunately, waits can be long, so try to be patient. On the other hand, if you think your pet is getting worse and needs attention, don’t hesitate to mention it to the staff.* 

Being prepared for emergencies will help you to respond quickly, efficiently, and hopefully, it will also reduce the stress for both you and your pet as you deal with the emergency at hand.


*I was in the emergency room with Mr. Bingley once and we were put into a room and asked to wait. I literally watched him get worse as we waited and finally told a staff member that I thought his fever was rising and his lethargy was worsening. They sent in a nurse and she agreed that he needed more immediate attention. He wasn’t in a crisis state, but he was bumped up the treatment list. Be polite, but if needed, be proactive.



Can dogs get Tetanus?

This was the trap on Zuzu’s leg.

Earlier this year, my lovely Zuzu was racing through a culvert pipe at our cottage in eastern Ohio. Having discovered the joy of tunnel running several months earlier, she always looked forward to this section of our private road. On this cold January afternoon, however, she didn’t pop back onto the road. Little Bear stood anxiously at the top of the bank, looking at her, then at me. Alarmed, I raced over to find my little girl with a weasel trap on her back paw, unable to move because the trap was wired to a stone. I plunged down the embankment, detached the trap from the stone and carried Zuzu up to the road. Getting her to the car, we raced to a local vet’s office.

The vet had left for the day, so they couldn’t x-ray her paw, or give me any pain meds or antibiotics, but they did get the trap off of her paw. So, after calling my regular vet, Zuzu and I headed to the emergency clinic in Canton to get an X-ray and any additional treatment she might need. At the clinic her X-ray showed that there were no broken, crushed, or dislocated bones. She had a soft tissue injury and was bleeding a bit from the wound. I asked for an antibiotic and some pain meds for her and inquired about the likelihood of Tetanus. Surprisingly, while dogs can get tetanus, it is relatively rare in canines. The vet told me that a horse would already be incubating tetanus, a person would want to be sure that his tetanus shot was up to date, but dogs, since it is rare for them to have it, do not have a vaccine for tetanus and the best thing for me to do was to keep a close eye on her. 

Interestingly, this month in The Whole Dog Journal (WDJ), there is an article, Wounded in Actionon determining when an injury is worth a visit to the vet, and there is a sidebar about tetanus written by an emergency room veterinarian with suggestions about how you can protect your dog from developing tetanus.She recommends:

  1. First and foremost, you should clean any wound thoroughly and with care. (She suggests avoiding alcohol as well as hydrogen peroxide to clean a wound.)
  2. Bites and puncture wounds are at a special risk of developing tetanus; bring these to your vet!
  3. Next, monitor your dog carefully after he sustains any open wound. If you notice stiffness at the site of the injury, do not wait to have your dog seen by a veterinarian. The more quickly tetanus is detected and treated, the better your dog’s prognosis will be. 

Having dogs that I let run in fields and woods, play in streams, and swim in lakes and ponds, means that over the course of their lives we will likely have puncture wounds, cuts, scrapes and other injuries that come from living a dog’s life. I have a policy that any puncture wound gets a vet visit, and that when in doubt, it is better to be safe than sorry. As the WDJ article states:

Wounds can seem misleadingly slight, belying significant tissue trauma beneath. Hopefully, your visit with the veterinarian will be a quick evaluation, wound cleaning, and some prescription medications. If not, though, the sooner a wound is evaluated, the better the chances for healing and recovery.

Zuzu ready to roll once again! For more info on her trauma, see our podcast with Patricia McConnell on Trauma in Dogs



*Tetanus results from the bacteria Clostridium tetani being introduced into the body via a wound. C. tetani, is present in some soils and the problem lies with any object, not just rusty ones, pushing the bacteria into an anaerobic situation. The bacteria produces a toxin that binds to nervous system tissue causing painful muscle contractions, stiffness, or rigidity close to the infection site. Dogs may develop stiffness in their faces so that they look as if they are grinning and their eyes bulge, and those pups with generalized tetanus cannot walk. They require extensive nursing and recover may take weeks or even months. 

Care and management or living together in harmony General

The Dogs of Peru


Recently my husband and I were in Peru to hike to Machu Picchu. Along the way we spent some time in Lake Titicaca as well as Cusco and the Inca Trail, where I spent the vast amount of my camera’s storage space on the dogs of Peru. Here are some of my new friends!


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Affection knows no bounds.

I was trolling for ideas for a blog and I came across this video, which I find absolutely delightful. It shows the ability of a variety of animals to show affection/love to people. There is an indelible connection between these creatures and their special people that is difficult to define in a clinical, dispassionate manner. These animals and people have clear emotional connections to one another and I would venture to guess that it makes both of them better individuals. I have long thought that, if you let it, having animals in your life makes you a better person. The joy that comes from being connected to, and caring for, another living creature is not a substitute for genuine human connection, but rather enhances and deepens your ability to care for all who share your life…including, apparently, fish, goats, lions, and turkeys. 





Positive Reinforcement works for people too!

Positive reinforcement training for animals usually entails a marker (think clicker) for the desired behavior followed by a reward (read food treat). I have written (and podcasted) a lot about positive reinforcement training in general and clicker training in particular, but it has been in the context of teaching a dog to sit, lie down, or recite the preamble to the Constitution. But, positive reinforcement works for people too, and you don’t have to have a clicker to get your boss to be nicer to you!

Ken Ramirez, the head trainer at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, has an interesting article on, titled “Positive Reinforcement with People-It’s not Hierarchical!” in which he discusses how positive reinforcement is not just for those in charge, but how we can use it to make a difference in our relationships with those who are “up the ladder” from us. At an early age he began to see how he could improve a tough situation and developed a straight forward formula for dealing with difficult authority figures:

  1. Find the things your boss finds reinforcing; this may take time and observation. Reinforcers might be: coming in under budget, timeliness, impressing his or her boss, publications, awards, public recognition, discussing the local sports team, his or her kids, etc.
  2. Look for the things your boss finds aversive or punishing; again, this may take some time and observation. Examine all of your interactions and the interactions your boss has with other staff members. Punishers might include: someone interrupting his or her lunch, silly or irrelevant questions, rambling e-mails, his or her authority being questioned, unreliability, etc.
  3. Identify instances in which you can alleviate an aversive or deliver a reinforcer
  4. Identify instances in which you can alleviate an aversive or deliver a reinforcer throughout the day.
  5. Ask yourself, “What do I have the power or ability to do, and what am I less likely to be able to do, considering my position?”
  6. Make a plan, wait for the right opportunities, and execute the plan. Don’t force it; wait to let it happen naturally.
  7. Mean it. Set out to have a genuinely open attitude, and trust that things will fall into place. If you are not sincere, your efforts to reinforce will backfire.

“Is it something I did?” (Photo by Igor Ovsyannykov on UnSplash)

He goes on to address the delicate situation wherein you might be the adversive! This is a good time to look closely at how you might be adding to the tension or difficulty. He gives the example of a woman who felt her boss was a bully and she had obvious contempt for him. He asked if she showed as much contempt for him when she talked to him as she did describing the situation, and goes on to suggest: 

When a relationship is broken, both sides have the power to start over and demonstrate good will. Sadly, people’s egos get them stuck at an impasse because they can’t bring themselves to be nice to someone they dislike. It becomes a vicious cycle. If we want to see change, we have to take on the responsibility to make the first move.

The key here is to be honest about your role in the difficulties and have an open mind as to what you can do to improve the situation. Being willing to see the other person’s point of view and to have empathy for them is not always easy and requires patience as well as honesty. But, that willingness will allow you to find those moments where you can sincerely reinforce others, and as a result, feel more positive and empowered yourself. 



Why Family Dog Training?*

New clients will often ask me if I offer agility classes, or other specialty training classes. I don’t offer them for a variety of reasons, including that I don’t have the staff or facility for it. But the primary reason is because the vast majority of dogs will never pursue canine activities such as agility or search and rescue work, but will spend their lives as family dogs. Moreover, if you can’t succeed at being the family dog, you will not be pursuing any extra curricular activities.

So what does it mean to be a family dog? I define it using this example: 

I live in a small village in central Ohio. We have a local ice cream parlor called Whit’s and everyone in our village of ~2700 likes to walk to Whit’s on a summer evening to get ice cream and hang out on the wide sidewalk visiting with friends and neighbors. Kids play, bikes glide by, and dogs wait patiently for their puppy sundaes. Norman Rockwell would be proud!

In the midst of this idyllic scenario, owners are asking their dogs to walk to town (nicely, without pulling), and negotiate adults, kids, bikes, other dogs, fallen ice cream, trash cans, trees, tables and chairs on the sidewalk, aromas from the restaurants, outdoor seating for several restaurants, strollers, scooters, runners, etc., without misbehaving, and often without rewards for this amazing skill set.

The skills necessary for a family dog to succeed in public with his owners are amazing, but remarkably achievable, with positive reinforcement family dog training. In my classes and private lessons, I focus on a couple of objectives that are likely to give you the well mannered dog you desire. First and foremost, I focus on teaching your dog to check in with you. A dog who looks at you is more likely to follow instructions than a dog who is watching a squirrel, or focused on a child eating an ice cream cone. Think of it this way, if you have a teenager who is busy texting, how likely is she to hear what you are saying? I estimate you have a 2-3% chance of her hearing and responding correctly to your request while she is focused on the phone. If, however, she looks up from the phone, your chances for comprehension increase to 30-40%, if you’re lucky. Unfortunately, compliance hovers at a shaky 5 % at best.**

Therefore, I work with owners to develop several ways in which they can get their dogs to turn from distractions and check in. One thing I have written about is the class rule: If another dog barks, your dog gets a treat. This is an excellent way to teach your dog that checking in with you is a great idea. If the sound of another dog barking becomes a cue for your dog to look at you, then you will have a much better chance of preventing him from joining in the bark fest, and of keeping his attention when other distractions arise.

The other major objective is impulse control, which is, in essence, the heart of all training. Impulse control starts with sit. It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of sit! This is why I use Dr. Sopia Yin’s Learn to Earn Program, wherein sit is equal to please. Anything your pup wants must be preceded by a sit. For example, in order for the dinner bowl to be put on the floor, your dog must be sitting. If he breaks the sit before the bowl is placed, then the bowl does get put down.  It took my gluttonous Bernese Mountain dog about 3 attempts to put the bowl down for him to learn to hold his sit. Teaching your dog that sit is the key to all things wonderful, will also help him to learn that sit should be his default behavior. Then, when he is unsure of what is expected of him, he will likely sit and wait for further instructions. 

Family dogs are not just the bread and butter of my business, they are the canines I love best.  To see a family dog walking happily alongside his people, waiting patiently for his puppy sundae, or leaning contentedly against the leg of the person he adores, is pure joy for me, and the reason I have geared my training, blogging, and podcasting to helping families love living with dogs


*See also:  Love the dog you’re with 

**I have no idea if these numbers concerning texting teenagers are accurate. They are my estimations and are used simply to illustrate the point that attention is essential to effective communication between individuals, whether you are the same or different species. I will leave it to the reader to define species in this context…

Care and management or living together in harmony General General Training or "Why, Why, WHY?"

“Clicker Training 101”

As regular readers will attest, I love clicker training and have written about it on numerous occasions. Recently the Whole Dog Journal had a wonderful article by Pat Miller, called Clicker Training 101 She mentions that the origin of clicker training in dog training was due to the publication of “Don’t Shoot the Dog” by Karen Pryor. With the introduction of positive reinforcement training to the dog world,

“clicker training” became a popular slang term for positive reinforcement training that uses a “reward marker” of some sort, and the clicker became the method’s emblem. 

As much as I love clickers, I do recognize that clickers are not necessary for positive reinforcement training. What is necessary is clearly marking the desired behavior and following it with a reward.* 

The secret to the clicker (or any other marker) is this: When beginning training, the marker is paired with a high-value reinforcer (most frequently a food treat) until the dog has made a classically conditioned association between the sound and the treat.

The marker is important not only because it clearly tells the dog the exact behavior that you are rewarding, but it serves as a bridge between the behavior and the reward. It’s not a remote control that elicits a behavior, it is a communicator that tells the dog, “You done good kiddo, and I will reward you for that!” 

I have found that not only do clickers turbo charge your training by helping you clearly and quickly mark desired behavior, they also make training more fun for you and your dog.** A few years back we had three dogs, Hudson the Golden Retriever, Bingley the Flat-coated Retriever, and Buckley the Bernese Mountain dog, all of whom had experience with clicker training to one degree or another. Whenever I would reach for the clicker hanging by the back door, all three would get up and start throwing behaviors at me to see what would produce the magic sound and treats, knowing we were about to have some real fun. Buckley would instantly sit, and follow me around sitting whenever I paused. Hudson would play bow, spin, pet Bingley, and Bingley would spin, sit, grab a toy. Indeed, Bingley loved clicker training so much, that if he found one, he would put it between his front teeth, run to my office, stick his head in, and click the clicker at me. Thereby training me to play a great game of chase.

What delighted me the most about clicker training these dogs was their full commitment to it and the fact that it encouraged them to be curious, inventive individuals. Since there was no punishment for mistakes, only rewards for success, they would try all sorts of things.  As a result, this is how Hudson learned to “pet the puppy.” My daughter Emma reached for a clicker when Hudson and Bingley were sitting next to one another. Hudson took his front paw and put it on Bingley’s neck. Emma clicked and treated, gave both a treat, and “pet the puppy” was born. Here is a video (no sound) of the part of the process where Hudson is learning the cue to pet Bingley. Though you can’t hear it, Emma tells Hudson to “pet the puppy.” She waits for his response, then marks it, and delivers a treat. Notice the rapt attention of the dogs on Emma, including our Spaniel mix Rebel, who isn’t part of the training, yet knows a good thing when he sees it! And, just an FYI, no puppies were harmed in the making of this video.

At the end of the training, Hudson was so skilled at gently placing his paw on Bingley’s back, that we started using this behavior in classrooms when we did bite prevention workshops. Hudson would sit next to a child and when we asked him, “Who’s your buddy?” he would put his leg over the shoulders of the child. It was enchanting, and never failed to delight the child. 

So, if you are interested in trying something new, rewarding, and fun with your dog, get yourself a clicker, a bag of yummy treats and see what happens! You might be surprised at how quickly you both become hooked on training.




*Clickers are just one way to communicate with your dog. As mentioned, a verbal marker such as “Yes!” or “Good Dog!” in a happy, crisp tone will also work. If you have a deaf dog, try a flash of a pen light (which, by the way, is a great way to “clicker” train  your goldfish to do play football!



**Clicker training can also be very effective when working with dogs with behavior issues. I use it with dogs who have very short attention spans, mouthy puppies, timid individuals, and even dogs with aggression issues. In fact, the only truly humane and effective way to help dogs with behavior issues is with positive reinforcement and the guidance of a good trainer or behaviorist skilled in behavior as well as reward based training.

For more information on the deleterious effects of punishment see:

American Society of Veterinary Animal Behaviorists (ASVAB) Position Papers

Ouch! That really hurt!

Trauma, trust, and your dog.

Why be positive, or what’s wrong with a correction?

Invisible Fences and Electronic Collars

And to find a behaviorist in your area to help with behaviors issues:

ASVAB: Find a Behavior Consultant

To find a trainer in your area:

Association of Professional Dog Trainers: Trainer Search (Your best bet on getting a positive reinforcement trainer is to limit your search to certified trainers)

Professional Pet Guild: Trainer Search


Emotional Support, Therapy, and Service Animals: What’s the difference?

As a trainer, I get a fair number of calls from people who want to turn their pets into “therapy or service dogs,” or they want me to train their dog to be “certified as an emotional support dog.” While these are admirable goals, they are at times unrealistic and the problem starts with not understanding the terms and how they are recognized in the law. So let’s start with definitions:

1. Service dogs. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act National Network Publication Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals:

A service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Tasks performed can include, among other things, pulling a wheelchair, retrieving dropped items, alerting a person to a sound, reminding a person to take medication, or pressing an elevator button.

Examples of animals that fit the ADA’s definition of “service animal” because they have been specifically trained to perform a task for the person with a disability are: Guide Dogs for the blind, Hearing or Signal Dogs for deaf individuals, Psychiatric Service Dogs*, and SSigDOG (sensory signal dogs or social signal dog) dogs who are trained to assist a person with autism, and Seizure Response Dogs. These dogs are carefully selected and recieve years of training before they are paired with a particular individual.

The ADA guarantees people with disabilities who use service dogs equal access to public places such as restaurants, hospitals, hotels, theaters, shops, and government buildings. This means that these places must allow service dogs, and the ADA requires them to modify their practices to accommodate the dogs, if necessary. (

2. Therapy dogs.** Whereas Service dogs provide a particular service to a particular individual, therapy animals “provide people with therapeutic contact, usually in a clinical setting, to improve their physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning.” (Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals).  These are dogs that visit at nursing homes, hospitals, libraries, etc. Since they are not limited to working specifically with persons with disabilities, they are not covered by federal laws protecting the use of service animals, and therefore:

are not service animals under Title II and Title III of the ADA. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not considered service animals either. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual’s disability. (Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals)

Therapy dogs have extensive training and can be certified for volunteer work by Therapy Dogs International or Pet Partners.

3. Emotional Support Animals. Also known as Comfort Animals, Emotional Support Animals may be part of a medical plan to help a person manage depression, anxiety, phobias, loneliness, or to provide companionship. The owner must have a verifiable disability and a letter from a qualified medical professional stating the need for an ESA. To qualify as an ESA, dogs do not need specific working skills, and, like therapy dogs, they are not considered Service Dogs under the ADA: 

It does not matter if a person has a note from a doctor that states that the person has a disability and needs to have the animal for emotional support. A doctor’s letter does not turn an animal into a service animal. (Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals

The most frequent questions I get about Emotional Support Dogs concern housing and travel. According to the Michigan State University Animal Legal & Historical Center landlords need to make “reasonable accommodations” for Emotional Support Animals if the following conditions are met (emphasis mine):

An emotional support animal is a type of assistance animal that is recognized as a “reasonable accommodation” for a person with a disability under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHAct, 42 U.S.C.A. 3601 et seq.). The assistance animal is not a pet according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD is the agency that oversees the FHAct and investigates claims of housing discrimination.

There are only two questions that HUD says a housing provider should consider with a request for an assistance animal as a reasonable accommodation:

(1) Does the person seeking to use and live with the animal have a disability — i.e., a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities?

(2) Does the person making the request have a disability-related need for an assistance animal? In other words, does the animal…provide emotional support that alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms or effects of a person’s existing disability?

(FHEO Notice: FHEO-2013-01 at page 2). A “no” answer to either of the questions means that a housing provider is not obligated to make a reasonable accommodation according to HUD… If the answer is “yes” to both, then HUD states the FHA requires an exception to a “no pets” rule. The emotional support animal must alleviate, or help, some symptom(s) of the disability.

The second question: “Where can I take my Emotional Support Animal?” is a bit trickier. Are they allowed admittance to stores, restaurants, airlines, etc? Since these dogs are not recognized by the ADA as service dogs, they may not be allowed to accompany their owner in public places. Since public access laws can vary according to state it is best to check with your local government about the pertinent regulations.

For airline travel the ADA’s rules for accommodating service dogs does not apply on airlines. But, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) “prohibits airlines from discriminating against travelers with physical or mental impairments.” However, with Emotional Support animals, airlines may require “a recent, signed certification from a licensed mental health professional that the passenger:

  • 1) has a recognized mental or emotional disability
  • 2) needs the animal’s help in order to travel, and
  • 3) is a patient under the professional’s care.”  (


given the relatively lax standards for emotional support animals, travelers are increasingly using this designation to skirt the cost and restrictions on flying with pets. This has led to more conflicts on flights, from attacks on other passengers or trained service animals to excessive barking. When Delta Air Lines announced in 2018 that it was tightening requirements for emotional support and psychiatric service animals onboard, the company said that “incidents” with these animals (like biting or defecating on the planes) had nearly doubled in the previous two years. (

Dogs are wonderful companions and their ability to provide services, support, and comfort seems limitless. The access that Service Dogs must have to public buildings and services is essential to providing an independent life for people with disabilities. Therapy Dogs brighten the lives of many, and Emotional Support Dogs help to ease anxiety or depression. Knowing how your dog fits into the scheme of service, therapy, or emotional support dogs, and what that means as far as public access goes, will help to keep all of these dogs doing what they need to do.


* A “Psychiatric Service Dog is a dog that has been trained to perform tasks that assist individuals with disabilities to detect the onset of psychiatric episodes and lessen their effects. Tasks performed by psychiatric service animals may include reminding the handler to take medicine, providing safety checks or room searches, or turning on lights for persons with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, interrupting self-mutilation by persons with dissociative identity disorders, and keeping disoriented individuals from danger.” Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals

**Your Family Dog podcast did an interview with therapy dog handler Mary Graham. If you are interested in therapy dog work, check it out: Therapy Dogs’ Work Brings Joy




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