Dogs not only play an important role in the lives of people with physical impairments, but they now assist those with mental disabilities as well. For many individuals living with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental health conditions, psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) provide invaluable support to help them manage everyday life.
How do they help? And who can qualify for a psychiatric service dog? We’ll answer these questions and more.
A psychiatric service dogs (PSD) is a type of service animal specifically trained to help people with mental illnesses and learning disabilities. PSDs have the same legal rights as service dogs that assist people with physical disabilities.
How do PSDs differ from emotional support animals (ESAs)? Although many people think PSDs are the same as ESAs, there are some significant differences. A psychiatric service dog’s primary function isn’t simply to provide emotional support but to perform tasks that enable his owner to function in normal ways. PSDs are recognized as official ‘service animals’ under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). ESAs are not.
PSDs have the following legal rights in the U.S.:
- Public Access Rights – under the ADA, they can accompany owners into grocery stores, restaurants, etc.
- Air Travel Rights – under the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Air Carrier Access Act, they can accompany owners in airline cabins free of charge
- Fair Housing – under the Fair Housing Act, they can live in housing units even if there’s a no-pet policy
- Educational Facility Access – under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, they can accompany owners into schools, colleges, universities, etc.
ESAs do not qualify for public access or travel rights. Most major U.S. airlines now consider ESAs as pets rather than trained service dogs. However, ESAs do qualify for no-pet housing.
To qualify for a psychiatric service dog, you must have been diagnosed with an emotional or mental disability or a specific learning disability that substantially limits one or more of your major life activities. And you’ll need documentation or a prescription from a licensed mental health professional or doctor that you need a dog to assist you with a major life task.
If you can’t meet in person with a mental health professional, you can get a legitimate PSD recommendation from a licensed mental health professional through CertaPet. This online organization will take you through a pre-screening questionnaire to make sure you qualify.
Some of the disabilities that can qualify for a psychiatric service dog include (this is not an exhaustive list):
- Anxiety disorders
- Panic disorders
- Clinical depression
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
PSDs are trained to carry out specific actions directly related to a person’s disability, so PSDs’ services vary greatly. For example, a psychiatric service dog for anxiety is trained to assist an owner with a panic attack by climbing on top of the owner and applying pressure to calm them down. Some other tasks include:
- Interrupting harmful behaviors such as self-injury or nervous habits such as pulling out hair
- Reminding owners when it’s time to take a medication
- Retrieving items needed for their owner to take medication, to feel comforted, or to 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
- Assessing the environment, particularly for owners that suffer from schizophrenia and are prone to paranoia or hallucinations
- Accompanying and guiding the owner in strange or difficult situations – such as leaving home for an agoraphobic (fear of leaving home or entering crowded spaces)
- Providing a link to reality for owners suffering from hallucinations or paranoid delusions
You have a few options if you’re considering a psychiatric service dog.
Both the ADA and the DOT’s rules allow owners to self-train their psychiatric service dogs. However, this can be a daunting and time-consuming task for many people because the dog must be properly trained to perform very specific tasks related to your condition.
Training your dog to be a service dog can take anywhere from six months to a year, depending on the time you put into it. A full-time professional trainer can usually do it in less time, so that’s likely a better option. Learn more about how to train a psychiatric service dog.
Work With A Professional Dog Trainer
It also ensures that your dog gets the proper training to be on his best behavior when out in public. The ADA requires that PSDs must not cause a disturbance in public and must not exhibit aggressive behavior or barking.
Adopting An Already-Trained PSD
There are several psychiatric service dog organizations where you can request a service dog. These service dogs have already been extensively trained; however, this doesn’t come without a hefty price. The average cost of a service dog can range from $15,000-$30,000.
There are two major components of an effective training regimen for psychiatric service dogs:
- General Public Access Test, which instills good manners and ensures that they behave appropriately in public settings
- Specialized Task/Work Training, which satisfies the requirement to be able to perform a specific action that’s directly related to their owner’s disability
Most psychiatric service dogs that you can adopt receive training in a core set of tasks that are helpful to a variety of conditions. In addition, dogs will receive specialized training in important tasks to their specific owner’s condition and state of well-being.
For example, all psychiatric service dogs are trained to stay by their owner’s side during moments of panic or disorientation; however, not all dogs are automatically trained to assess the possibility of hallucinations.
When it comes to the type of dog that’s best for psychiatric dog work, there is no “norm.” Any breed can be a PSD (although giant breeds present an issue for public access solely because of their size). More important than the breed is the dog’s temperament and intelligence.
What qualities should PSDs have? PSDs should show no signs of aggression or hyperactivity (no jumping or lunging at others). They should also demonstrate the capability to learn basic obedience skills and have the ability to ignore distractions in public.
With all this said, some breeds are better suited for PSD work.1 These include:
- Labrador Retriever
- German Shepherd
- Lhasa Apso
- Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
- Doberman Pinscher
- Border Collie
- Miniature Schnauzer
Here are some questions readers often ask about PSDs.
Is A Psychiatric Service Dog Vest Required?
You may wonder if dogs are required to wear a special vest, harness, or ID tag to identify them as service dogs. According to the ADA, this is not required.
Does The ADA Require Certification For Service Animals?
No. You’re not required to show proof or documentation that your PSD has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal as a condition for entry. However, the DOT gives airlines the right to request documentation when flying with your service animal.
This brief video shows you several of the tasks a PSD can perform to help someone suffering from anxiety.
Service (including PSDs), emotional support, and therapy dogs are three distinct types of working dogs, so it’s important not to confuse them with one another. If you want to know how the training, certification, and use of these different types vary, read our service dog vs therapy dog vs emotional support dog article. Additionally, regularly spending time with a dog can boost your health in many different ways.
What experiences have you had with a psychiatric service dog?
Sources:  Service Dog Certifications