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How Can a Psychiatric Service Dog Help?

Psychiatric Service DogThroughout the years humans have relied upon dogs for many service aspects of life but more recently dogs have become a significant part of a unique area of the medical field. Not only are dogs playing a role in the lives of those with physical impairments, but now they are also playing a role in the lives of those with psychiatric impairments as well. For many individuals living with post traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia and agoraphobia, these dogs provide a bridge between “normal” society and the emotionally charged world these individuals face on a daily basis.

What Types of Psychiatric Conditions Can a Psychiatric Service Dog Help With?

There is a wealth of psychiatric conditions out there and certainly a psychiatric dog is not recommended for every one of them. There are, however, some conditions that tend to respond well to the presence of a psychiatric service dog.

Autism

Psychiatric Service DogIndividuals that have autism find it extremely difficult to connect to the world around them. For these children and adults, there is a feeling of isolation that takes over every aspect of life and affects everything that they do. One of the most difficult tasks for an individual with autism is to be able to relate to the world around them; however, for many, the presence of a psychiatric service dog allows for a bridge between these two worlds that appear to be so very different. For children with autism, a dog can provide a better understanding of relationships in addition to giving the child a feeling of security by providing a focal point when situations become difficult to cope with.

Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a crippling psychiatric condition that often prohibits of impairs normal daily functions for individuals living with it. Even the simplest tasks can become impossible for an individual living with schizophrenia because of the existence of two worlds – the real world and the psychiatrically induced world – that are seemingly indistinguishable. For individuals living with this devastating psychiatric condition the very comfort that a psychiatric service dog provides helps to allow the individual to feel more secure and cared for in addition to giving them something to focus on other than their condition. These service dogs are also particularly important for individuals suffering from severe cases of schizophrenia in that the dogs help with day to day functions that may otherwise seem impossible.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post traumatic stress disorder is a psychiatric condition that can arise from any number of traumatic events. For all individuals with this condition however, there is one thing that they have in common – a traumatic response to certain factors in everyday life that has been caused by a traumatic event such as engaging in wartime activity, rape and sexual assault or abuse. For these individuals even something as simple as going to buy groceries can be exceedingly difficult, however, the presence of a psychiatric service dog can help to quell that fear. For individuals with this condition, these dogs not only provide a safety and security, but they also provide comfort and nurturing when a moment of panic ensues.

Depression

A considerable percentage of the population has experienced depression of some degree during their lifetime. For a portion of these people however, their depression is not fleeting and it can become a crippling condition that leaves the person feeling trapped, alone and simply unable to function. Psychiatric service dogs can not only provide a sense of comfort and companionship to these individuals but they can also help with day to day functions that these individuals find difficult.

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is another crippling psychiatric condition that can benefit greatly from the presence of a psychiatric service dog. Individuals with this disorder find great sources of panic and debilitating fear in situations or triggers that are seemingly harmless to others. This panic frequently builds in to an overwhelming fear that results in a panic attack that leaves the individual with a feeling that they are going to die. Psychiatric service dogs are a great source of comfort for individuals with this particular disorder in that they can provide a focal point as well as physical comfort when a panic attack occurs. These dogs can also help to get the attention of people nearby in case a doctor needs to be called or a medication needs to be administered in order to help their handler.

What do Psychiatric Service Dogs Do?

As you have already seen, psychiatric service dogs serve a variety of functions for individuals with psychiatric conditions. The services that these dogs perform varies greatly upon the condition that they are trained to work with specifically.

How Are Psychiatric Service Dogs Trained?

Most psychiatric service dogs receive training in a core set of tasks that are helpful to their owners. In addition, dogs will also receive specific instruction in tasks that are important to their owner’s condition and state of well being. For example, all service dogs will be trained to stay by their owner’s side during moments of panic or disorientation; however, not all dogs will be trained to assess the possibility of hallucinations.

What Breed of Dog is a Psychiatric Service Dog?

When it comes to the type of dog used for psychiatric dog work, there is no “norm.” While most commonly individuals associate breeds such as Labrador Retrievers with this type of work, there really is no specific limitation on what breed of dog makes the best companion dog. The only limitations that do play a role in the qualification of a dog as a service dog is the size of the dog and its suitability for public work. As an example, a Great Dane or St. Bernard may be very well trained to work with psychiatric conditions; however, they cannot easily access many public places and this can cause difficulty for the owner.

While the dog’s breed has little to do with its suitability as a service dog, the dog’s personal temperament does have a lot of impact on suitability. In order to make a good service dog, a dog must be eager to please and work well as part of a “pair.” Dogs that prefer to be solitary are not dogs that will be readily available to their handlers during a time of need. Service dogs must be reliable and not easily distracted as well. While most puppies can be easily distracted, training courses for service dogs will help dogs to focus on the task at hand. For some dogs however, the distraction of certain elements can be too much to resist and consequently these dogs do not make good service companions. The perfect example of this is a dog with a high prey drive, these dogs are easily distracted and can easily leave their owners side in pursuit of a squirrel or rabbit.

What Types of Tasks Do Psychiatric Service Dogs Perform?

There are a number of tasks that psychiatric service dogs can be trained to perform in order to help their owners live more productive and healthy lives. Some of these functions and tasks include:

  • Assessing the environment particularly for owners that suffer from schizophrenia and are prone to paranoia or hallucinations.
  • Interrupting harmful behaviors such as self injury or nervous habits such as pulling out hair.
  • Serving to remind owners when it is time to take a medication.
  • Retrieving items needed for their owner to take medication, feel comforted or perform duties.
  • Guiding owners out of situations where they are triggered and feel unsafe.
  • Serving as a brace if the owner becomes dizzy or disoriented.
  • Ground the owner during a panic attack by physically comforting them.
  • Accompanying the owner in to strange or difficult situations – such as leaving the home for an agoraphobic.
  • Provide a link to reality for owners suffering from hallucinations or paranoid delusions.

Unique Training Features of Service Dogs

Many of the tasks listed above are tasks that seem “normal” to those viewing them from outside a specific situation; however, they are actually lifesaving to individuals suffering from severe psychiatric conditions. There are some more unique training features of service dogs that amaze even those who are familiar with service dog work however. One of the most impressive features for many is the use of the phone. For many people with psychiatric conditions that threaten their sense of safety, there may be a need for a service dog to summon help through calling 911 or through alerting the suicide hotline. Service dogs can be trained to operate a special K9 rescue phone in order to summon 911 or to connect their owner with a suicide hotline to receive the counseling that they need during a moment of deep depression. The canine rescue phone is a phone with a large button that is preprogrammed by the dog’s owner to call a specific number. The service dog is trained to alert this number in cases of desperation and put the contact in touch with authorities or counselors on a speaker phone.

Does Psychiatric Illness Count as a Disability?

One question that many people ask when it comes to psychiatric illness is whether it is considered to be a disability. There are a number of legal qualifications that determine whether an individual is legally considered to be disabled but most simply put a disability is an impairment that limits any major life activities of an individual. Under this definition a wide array of psychiatric conditions can be covered; however, for each case of disability, a judge is required to make a determination under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

As is the case with the use of any service animal, documentation is required in order to substantiate the use of the service animal in public. This means that support documentation from a doctor or psychiatrist should be carried by an individual using a psychiatric service dog. This letter should state that the doctor approves of the use of a service dog for a chronic medical disability. There are a number of situations in which such documentation may be required, more specifically when seeking housing with a service dog in an accommodation that does not permit animals. Under the Fair Housing Act forbidding accommodation due to the presence of a service animal is forbidden; however, documentation will be required. Documentation will also be required if an individual seeks to bring their psychiatric service dog in to work.

The Cost of Keeping a Psychiatric Service Dog

While psychiatric service dogs provide a number of benefits to their owners, the biggest obstacle that many people run in to is the sheer cost of having and training a service dog. Since psychiatric service dogs are a relatively new phenomena there are few associations that provide readily trained service dogs. Those associations that do provide pre-trained dogs require hefty fees. For many people these fees are more than worth the restoration of independence and functioning that these dogs provide, for others the cost is simply too much. On average the cost of the first year of psychiatric service dog ownership for a dog that has not yet been trained is around a minimum of $4,000. This is simply the cost for the first year of ownership which includes the necessary accessories to provide a comfortable life for the dog. In years following, the cost of psychiatric dog ownership runs at a minimum of around $2,000.

Why does it Cost So Much to Keep a Psychiatric Service Dog?

Many people question why it costs so much to keep a psychiatric service dog; however, there is a significant cost to keeping any type of dog. Most people assume that because a psychiatric dog has a “job” and requires more of a time and training investment that they are more expensive to keep. This is simply not the case, while the initial investment for keeping and training a psychiatric dog may be considerably higher than any other dog; the annual cost for keeping any dog is around the same. Any dog that is owned should always be provided with the best food affordable and the best medical care available in order to ensure the dogs health. Certainly it is possible to keep a dog feeding them cheap dog food and providing minimal health care; however, these habits will most often result in a considerably shortened lifespan.

Do All Individuals with Psychiatric Conditions Require Psychiatric Service Dogs?

There is a considerable amount of variety in the number of psychiatric conditions in the world and likewise there is considerable variety in how these conditions respond to various treatments. Not everyone with a psychiatric condition requires or even wants a psychiatric service dog. It is not only those individuals who simply don’t like dogs, but for many, the time investment and cost that comes with owning any domestic pet is simply too much for the individual.

The Reward of Training a Psychiatric Service Dog

Due to the fact that psychiatric service dogs are a relatively new concept, there are few services that specialize in training these dogs. As a result of this many individuals turn to training their own psychiatric service dogs. The idea of training a dog at all can be particularly daunting, but training a dog for special services such as those performed by a service dog can seem overwhelming. There are a great many resources available to help individuals to train their own psychiatric service dogs however, and most owners find the training process therapeutic in and of itself. While it does take a considerable amount of effort to work with training a dog for special needs, it also increases the closeness and improves bonding between owners and their dogs to go through the process together. In addition, when an owner trains their own dog, they have much more control over the specific tasks a dog performs and how the dog reacts to certain stimuli and situations.

Learning More about Psychiatric Service Dogs

Whether you are looking for a psychiatric service dog for yourself or whether you are looking for a psychiatric service dog for a friend of family member it is always important to research exactly what it is that you are looking for. There are a number of things to consider when considering a psychiatric service dog including:

  • Any allergies that may govern the types of dog an owner can or cannot own. In order to determine allergies it is always best for the future owner to spend plenty of time around and in direct contact with the breed of dog being considered. While it is possible to own a dog one is allergic to, it is not particularly practical and is not conducive to a healthy team dynamic.
  • The size of dog that would best suit the future owner. If an owner needs more of a companion dog and less of a dog for physical bracing then a smaller breed may be more appealing. If however, and individual needs more physical support due to their condition then a medium to large sized breed of dog may be recommended.
  • The cost of owning a service dog. While many people can benefit from owning a psychiatric service dog, the cost of owning and keeping a healthy dog can certainly be prohibitive. Owners owe it to their dogs to keep them healthy and happy which means that if an owner cannot provide for their dog adequately then they should not consider owning a dog until they can.
  • The time commitment required by a service dog. All dogs require stimulation, but service dogs will require teaching skills and revising of skills on a regular basis. This type of commitment is not only a devotion of resources but also a devotion of time.
  • The idea of a constant companion. Service dogs of any type should be with their owners 24/7 barring any emergency circumstances. This means that a potential service dog owner should be okay with the idea of having a constant companion.

If you are interested in learning more about psychiatric service dogs there is a wealth of information available from associations like the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners.

Video of a Psychiatric Service Dog in Action

The Distinction Between Psychiatric, Therapy and Emotional Support Dogs

For those unfamiliar with the various categories of service dogs, the difference between the three types of service dogs can be quite confusing. Below we will take a look at what distinguishes on service dog from another.

Service Dogs

Service dogs are trained individually and undergo high levels of education in order to work cohesively as part of a team. Service dog training is catered to the needs of their handlers in order to perform tasks as well as mitigate disabilities that their handlers may have. Service dog’s main purpose is to allow those with disabilities to live independently despite the “limitations” that their disability may impose on them. Many service dogs are also certified as therapy dogs.

Individuals who require the service of a service dog are protected by the Americans with Disabilities act. This allows for these individuals to be accompanied by their trained service dog in any public area where dogs are prohibited such as restaurants, hotels, businesses and shopping malls. Additional laws and regulations are also designed to permit individuals requiring the assistance of a service dog to be accompanied by their dog in areas not covered by the Americans with disabilities act.

Service dogs are trained by professionals participating in nationally recognized programs renowned for their quality of training.

If you see a service dog with it’s handler during an average day, courtesy dictates that you should never approach the dog. It is also impolite to feed, pet, call to or distract the dog in any way because the dog is on duty and must focus on it’s job.

Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs are also extensively trained however, they are trained in other jobs that enable them to provide therapy more so than physical support. Therapy dogs provide psychological support and physiological therapy to individuals in need. One main difference between therapy and service dogs is that therapy dogs are trained by handlers to provide services to others, where service dogs are trained to provide services specifically to their handlers. Therapy dogs frequent public institutions where they can provide therapeutic services to those in need such as hospitals, psychotherapy offices and nursing homes.

Therapy dogs also differ from service dogs in that they are encouraged to interact with various individuals and be social with those individuals. Service dogs are discouraged from social activity since their handlers rely solely upon them for navigation of the world around them and socialization could detract from their ability to do this.

Therapy dogs have a wide range of applications and can provide services that encourage confidence in the disabled to assisting in physical therapy. Therapy dogs can be trained by anyone however; they must meet a particular set of standards in order to be certified as therapy dogs. Without therapy dog certification dogs will not be allowed to work in public institutions.

Although therapy dogs play an important role in the lives of many, they do not have the same legal protection that official service dogs do. Therapy dogs must be cleared on an individual basis by specific institutions in order to be permitted entry to areas where dogs are not permitted. Additionally, therapy dogs are not able to participate in the same types of jobs as service dogs.

Emotional Support Dogs

Emotional support dogs differ from both service and therapy dogs in that they do not have to undergo specialized training. The purpose of emotional support dogs is to provide comfort emotionally to their owners who may have psychological, physical or other disabilities. Examples of individuals that could benefit from an emotional support dog include: someone suffering from severe depression, someone with an anxiety disorder and someone suffering from PTSD.

Emotional support dogs are not recognized under the Americans with disabilities act as being permitted to enter businesses that do not allow pets. Owners of emotional support dogs are however, recognized under the Department of Justice and HUD’s fair housing act as being able to live in homes that do not allow pets. Those needing emotional support animals are also permitted accompaniment of their animal under the Department of Transportation’s Air Carrier Access Act.

Regulations and Rules Governing Service, Therapy and Emotional Support Dogs

While there are differences that set each of these types of dogs apart from each other, there are also similarities that these dogs have in common.

Licensing and Vaccination

Regardless of the classification of a dog, whether it is a pet, a service dog, a therapy dog or an emotional support dog, state laws are always applicable. This means that all dogs regardless of their status must be licensed and vaccinated according to state regulations. There is no leniency in this area because both licensing and vaccination are designed to protect a dog’s overall health.

Relaxation Time

Relaxing Service DogWhile service dogs, therapy dogs and emotional support dogs all have important jobs to perform, they all are given the opportunity to experience “down time.” All of these working dogs feel the strain of a long day of work and they are rewarded with plenty of time to rest and take part in fun activities such as fetch. Just because these dogs are working dogs who enjoy their work, does not mean that they do not enjoy relaxation time and being treated just like any other dog in their down time.

Some Guidelines for Interacting with these Dogs in Public

It can be difficult to know how to act and interact with these working dogs in public particularly if you are an avid dog lover.

  • If you want to talk, talk to the person handling the dog rather than the dog.
  • If you want to touch the dog ALWAYS ask for permission before reaching out and respect the handler’s wishes particularly if they refuse permission.
  • Give service dogs the right of way when you encounter them on the street.
  • Do not ask personal questions such as why the handler requires a service dog.

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About Amy Brannan
Amy grew up in England and in the early 1990's moved to North Carolina where she completed a bachelors degree in Psychology in 2001. Amy's personal interest in writing was sparked by her love of reading fiction and her creative writing hobby. Amy is currently self employed as a freelance writer and web designer. When she is not working Amy can be found curled up with a good book and her black Labrador, Jet.
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One comment

  1. I love this concept! You don't even have to think or know about the specifics of the mental health issues that the dogs are helping with. This is great information and may give some insight to parents especially, but there is one concept that stands alone, even without all the details.

    Animals are like children in that they are accepting of people without judging them based on anything other than how that person treats them. When it comes to people who suffer from mental health issues, there is a certain stigma that they are aware of. Sometimes mental health issues are obvious to onlookers. That means that the person with the issue is treated differently.

    Dogs don't care about things like that. They will accept the person with mental health issues and they will do it without reservation. For someone who constantly feels like an outside or someone who feels like they are always under scrutiny, the simple acceptance and love they get from an animal can mean everything to them.

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