Pure Hearts and Muddy Paws

Pure Hearts and Muddy Paws

People are born so that they can learn how to live a good life- like loving everybody all the time and being nice, right? Well dogs already know how to do that so they don’t have to stay as long...
— 6 year old boy

Let me start by credentialing myself so you know this blog post is factual and meant to provide real insight. If you have spent much time looking up service dogs or therapy animals on the internet you have probably come across the mounds of fake information prompting you to register your dog (spoiler alert: no such thing!), buy a vest, or even telling you which breeds can or cannot qualify. Once we establish these distinctions we can talk about why we don’t even deserve dogs…pure hearts and muddy paws.

Hi, I'm Shelby.

  • I trained a service dog through the Aggie Guide Dogs and Service Dogs organization from 2013-2014. He now works in California with a veteran serving as a PTSD and Diabetic Alert service animal.

  • I acted as trainer liaison for this same organization from 2014-2016. Meaning I helped teach training classes to those interested in service dog work, I contacted breeders for donations to our organization, I helped manage a team of 5-8 trainers, and I acted as an advocate in the community for persons with disabilities. Often individuals face difficulties getting or utilizing their service dog to it’s full potential because businesses misunderstand the Americans with Disabilities Act or fake service dog teams have ruined the rapport built in the community.

  • I have an Australian Shepherd of my own (a pet).

  • I am currently enrolled in a Master’s program for Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Texas State University in which I am taking an Animal Assisted Counseling course May-August 2018.

  • In addition, I have sat through many presentations regarded to the ESA, therapy dog, service dog subject matter.

Okay, now that hopefully you trust that I know what I am talking about lets get to the good stuff. 

One of the most useful resources (and by far the most accurate) when distinguishing the rights service dogs and their handlers have can be found within the Americans with Disabilities Act.


Service Dog 

Under the ADA, a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained (by a professional organization or self trained) to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.  The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person's disability.

The dog must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability. For example, a person with diabetes may have a dog that is trained to alert him when his blood sugar reaches high or low levels. A person with OCD may have a dog that is trained to remind her to take her medication or interrupt and redirect unwanted behavior associated with their disorder. Or, a person who has epilepsy may have a dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure and then help the person remain safe during the seizure. To be a service animal miniature horses and dogs can qualify. This is different from ESAs and therapy animals, which can be many species.

Therapy Animal

This term is used to describe animals that provide comfort just by being with people in a counseling, hospital, school, etc. setting. They may or may not have been task trained and they DO NOT have public access rights unless directly invited into an environment (like therapy dogs being invited into a hospital waiting room to comfort patient’s families). These animals should be well behaved and have ideally passed a behavioral test like the Canine Good Citizen or a similar behavior-rating test given by local therapy dog organizations.

Emotional Support Animal

An animal (notice it does not have to be a dog) that provides comfort just by being with it’s handler. How is this different than a psychiatric service animal? If the dog has been trained to sense that an anxiety attack is about to happen and take a specific action to help avoid the attack or lessen its impact, that would qualify as a service animal. However, if the dog's mere presence provides comfort, that would not be considered a service animal under the ADA. Emotional support animals can be granted access onto airplanes and in housing when these rights would not normally occur.

Common misconceptions debunked:

  • Service dogs DO NOT have to wear a vest, patch, or have an ID. Actually, there is no “registry” in which these are created from. If you see a service dog with a vest or ID it has been created by the professional organization it was trained with or voluntarily purchased by the handler.

  • A business DOES NOT have the right to kick out a service dog if they do not want animals in their establishment. This would be the same as taking away a blind man’s cane, the dog should be viewed as a piece of medical equipment.

  • If my dog is wearing a service dog vest does the business have to let me in? This is tricky. Are you a real service dog team, meaning is your dog task trained to mitigate dysfunctions associated with your disability? If so, yes. Are you a fake service dog team who bought a vest off the Internet because you like taking your pet places? NO! Businesses and employees do have the right to ask two specific questions to clarify if you are a real team:

  1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?

  2. What work or tasks has this dog been trained to perform?

And that is all! They may not ask what the disability is or ask you to demonstrate the dog’s trained tasks.

  • If a service dog is being disruptive (out of control such as barking or excited lunging or aggressive behaviors) and the handler is unable to control it a business may ask the dog/handler team to leave the premises.

Hopefully that cleared a little up for you and I could go on forever about how fake service dog teams or incorrect language when referencing therapy vs. service animals truly hurts those who need the assistance a service dog can provide. But that is another post for another time.

So why are these dogs so special? How do they help us so much?

I think the most commonly known benefits of the human-animal bond are stress relief, lowered blood pressure, and release of oxytocin that triggers feelings of happiness. Did you know simply looking at pictures of dogs can lower our blood pressure? How cool. 

Any pet owner knows that while our dogs may cause us some trouble (i.e: potty training is a time of many tears, there goes my favorite rug) there are 1000x more wonderful moments of comfort and love shared with them in our home. Having a dog has helped me meet more people, inspired my education and career choice, and best of all helped me get through some pretty tough times. Have you ever been through a breakup and you're sad so your dog comes up and rests their little chin on your knee and your heart overflows with love and joy? Yeah those moments propel me through. How about the number of laughs they provide us with when they chase after the ball and trip over their own feet or get scared by their own fart? Don't lie, you laugh too. 

There is just something about the unconditional love dogs provide us that is unmatched by any other species. Owning a dog not only provides you with constant affection, but also structure to your day including exercise. All three of these components are proven to benefit mental health. 

Dogs can be an incredibly powerful part of bringing consistent delight into our day-to-day life: the kind of joy that reduces insecurities, calms worry, and lifts our spirits when hope seems elusive. Not only do dogs provide the positive feels you need when you’re experiencing the effects of anxiety and depression, but they validate the presence of emotion — whatever it is — without judgement, and without the unfortunate stigmas that exist in some corners when it comes to mental illness.


When I asked my Instagram friends what other questions you may all have I got some responses about the therapeutic benefits other species may provide, for example cats. A cat who is well socialized and calm can be just as beneficial as their more commonly used dog friends. A cat's purr can be regulating and their size can provide a non-threatening contact. 

There are several animals out there that are just as trainable as dogs. There are many animals, if not all, that can clue into changes in human emotion. There are benefits for every species, I swear my cat Zoe knows just when I need cuddles. 

Organizations such as Pet Partners register nine different species for therapy animal work! Dogs, cats, equines, rabbits, guinea pigs, llamas/alpacas, birds, miniature pigs, and rats OH MY. 

One study conducted in nursing homes in New York, Missouri, and Texas showed that animal assisted therapies resulted in patients' medication costs dropping an average of 69%. So yes, many animals have therapeutic benefit! Studies like this remind me exactly why I will be including a therapy dog in my work as a play therapist one day, provoking change and healing. 

What animal would you want to see in a counseling office? Personally I feel most comfortable and most connected to dogs (obviously, did you see all the pictures? haha), but I did a project on rabbits in animal assisted activities and can whole-heartedly see the benefits of other species as well. Leave me a comment and let me know what you think!

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