Psychiatric service dogs can help people who struggle with mental health conditions navigate their daily lives, detect the onset of a mental health episode and ease the difficulty of living with a psychiatric condition.
Additionally, psychiatric service dogs can help with:
- Giving medication reminders
- Conducting room searches
- Keeping people who have become disoriented safe from danger
- Disrupting self-harm attempts
Psychiatric service dogs can lessen some of the challenges of living with a psychiatric condition and can offer practical and emotional support that improves the quality of life for people with specific mental health conditions.
What Is a Psychiatric Service Dog?
A service dog is trained specifically to perform tasks for or assist a person with a disability. These disabilities may be due to a physical, intellectual or psychiatric condition.
Service animals are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the training of service animals must be specific to an individual’s disability or illness. Under the act, service animals are exclusively dogs, although some exceptions can be made for miniature horses, if necessary.
Psychiatric Service Dog vs. Emotional Support Animal
There are key differences in the roles, training and legal allowances of psychiatric service dogs vs emotional support animals.
Psychiatric service dogs require specific training to complete tasks that will assist someone with a specific illness or condition. In contrast, emotional support animals do not require specific training but can offer stability, support and reassurance for people experiencing stress, trauma or a mental health problem.
Although specific laws cover both psychiatric service animals and emotional support animals, emotional support animals do not have the same allowances as service dogs.
Laws and Rights of Service Animals
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, service animals are required to accompany an individual with a disability or covered condition in all areas, including schools, hospitals and businesses. It is not permitted to ask a person with a service dog for details of their disability, and fear of dogs is not a legitimate reason to deny entry into a building or services.
Based on service animal laws:
- A service dog is given special permissions, including entry to areas where pets are typically prohibited, such as food service areas or hotels
- A person with a service animal cannot be discriminated against based on their service dog
- A person cannot be separated from other patrons, asked to leave or charged extra because of their service dog
Of course, it is expected that a service animal will behave appropriately in all situations and that the person will take appropriate action to care for and keep control of the service animal.
How a Psychiatric Service Animal Helps People
Psychiatric service dogs have disability-specific training and can complete helpful tasks and jobs.
For example, some of the assistance provided by psychiatric service dogs includes:
- Guiding a disoriented handler: service dogs can lead a person who is experiencing psychiatric symptoms away from danger
- Searching a room: searching a room is a common task provided for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Identifying hallucinations: a service dog can adequately notify a person when the individual is experiencing a psychotic episode
- Interrupting and redirecting: trained animals can disrupt behavior related to psychiatric symptoms, including self-harm
- Providing comfort: although they differ from emotional support animals, service dogs still provide comfort, support and stability
- Bringing help: a service dog can bring attention and assistance to a person in distress
How to Get a Psychiatric Service Dog
The first step in qualifying for a psychiatric service dog is talking to a medical professional. The professional can evaluate a person’s symptoms and the level at which those symptoms impair daily life. This evaluation can also identify which tasks or jobs a psychiatric service dog may be able to assist with.
Psychiatric service dogs require a significant amount of training. As a starting point, it is advisable to speak with a vet or dog trainer to assess whether a dog’s temperament is suitable for service work. If the person seeking a service dog is not a current dog owner, they may also wish to discuss recommended breeds and trainers with a professional who works with animals.
Stages of service dog training can include socializing a dog in public spaces, such as local businesses or parks, obedience training, advanced tasks and condition-specific training. Although social and behavioral aspects of training may be done at home, service dog training is extensive and it may be helpful to seek professional training support.
Finally, qualification for a psychiatric service dog includes passing the National Service Animal Registry Public Access Test. This test certifies that a dog is under control, well behaved and safe to be in public. A person with a service dog may be asked to provide evidence of a medical letter and proof of having passed the public access test.
Mental Health Conditions That Can Benefit From Psychiatric Service Dogs
Psychiatric service dogs can help with many different mental health conditions and related symptoms or episodes.
Some of these conditions include:
- PTSD: animals can search and clear potentially triggering spaces
- Depression and anxiety disorders: service dogs can anticipate and disrupt episodes of panic or self-harm
- Schizophrenia: a service dog can discern hallucinations, or guide a carer home if disoriented
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder: a service dog can disrupt repetitive behaviors
Additional Resources and Organizations
For more information on animal-assisted therapy for mental health conditions, there are several psychiatric service dog organizations available to help, including the National Service Animal Registry or the USA Service Dog Registry.
If you or someone you care has a substance use disorder and a co-occurring mental health condition, help is available. The Recovery Village offers comprehensive care for co-occurring conditions and representatives are available to discuss treatment options. Call The Recovery Village today for more information.
The Americans with Disabilities Act National Network. “Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals.” May, 2019. Accessed May 18, 2019. The U.S. Department of Justice. “Service Animals.” July 12, 2011. Accessed May 18, 2019. Psychiatric Service Dog Partners. “Steps To Becoming a Service Dog User.” 2016. Accessed May 18, 2019. National Service Dog Registry. “Public Access Test.” 2019. Accessed May 18, 2019. Esnayra, J. & Love, C. “A Survey of Mental Health Patients Utilizing Psychiatric Service Dogs.” Psychiatric Service Dog Society, 2012. Accessed May 18, 2019. USA Service Dogs. “Service Dog & Emotional Support Dog Registration.” 2019. Accessed May 18, 2019.
The Americans with Disabilities Act National Network. “Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals.” May, 2019. Accessed May 18, 2019.
The U.S. Department of Justice. “Service Animals.” July 12, 2011. Accessed May 18, 2019.
Psychiatric Service Dog Partners. “Steps To Becoming a Service Dog User.” 2016. Accessed May 18, 2019.
National Service Dog Registry. “Public Access Test.” 2019. Accessed May 18, 2019.
Esnayra, J. & Love, C. “A Survey of Mental Health Patients Utilizing Psychiatric Service Dogs.” Psychiatric Service Dog Society, 2012. Accessed May 18, 2019.
USA Service Dogs. “Service Dog & Emotional Support Dog Registration.” 2019. Accessed May 18, 2019.