What Are Psychiatric Service Dogs and How Do They Help?

Published June 3, 2022
Senior man with his service dog

Many individuals with disabilities, including mental health conditions such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, can benefit from service animals. These trained canines, known as psychiatric service dogs, are not simply with their handler for comfort; they are taught to complete tasks that assist their owner. From the ability to sense a panic attack to training to retrieve medications or even call 9-1-1, psychiatric service dogs can save lives. Discover if you qualify for a service dog for anxiety, autism, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or another mental disability and how you can find a service animal.

What is a Psychiatric Service Dog?

Psychiatric service dogs (PSD) are trained canines who assist individuals suffering from impairing mental health conditions. These dogs help with daily activities so owners can live independently and with a good quality of life. A PSD is no different from a service dog for an individual with a physical disability.

Just as a trained dog can help navigate a blind individual, a service dog for anxiety can be trained to perform behaviors like recognizing dissociative episodes and providing tactile pressure to calm their handler. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states PSDs can legally accompany their owner to all public facilities and accommodations.

Woman with her Great Dane service dog

Psychiatric service dogs should not be confused with emotional support dogs. These types of animals have unique requirements and provide different levels of care. While PSDs can and do offer their owners emotional support, they do much more than this; these dogs are also trained to complete specific actions, which often require more extensive training.

Mental Health Conditions That Qualify for Service Dogs

Any individual diagnosed with a disability, whether physical or mental, which limits or interferes with their daily life, may qualify for a service dog. For example, a PTSD service dog for a veteran may retrieve help or medication for their handler amid a panic attack if they are unable to do so on their own. Some of the qualifying conditions include the following.

If you suffer from a mental health condition, but it does not serve as a limitation to your daily life, you do not qualify for a PSD. However, it's possible you could be eligible for an emotional support animal.

How Psychiatric Service Dogs Can Help

Psychiatric service dogs aid with daily or urgent tasks. These are actions that the individual with the disability cannot perform themselves or need assistance with. Some of the tasks PSDs can perform include:

  • Interrupt dissociative or panic episodes
  • Anticipate signs of anxiety or panic attack
  • Interrupt nightmares
  • Assist with balance
  • Aid in social situations
  • Remind the owner to take medications
  • Retrieve medication to aid with symptoms
  • Provide tactile stimulation and grounding
  • Room safety checks
  • Summon help
  • Call 911
  • Answer the door
  • Turn on lights
  • Interrupt self-harming

Best Breeds for Psychiatric Service Dogs

Any dog can become a PSD provided they can complete the necessary tasks to assist their owner. However, they must also possess the right temperament. A PSD should be calm, confident, friendly, intelligent, active, focused, and eager to please. Some breeds or mixes may be better suited for this role than others. The United Disability Services Foundation (UDSF) suggests the following dog breeds for service dogs.

Based on your individual needs, you should think about the nature of the tasks you would like your service animal to perform. This will likely determine the breed or size of dog you'll seek out. For example, an autism service dog may aid in interrupting dangerous stimming behaviors, such as head banging, by placing their body weight against the handler. A petite Pomeranian may not be the best breed for this task. However, those who live in small spaces may prefer a smaller breed dog as a PSD if they can accomplish the necessary service actions.

Training Requirements

Service dogs undergo extensive training in order to handle the demands of the role. However, there is no standard course they must complete. According to the ADA, an individual may train a dog themselves and is "not required to use a professional service dog training program." Still, many people choose to work with a professional dog trainer or acquire a trained dog through a service dog organization.

Yellow Labrador retriever in service dog training wearing a service dog vest

The ADA states that a PSD must always remain under the control of their handler. This means being well-mannered, remaining on a leash when not completing off-leash tasks, and avoiding unnecessary disturbances, such as barking, in public areas. The dog should successfully pass a public access test to confirm they meet all criteria.

As a critical part of the service dog role, a PSD should also undergo special training to complete specific actions to assist their owner. These behaviors are curated to the individual owner's needs and disability.

How to Get a Service Dog for Psychiatric Conditions

If you qualify for a PSD and feel having this type of companion would improve how you function daily, there are a few ways you can get a service dog.

  • Train a dog yourself to become a service dog.
  • Have a dog trained by a professional trainer or service dog training organization.
  • Acquire a fully trained service dog.

While any of these options are possible, most people elect to get a service dog through an organization. This ensures the service dog has the appropriate temperament, necessary skills, and can save you the months of hard work you would need to dedicate to training.

You can search for an accredited program through Assistance Dogs International. Just know the demand for service dogs is quite great as is the time investment to train these dogs, so it's possible you may be placed on a waitlist for several months or even years. It can also be incredibly expensive to acquire one of these dogs.

Cost of Getting a Service Dog

Completely trained psychiatric service dogs may cost as much as $20,000 or more. Fortunately, there are numerous programs designed to help those in need. For example, the Assistance Dog United Campaign offers individuals vouchers of up to $5,500 to use toward the cost of a service dog. Some other organizations offer assistance based on the individual's specific mental health concern or history. Canine Companions' Veterans Initiative and American Humane's Pups4Patriots, among other programs, provide veterans with PTSD service dogs free of charge.

Identifying Service Dogs

Service dogs of any kind are not required to wear identification. However, establishments may not refuse entry to service animals. If anyone questions the validity of a PSD, under the ADA service laws, they may only ask whether the dog is required to assist with a disability and what assistance task the dog has been trained to do. Any further questions or requests to demonstrate their trained behavior are not permitted.

Mental Health Service dog working outdoors

Consider the Commitment

Despite being considered a medical device, a service dog is also a living creature. Ensure you are able to provide a safe and comfortable home for a dog. Review the care involved in dog ownership as well as the ongoing expenses, including food, accessories, and healthcare. You will likely need to pay for these things up front or out-of-pocket. However, they can qualify as medical expenses and may be deducted from taxes.

Psychiatric Service Dogs Are Working Dogs

It's important to remember that service dogs are not solely pets; they have a very essential job to perform. These animals should not be approached in public as if they are a pet dog, as it can interfere with their duties. However, service dogs still require the same level of care, companionship, and affection from their owners that any other dog would deserve. If you care for your service dog, they can provide you with many years of support and love.

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What Are Psychiatric Service Dogs and How Do They Help?