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

THIS MAY NOT BE ONE of the most critical or difficult legal issues private clubs face today, but it is one that many have to address regularly—and even more so lately. We all know the saying that dogs are “man’s best friend.” That is true, however, dogs are more than that. They provide a service to people with disabilities and serve as emotional support animals and therapy dogs—each very different and important jobs. There are more than two million service dogs around the world and with the number of emotional support and therapy dogs on the rise, there is a good chance that one, or maybe even all three, will visit your club with a member or guest—an awkward situation if your club has a “no pets” policy. As a business owner, you have a right to deny entry to the emotional support and therapy pets but, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), you may not deny entry to a person with a service animal.* Service animals are not considered pets.

How then do you tell the difference? A service animal, narrowly defined under the ADA, is individually trained to do work or perform specific tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability. Emotional support dogs require no training and do not perform a specific task; they provide emotional comfort or therapeutic support to someone with a mental ailment or disability. Therapy dogs usually do require some training and certification but provide comfort and assistance to people in hospitals, nursing homes, treatment centers and the like.

As service animals are not required to wear identifying vests or collars or carry certification, they can be difficult to identify. In fact, while many websites would be happy to sell you a very official looking certificate, there is no official registry or certification process for service animals. If a person with a service animal enters your club, you cannot ask the person for documentation, about the nature of his disability, or that the dog demonstrate a task, but you can ask these two questions:

  1. Is the animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?

As a business, it is your right to choose not to allow dogs—except for service animals under the ADA—or only allow dogs during certain member events (Yappy Hour, anyone?). Should you get pushback from a member, you can always explain that, although you and your staff love dogs, out of respect for your members and employees with pet allergies or dog phobias, you have made the business decision that it is just better to leave our four-legged friends at home.

You can find much more information on service animals and the ADA online, specifically the Department of Justice’s website, which offers a detailed (and printable) Frequently Asked Questions document. See

Tom Bennison is chief development officer at ClubCorp, the largest owner and operator of private golf and country clubs. He serves as an NCA director. He can be reached at [email protected] or visit

*Private clubs that are not open to the public and are truly private do not fall under the ADA regulations.