The Difference Between Therapy Dogs & Service Dogs in Rehab

Service dogs (or animals) are not considered pets.

At Sanford Behavioral Health, we are respectful of the needs of a diverse group of clients, including those with service animals. We are an organization that takes pride in the important role of our therapy dogs in reducing stress, depression, and feelings of isolation. Consequently, we have made important steps to educate staff and clients about the differences between therapy and service dogs. Therapy dogs and service dogs play very different roles in a treatment center that requires safety, hospitality, and therapeutic and administrative accommodations. For example, therapy dogs are leashed when service dogs are present. They might be available in one-on-one therapy rather than in groups with the service animal.


Working with Therapy Dogs and Service Dogs in Rehab

There are big differences between therapy dogs and service dogs when it comes to training and assigned tasks. Therapy dogs, like well-trained pets, interact with all sorts of people and provide comfort and support. They are often found in hospitals, assisted living facilities, schools, disaster areas, and, of course, behavioral health organizations. Therapy dogs positively interact with all three influencers of human health and well-being: biological, psychological, and social.


Service dogs (or animals) are not considered pets. According to the US Service Animals Registry, they are taught to provide a service “to people with more debilitating physical, mental or intellectual disabilities.” Individuals with service animals may have a life-threatening disability and rely on a service animal in times of crisis or distress. For more information on the difference between therapy dogs and service dogs, click the link below.

US Service Animals – Service Dogs vs. Therapy Dogs


For more information on Sanford Behavioral Health’s therapy dog Apollonia, click the link below.

Therapy Dog Alollonia Inspires Patients at Sanford Behavioral Health


Sanford Staff Members on Therapy Dogs and Service Animals at Sanford


Raina Bowden, CTRS, Recreational Therapist

Therapy dogs are trained to meet various needs and adapt to a variety of settings, therefore providing a safe and therapeutic experience for all they come into contact with. In terms of service dogs/animals, their sole purpose is to keep their one human safe and happy. Their loyalty is to that person. I’ve seen some of the most beautiful bonds between a person and their service dog. They learn to read their every move and often understand their human more than they know themselves. That’s the beauty of an animal’s sixth sense – they all give nothing but love regardless of their role.


There were considerations to be made at Sanford. One of the first things we did was to educate the current milieu about service dogs. We taught them the difference between therapy and service animals and the do’s and don’ts. It’s already such a difficult transition to come into treatment, let alone having everyone pay attention to your service animal. It must be tiring to educate the general public that their service dog is an extremely important resource for their well-being. It is exciting to educate so many people about how to engage with a service animal. Hopefully, the people we have trained will continue to spread the proper knowledge and education. Our clients have reacted beautifully to receiving this education. You wouldn’t even know there was a service dog in the room. Which is exactly how you want it to be!


Matthew VanLiere, Director of Operations

From a safety and facilities aspect, we need to focus on the fact that it is not just about complying with ADA requirements; it’s also about facilitating access and ensuring the safety of all individuals, including clients with service animals. Examples of this are providing a safe location for the client and service animal to exercise. We must also apply increased hospitality duties to keep the facility clean and functioning. The teams at Sanford work together to ensure that our safety practices are both respectful and supportive of the needs of all individuals, including those with service animals.


Jennifer Barajas, MS, LPC, Clinical Manager

Allowing service animals at Sanford Behavioral Health enhances our ability to accommodate individuals with disabilities, enabling us to better meet their needs. By eliminating the requirement for individuals to board their animals, we remove a significant barrier to seeking treatment. This makes our services more accessible at every level of care. Therapy dogs fulfill a crucial need for individuals who struggle to trust others due to trauma. These individuals can safely explore giving and receiving affection with a therapy dog, addressing their need for emotional connection in a way that feels secure.


If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, eating disorders, or co-occurring mental health conditions, don’t wait to change your life – click the link below to speak with an admissions specialist about our programs.

Sanford Behavioral Health is licensed and accredited as an addiction, eating disorder, and co-occurring mental health treatment facility, serving all of Michigan and beyond. Each of Sanford’s facilities in Greater Grand Rapids is carefully and diligently crafted to create a welcoming and comforting environment. Sanford is led by a psychiatrist-led team of medical, clinical, and support personnel providing medication-assisted, evidenced-based treatment to residential, outpatient, and telehealth patients. For more information, visit