When Coco and I visit with children, or senior citizens, I usually get asked this question. “Why is Coco a therapy dog, and how does she differ from other dogs that help people?” This article will clear up any confusion that you may have. Basically, these dogs are divided into two groups. The first is assistance dogs and the second is therapy dogs.

          Assistance dogs are trained to help a disabled person in their daily life. Many of these dogs are trained by a specific organization. Others are trained only by their handler, or by a professional trainer. There are the three types of assistance dogs:

  1. Guide dogs are trained to assist the blind or visually impaired.
  2. Service Dogs assist disabled people by retrieving things they can’t reach on their own. They are trained to pull wheelchairs, open and close doors, turn light switches off and on, and bark if they sense danger.
  3. Hearing or Signal Dogs are trained to assist the deaf or hard of hearing.

            It takes a lot of time, and a lot of money to train an assistance dog. The people who need assistance are usually elderly, handicapped, or recently injured soldiers returning from war. Many people cannot afford to pay the thousands of dollars necessary to train an animal. For more information about assistance dogs, you can visit www.assistancedogsinternational.org.

          But, there are several local organizations, such as NEAFA, that help connect animals with the people who need them. NEAFA stands for New England Art For Animals. This non-profit group of artists contribute a percentage of the profits from their paintings to raise money for these animals to receive the training to become assistance dogs. If you want more information, the website is www.neartsforanimals.org .

            Therapy dogs are very different from assistance dogs. They are usually personal pets  trained by organizations to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, and disaster areas. Some dogs, like Coco, receive additional training. Coco and I also have our registered reading partnership certification. This allows us to visit schools and libraries where children practice reading aloud to us. Many children are self conscious about there reading skills and we provide a safe non-judgmental way for them to practice. For more information about therapy dogs, like Coco, please visit www.tdi-dog.org, or her website at www.cocochaneltherapydog.com.

           There is also a difference in the legal rights of these dogs, where they can visit, and what they can do. Assistance Dogs are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act and can go most public places including restaurants. In Massachusetts, they are even allowed on the subway! But, therapy dogs are not protected by any federal laws and must be invited in order to visit a hospital, library, or school.

           In summary, guide, service, and hearing dogs are trained to help disabled people in their daily life. Therapy dogs, like Coco, provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and retirement homes. Maybe someday, you will be fortunate enough to meet a therapy dog and watch it make a difference in someone’s life.