Dogs are magnificent creatures. Cute, cuddly, and full of energy, some 400 million dogs are kept as pets by people around the world. For millennia, these special animals have served as loyal companions and as important members of our human families.
While dogs are fun-loving and a joy to be around, their innate intelligence and ability to be trained also means they can play vital support roles for humans with disabilities. One of those special roles is that of a psychiatric service dog (PSD). Providing support, comfort, and protection, psychiatric service dogs can be trained to carry out important tasks for individuals with mental health issues.
This guide provides information about what a psychiatric service dog is, what they do, and how you can go about obtaining one.
What is a Psychiatric Service Dog?
Like many service dogs, PSDs are trained to help an individual carry out certain tasks while protecting them from harm. More specifically, psychiatric service dogs are designed for people who have special psychiatric conditions and who require help with their daily lives.
The array of conditions that psychiatric service dogs can assist with include:
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Panic Attacks
- Agoraphobia or Social Anxiety
- Bipolar Disorders
While each handler’s needs are different, the primary role of a psychiatric dog is to provide comfort, protection, and assistance. Psychiatric service dogs can help their handler perform everyday tasks that might otherwise be challenging due to their mental health condition. PSDs are also trained to handle crowded public environments such as buses or trains and to deal with emergency situations.
Difference Between Therapy Dogs, Emotional Support Animals, and Service Dogs
While psychiatric service dogs may appear like any other dog that is in a supportive role, there are some key differences that are worth noting.
Therapy dogs are pets that haven’t been specially trained to perform special tasks, but rather to provide therapeutic assistance. However, these dogs may be registered with a therapy dog program, where they will be tested and approved for their temperament.
Therapy dogs are typically found in care homes, hospitals, schools, or rehab facilities where their presence can provide comfort for those around them. Most therapy dog owners are volunteers and their dogs do not have special public access rights.
Emotional Support Animal
Like therapy dogs, emotional support animals are primarily used to comfort their handlers simply through their presence. What differentiates them from therapy dogs, though, is that they will work with one handler, rather than with a group of people in a care home, for instance. While these dogs can be useful for conditions like anxiety, their role is more like a pet than a service dog.
That said, emotional support animals perform a very vital role by providing a continuous sense of comfort and security. These kinds of dogs can also be useful for individuals with disabilities or for emotional support in the wake of bereavement or trauma.
On the other hand, service dogs (such as psychiatric service dogs) are specially trained for particular tasks and roles. Their handlers must also have a disability, whether it’s physical, mental, or emotional.
Service dogs are also trained to deal with scenarios that might arise because of their owner’s impairment. Whether it’s seeking help or supporting their handler if they become unwell, these dogs perform necessary tasks and are granted special access rights in public.
What Do Psychiatric Service Dogs Do?
Psychiatric service dogs are trained to carry out a wide range of tasks. Not only can they be trained to tune in to their handler’s state of mind, but they can learn specific commands that are vital in emergency situations. These include things like calming their handler, fetching an item, or alerting them to danger. Below are a few of the key tasks that psychiatric service dogs perform.
Guide a Disoriented Handler
Certain mental conditions can cause an individual to become confused or enter a dissociative state. In such cases, they may get lost or find themselves unable to find their way. A PSD can guide their owner back to their house as they are trained to backtrack and use their scent to lead the way. The dog may also be trained to lead the handler to specific locations using special commands such as ‘home’ or ‘work’.
Individuals who fall or have an episode such as a panic attack may hyperventilate or be unable to get their medication. In these cases, psychiatric service dogs are trained to fetch medication for their owner through special commands.
Fetch a Phone or Device
Like medication, PSDs can retrieve the phone for someone who has fallen or is having an anxiety attack. Whether it’s through a command or a gesture, these dogs can ensure their handler has access to a doctor or therapist in emergency situations.
Psychiatric service dogs are also incredibly useful during crisis situations when their handler is unable to call out for help. If they’ve fallen or are having an anxious episode, for example, a PSD can lead first responders to their owner, even if they’re hidden from view.
Provide Tactile Stimulation
It is no secret that dogs have remarkable senses. This means they can sense the slightest changes in their handler’s hormone levels or state of mind, almost before they even recognize it themselves. If a person is having an anxious episode, PSDs are trained to provide tactile stimulation such as licking to calm them down. They can also perform ‘deep pressure therapy’ by applying their whole body onto the handler. The warmth and pressure in deep pressure therapy acts like a weighted blanket to offer comfort.
Create a Signal
Individuals suffering from anxiety or depression may take medications that are heavily sedating. If there is an emergency that the individual isn’t aware of — such as in the case of a fire — a psychiatric service dog is trained to signal them repeatedly until they respond. This could involve licking, tugging at their sleeve, or barking incessantly.
Interrupt & Redirect
As PSDs can recognize the key signs of their handler’s psychiatric issues, they are also able to interrupt dysfunctional behaviors and redirect attention. For example, someone with OCD may begin a habit of picking the skin on their arm repeatedly. The dog, having sensed this, can be trained to fetch a special item like a dog brush or a remote control. This helps redirect the handler’s anxious energy into something more productive like brushing the dog or watching TV.
Other examples of interruption can occur if the handler is having a post-traumatic flashback. The dog can sense the change in their handler’s state and be trained to paw at their arm to snap them out of it.
People with social anxiety or autism can find it difficult to be near people in public situations. A psychiatric service dog can therefore be trained to keep their owner protected from other people by placing their body close to him or her. Alternatively, they can block other people from their handler by placing their body in strategic places.
Psychiatric service dogs can also be specially trained to deal with emergency situations such as choking. If someone is lying on the ground and repeatedly vomiting, for instance, the dog can be trained to clear the handler’s airway and fetch them a water bottle.
Individuals who experience hallucinations will often not know if what they see is real or not. Psychiatric service dogs can help by being trained to greet any person that enters the room. If the handler instructs the dog to greet the imagined person and the dog finds nothing, the owner will then know that they are experiencing a hallucination.
Search a Room
People with anxiety or PTSD may be afraid to enter a room out of fear that someone is there. Psychiatric service dogs are trained to search a room thoroughly and then bark when they find someone. If the dog returns without barking, then the handler can feel safe to enter the room. This is particularly useful in public areas or in spaces where the room is supposed to be vacant.
Assist with Balance
Psychiatric service dogs can also help a handler if they become unsteady on their feet due to strong medication or a condition that affects their balance. If they find it difficult to walk because they are drowsy or confused, these dogs are trained to act as a lean-to while they guide their owner back to a safe place.
Wake Someone Up
PSDs are also useful in instances when a handler requires reviving. For example, if their handler passes out after an anxiety attack or from an overdose of medication, a psychiatric service dog can try to wake them by barking, pawing, or licking their face.
Rights of Psychiatric Service Dogs
Individuals with PSDs are granted special permissions so that they have the freedom to access public services without prejudice. Below are the main public rights granted to individuals with psychiatric service dogs:
- Owners of PSD have access to nearly any public areas where pets are normally not allowed. This includes grocery stores, restaurants, taxi cabs, theaters, buses, government buildings, medical offices, parks, churches, airplanes, and more.
- PSDs can access public areas without incurring a pet fee. This means that airlines, landlords, or hotels cannot charge an owner extra for bringing their dog. This is highly beneficial to the handler as pet fees can generally be quite high.
- In the case of accommodation, landlords must make reasonable accommodations for a service dog, even if the apartment, house, or dorm normally doesn’t allow pets.
- Public entities are not permitted to seat handlers with PSDs away from regular patrons. They must be treated equally as all other guests.
These federally protected rights can be reassuring for individuals with psychiatric service dogs as it means they can access services while still having the comfort and protection of their animal.
How to Get a Psychiatric Service Dog
If you have a mental health issue and require daily assistance, then a psychiatric service dog might be the perfect solution for you. However, getting set up with a PSD isn’t always a straightforward process as there are certain criteria that need to be met. Primarily, prospective PSD owners must have a mental disability that affects their day-to-day lives, and they must be able to demonstrate how the service dog would support this disability.
There are also other criteria that need to be met before one can get a psychiatric service dog. These include:
- Being able to actively participate in the dog’s training
- Having the capacity to give commands and care for the dog
- Being able to provide a stable home environment
- Having adequate finances for care, maintenance, and training
- Receiving a recommendation letter from your healthcare provider
Before you consider getting a psychiatric service dog, it’s worth reviewing the criteria above and assessing your financial situation. Training for PSDs can cost between thirty to forty thousand dollars, and you’ll need to budget in costs for food, maintenance, and vet visits, too. While a service dog is an effective aid for supporting mental health conditions, it is a big commitment that should be carefully considered.
Applying for a Psychiatric Service Dog
If you are certain that a psychiatric service dog is for you, contact your medical doctor or get in touch with US Service Animals (USSA) to be connected with a doctor directly. Either way, it is advisable to obtain a letter of recommendation from a medical provider stating the reasons why a PSD would be a beneficial treatment option for your condition.
If you require further information about this process, it’s worth contacting USSA as they understand the legal process and the requirements for obtaining one of these special animals.
Best Psychiatric Service Dog Breeds
While you’re in the process of exploring psychiatric service dog options, it’s also worth noting that there are a few breeds that are naturally inclined for this kind of job. While nearly any kind of dog can take on this role if they have the right skills and temperament, below are some of the breeds that are well designed for psychiatric service.
The almighty standard poodle is known for its teddy bear appearance and large height. But these animals also make fantastic psychiatric service dogs because of their affectionate disposition and high level of intelligence. Originally trained to retrieve waterfowl, the supreme cleverness of standard poodles and their ability to respond to cues make them easy to train as service dogs.
Standard poodles also have good natures and fun-loving personalities, which means they are well suited to handlers with emotional difficulties. They are famed for their loyalty and sensitivity and are known for being stable companions who can easily attune to their handler’s state of mind. Standard poodles also have the benefit of non-shedding hypoallergenic coats, making them ideal for individuals with allergies.
Labs are one of the most common dogs around, and it’s easy to see why they make fantastic psychiatric service animals. Their high intelligence and gentle disposition mean they are easy to train, and, like poodles, their ability to retrieve makes them adept at responding to commands.
Labs can also adapt well to any environment and are famed for their obedience and their friendly, calm natures. They are also known to display an eagerness to please their owners, which is a valued trait in the world of service dogs. As loyal companions with well-balanced personalities, Labrador Retrievers work well with people who need physical and emotional assistance. Labs are especially suited to adults or children with autism as they are great for creating calm stability in any surrounding.
On the smaller side of the dog world, Havanese are famed for their affectionate dispositions and highly trainable personalities. The outgoing and loving nature of these animals makes them especially great service dogs for individuals with depression. Like other pooches on this list, Havanese can tune into their handler’s moods and provide a much-needed boost if they’re feeling low.
Havanese are also easily trained and are adept at learning commands to retrieve objects or interrupt repetitive or harmful actions. These highly adaptable dogs are therefore great for individuals who have fluctuating moods or behaviors. Their thick, long fur and smaller size also means they make fantastic lap dogs. They love to play and can also serve as a focal point for handlers who get anxious and need a safe distraction.
Schnauzers are small, non-threatening, and are best known for being balls of fun. These small dogs are cheerful, fun-loving, and eager to be part of any family. They have spirited dispositions and are known for being an uplifting companion. This makes them ideal for people with conditions like depression or PTSD.
Schnauzers are also highly responsive to training and learning commands, which means they’re ideal for handlers who haven’t had much experience with dogs. As these dogs also require a lot of exercise, they would suit handlers who want to increase their levels of recreation and activity as part of their therapy.
Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
Cavaliers are known for their silky coats of fur and sweet personalities. They love cuddling and snuggling, and they tend to bond strongly with their owner. It is therefore no surprise that these dogs make ideal psychiatric service dogs.
Cavaliers are also highly intelligent and easy to train. Not only can they learn to become attuned to their handler’s state of mind, but they are also good at being calm in public places. The affectionate nature of these dogs makes them ideal lap dogs and they are a great fit for individuals who are housebound. Their calming natures are also suited to handlers with PTSD or depression.
German Shepherds are perhaps the most well-known of all service dogs. While they are most famed for working as police dogs, German Shepherds also make fantastic PSDs, too. These animals are incredibly clever, well-disciplined, and eager to please their owners. They are also loving, loyal, and calm, making them great service dogs for people with OCD or anxiety.
Due to their human-like intelligence and ability to quickly learn commands, German Shepherds are skilled at interrupting damaging or repetitive behaviors. They can also be trained to detect anxiety flare-ups and calm the owner down by pawing at them or by applying deep pressure therapy.
Psychiatric service dogs provide an invaluable service to individuals struggling with mental or emotional issues. Not only can they perform complex tasks to help their handlers deal with everyday life, but they also provide calmness, support, and protection. In essence, these dogs offer hope and comfort for people who need assistance with their mental health conditions.
However, getting a service dog requires a big commitment. Before taking the leap, it is worth discussing the matter with your doctor first to determine whether a PSD is a suitable treatment option for your condition. It’s also worth reviewing the criteria that need to be met to qualify for a psychiatric service dog and whether you are financially prepared for it. Good luck!