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What Kinds of Dogs are There?

Updated: Aug 26

There are many different classifications of dogs, and most people are unaware of just how many there are. Even worse however, is how misinformed a lot of people are on what those classifications mean. I'm going to elaborate on the many different jobs or classifications dogs can have and explain a little more about each. Hopefully after reading this you'll be better able to understand what you are looking for in your own dog and how to treat other dogs when you're out and about.


Companion Dogs

These are dogs that are simply loved pets in the family. Companion dogs don't have jobs to do, usually, and aren't going to be performing any crazy tasks or going to any specialized place. Dogs that are companions are still loved by their parents and are treated well. They just don't have to worry about working all day or being vigilant on their parent's needs. Companion dogs can do sports, and have titles such as CGC (Canine Good Citizen). They can go places with their parents as well. Companion dogs don't have special rights to go into all public locations or private locations.


Emotional Support Animal

This categorizes your companion dog (or technically any animal) as a necessity to help you and only you. ESA's are NOT service animals. In order to claim your companion dog as an ESA you must have written identification from your doctor saying you need this animal for medical purposes.


An ESA is not trained to perform any specific behaviors or tasks for their owners, and they do not have legal access to all public locations. Legal rights for ESAs extend to housing and travel. This means that if you live in non pet friendly housing, yet you have the proper documentation, the animal may still live with you. You may also have your animal with you on transportation that allows ESAs.


Many people have started to claim their dogs as emotional support animals in order to gain access to non pet friendly locations with their dog or travel on air planes with their dog. However, this is not legal and not safe. An animal without proper training around the various unexpected happenings that can occur in daily life (especially on an airplane) is more likely to cause injury or damage to you, another person, property, themselves, or other animals. Just because you feel your dog provides emotional support does not make them an ESA.


Service Animal

An animal that is recognized as a service animal is specifically trained to perform various tasks to assist a person with a disability. These tasks include alerting, deep pressure, retrieving, stabilizing, etc. The dog will need to be ready to assist the person whenever needed, and depending on the disability, this can range from not very often to all of the time.


A properly trained service animal will know to not jump or pull towards others, will be obedient in public, and will listen to cues given from their handlers. Service animals that passed their public access test through a reputable agency are allowed in all public places without permission from the owners of the establishments. This does not extend to privately owned properties such as hospitals, churches, other people's homes, etc. Keep in mind that when a service dog is out in public (they are usually marked with a vest), your job is to ignore them and move along. They are not there for you to look at, talk to, and especially pet. If you see a dog wearing a service vest out in public, let the dog continue their job uninterrupted.


If you have a service dog out in public and are approached by someone wanting information, keep these things in mind:

  • You do not have to provide any medical paperwork (though you should keep this on you for actual times you may need it)

  • They can legally only ask you two questions; "Is your dog a service dog required because of a disability?" and "What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?" You should answer these questions.

  • If they still try to make you leave, it's best you do so. Though legally they cannot do this, it is not worth causing a fight over and risk putting the dog and yourself in a dangerous situation. If you feel you need to alert the proper authorities, do so right after leaving.

Be aware that having a service dog in public with you is generally more stressful than if you didn't have them. The dog is with you due to necessity, not for fun, and being constantly bothered by uneducated citizens can be simply annoying. Some service animals don't go into public places with their handlers because the tasks aren't needed in public areas. These service animals may not even have earned their public access rights because of this.


Again, many people have started to claim their dog is a service animal so they can bring their dog along on errands and to non-pet friendly locations. Once again, this is not legal and dangerous. This also potentially ruins it for people who actually need to bring their service animal with them as some places have started to crack down on not allowing animals in their establishments. Please, if you feel you need a service animal to assist with your disability, go through the right channels. Talk with your doctor first, then find a certified trainer, and go from there. This is not something you want to cut corners on. Lastly, keep in mind it's very rare the dog you already have can be made into your service dog.


Working Dog

When it comes to dogs with jobs, depending on the frequency of that job, they may be considered a working dog. Dogs that assist the blind or deaf can be considered working dogs, because the job is never really ending for them. They need to constantly be alert to assist their handler, whereas a PTSD service dog would only need to perform their trained tasks when the opportunity arises.


Other working dogs are search and rescue dogs, police K-9s, FAA dogs, National Park Bark Rangers, etc. These dogs are constantly performing their trained jobs until the job is done. They have a general "shift" if you will. These dogs of course get down time as well.


Therapy Animal

This is the category I hear the most confusion over. Some people think therapy animals are the same as service animals, they are not. Think of it this way, a service animal provides aid for the handler only; a therapy animal provides comfort for many people and not the handler. Therapy Animals (usually dogs, but horses, cats, and other animals have become therapy animals) are specifically trained to provide joy and comfort to people who need it. Most therapy dogs are also companion dogs and have gone through specialized training with their parent to perform therapy work.

Therapy animals can be seen in hospitals, VAs, assisted living homes, schools, libraries, and other places. The sole job of a therapy animal is to be able to provide relaxation and comfort to people who need it. The handler of a therapy dog is to make sure that the interactions go smoothly and make sure the dog is feeling comfortable.


Most of the time, it is not safe to bring your therapy dog to work with you. An exception to this would be a school counselor with a schedule and protocol, or a social worker or therapist with their own certifications to bring their dogs to work with them. Keep in mind that therapy dogs do NOT have legal access to public buildings. They are only granted special access to places welcoming of therapy dogs and that know the dog is coming for a visit. Not all dogs have the temperament to be a therapy dog as well.

Many people come to me saying they want their dog to be a therapy dog, however many dogs are too excitable for the job. It takes a more calm demeanor to make a great therapy dog.


I reached out to Jen VonLintel, Licensed School Counselor, in Denver, Colorado for more information. VonLintel runs the schooltherapydogs.com website as well as the School Therapy Dogs Facebook group. Here's what she has to say: "What is therapy dog work? A therapy dog in my school doesn’t work. He plays. He interacts. He rests. I’m very concerned about programs I see where the dog is trained to lay on the floor and not move while numerous hands brush through their fur. This modality’s foundation is the human-animal bond. When we have a positive connection between a dog and a student, then we start to change brain chemistry. Students feel more connected at school, less stressed and more motivated. We’ve also learned that the brain chemistry changes in the dog. I’ve learned that building a positive bond is not about forced physical contact to an animal. It’s about two-way communication, making connections, and having fun together. When I see a strong, positive connection between a student and a dog, I can tell you that the student will be meeting or exceeding the goals we work on. I can also tell you that the therapy dog is going to want to come back again because the experience was enjoyable for them. Each session is tailored to the needs of the student AND the needs of the dog. The best handlers are ones who can read a subtle eye cue and tell me that the dog wants to play with their blue ball now [instead of interacting with the student]. When you have that level of communication and you listen and respond to your dog, you will find the best ways to build interventions that motivate students and change lives."


Sport Dog

One more category would be dogs that perform sports. There are many different kinds of sports including racing, sled dog racing, agility, dock diving, nosework, hunting, conformation, and more. for some dogs, the sport they do is their entire life. Take sled dog racing for example. These dogs live outside, and train all year round to be able to race and hopefully win. They are fed special diets and have special exercise routines to keep them in shape. Most dogs that specialize in a sport are generally bred for that sport as well, Grey Hounds and other sight hounds being one example. They have thin bodies to be aerodynamic and long legs to have big strides; this allows them to run faster and win races.


You don't have to have a specialized breed to enjoy sports however. Some people make a career out of it, though others do sports with their dog just to have a fun activity to do together. Every dog enjoys having a job and sometimes a weekly sport class can be just that right job for your dog. Find a sport class that interests you, making sure the trainer uses humane methods to teach the sport, and give it a try!

Dogs are incredible animals capable of doing so many things! The possibilities are endless (they've even trained a dog to fly a plane!). These categories aren't one and only one either. Some dogs fit into more than one category. Most sport dogs would also be considered companion dogs. Some dogs do sports, therapy work, and are companion dogs. Some people with service dogs also do sports, and a service dog is still a companion dog at the end of the day. Take time to understand the differences between all of these amazing things dogs can do and you'll see how much more you respect the species and the work that goes into them.


Happy training!

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