In the simplest terms, a psychiatric service dog or “PSD” is a service dog that is trained to help its handler with a mental, emotional, intellectual, or psychiatric-specific task. These dogs assist someone whose mental or emotional challenges makes it difficult or impossible for him/her to perform an important life task without help. If you believe you may qualify for a PSD, then keep reading.
For you to qualify for a psychiatric service dog, you must be determined to have an emotional or psychiatric disability by a licensed mental health professional (therapist). In addition, the negative symptoms of your disability must warrant the need for a trained dog to assist you with a significant life task that you cannot or have trouble performing by yourself. There are many tasks a person with one of these disabilities may benefit from.
The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) guarantees people with disabilities who use psychiatric service dogs to be accompanied by the dog into any place a person would normally be able to go, such as:
That means that these places must allow service dogs, and the ADA requires them to modify their practices to accommodate the dogs, if necessary. If you have a PSD, you’ll also be able to:
PSDs are specially trained to perform tasks that mitigate their handler’s disability. While other types of service dogs mostly assist people with physical disabilities, psychiatric service dogs help people with emotional or psychiatric disorders like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), severe depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, autism, or anxiety. Many disabilities are invisible such as a sensory, psychiatric, or a mentally related disorder. These amazing dogs are typically able to perform tasks other dogs aren’t trained to perform.
Surprisingly, most pet dogs can be trained to ease the challenges posed by a person’s psychiatric, emotional, or intellectual disability. Once trained to perform any one of the following tasks, the dog will then qualify as a PSD.
Dogs are amazing animals. In addition to the many benefits listed above, PSD’s are trained to perform specific tasks that mitigate their handler’s symptoms. Willing to work, and with a strong desire to bond and please, they are incredible partners in the treatment plan for someone with PSD. Just as no one’s mental health challenge is the same, so it goes with service dog training. The following are some of the many tasks a PSD can perform:
Balance assistance. Example: A person with anxiety disorder, overwhelmed with anxiety has taken a strong prescribed tranquilizer. While the tranquilizer reduces his anxiety, allowing the person to breathe more efficiently and to think a little more clearly, it has also impaired the ability to walk without assistance. His dog is trained to walk close at his side so he can rest his hand on the dog’s harness to help him keep his balance as he moves to a safe place to finish recovering from his attack.
Bring help. Example: A person becomes stuck in a flashback that an intruder is searching for her. She managed to call 911 for assistance when the person first perceived the problem but is now hiding in the closet to avoid detection by the perceived intruder. When EMS arrives, they call out for the person, but he/she does not answer because they believes they are going to hurt her. The 911 operator informs the responders that there is a service dog present and what command to give him to lead them to his owner. With the dog’s assistance in locating the person, EMS can reach him/her and assist them to the hospital.
Bring medication in an emergency. Example: A person with debilitating anxiety experiences severe gastric distress when overstressed. The resulting nausea causes him/her to become disoriented and dizzy. They fall to the ground and cannot rise. The dog is trained to retrieve anti-nausea medication.
Call for help: Not only can a PSD be trained to get another person to help their handler, but the dog can also use technology to call for help. The FIDO Project at Georgia Tech (https://fido.gatech.edu/) is an ongoing effort to facilitate communication between handlers and their working canine companions. One of their projects involved designing a TV-sized touch screen connected to a computer that a service dog could use to call emergency services, a doctor, therapist, or suicide prevention hotline.
Create a safe space: Feelings of anxiety can be heightened when in a public space. Psychiatric service dogs can scan a room, public space, or home for potential triggers and assure their handler that the area is safe. If the dog discovers a potential trigger, it can lead its handler to an exit to avoid the situation.
Create a physical barrier: Within public spaces, a properly trained dog can act as a physical barrier, thus providing a measure of security for their handler. By positioning their body between their handler and others or by circling their handler, the dogs can create space in a nonaggressive manner.
Detect rising cortisol levels: Dogs have anywhere from 200 to 300 million scent receptors in their noses and have, over the course of their domestication, learned to associate different scents with different situations. Their keen noses can detect shifting hormone levels in humans, including rising levels of cortisol. Dogs can detect this hormone, which is released during times of stress, in human sweat or breath. They then perform an action intended to help their handler recognize or reduce their stress.
Give reminders about medication: Medication is an important part of many disability treatment plans, and consistency with taking that medication can positively impact the individual’s management of their symptoms. If remembering to take medication is a hindrance to the treatment plan, psychiatric service dog can be trained to remind their handler to take their medication. They can even retrieve the medication and water, if needed.
Guide a disoriented handler. Example: A person wanders away from familiar surroundings during a dissociative episode. When she becomes aware again, she realizes she is lost and still disoriented from the episode. She cannot think clearly about how to retrace her steps. Her dog is trained to backtrack, following their own scent trail back to where they were when the episode started. Alternatively, the dog might be trained to guide the handler to specific trained locations by command, such as “home.”
Guide during a dissociative episode: During a dissociative episode, the handler may experience an altered perception of themselves and the environment around them, resulting in confusion or panic. PSDs can be trained to recognize the physical cues that their handler gives during such an event. The dog can then guide their handler out of the situation or home so that they can recover.
Find a person or place. Example: A person becomes separated from his family in a crowd. As the crowd closes in around him, he experiences a panic attack and difficulty breathing. He cannot call out to his family. He gives his dog a signal to locate his family who will help him, or to locate an exit where he can escape the crowd and get fresh air.
Identify hallucinations. Example: A person who experiences hallucinations sees a person who should not be in the room with him. Is this a hallucination he can safely ignore, or is it an intruder? His dog is trained to go and greet any person his handler points at, on command. The man points at the intruder and instructs the dog to “go say hi.” The dog moves in the direction indicated, but can find no person to greet, so he returns to his handler. The handler now knows the person he sees is a hallucination and calls his doctor for help instead of calling the police for an intruder.
Interrupt panic attacks or flashbacks: There are many ways a psychiatric service dog can respond if their handler is having a panic attack. First, the dog learns to recognize the indications that a panic attack is imminent. The dog can then perform an action to alleviate that attack. The action is unique to each handler as every handler’s needs are different.
The dog can alert their handler through simple gestures, such as laying a paw on their arm or “hugging” by leaning inward. In a more intense, public situation, the dog can lead their handler to a building exit to remove them from the situation. They can bring items that their handler needs, such as medication, water, or a phone to call their therapist. Finally, they can provide tactile stimulation to distract from the overload of emotions, such as licking the face or giving pressure against the chest or abdomen.
Provide a reassuring presence: When in a public space, a psychiatric service dog can be trained to look in the opposite direction of their handler, thus providing the security of someone watching the handler’s back. They can give a signal to alert their handler if someone approaches from behind. These actions can help if the handler tends toward hypervigilance and needs the extra assurance to feel safe in a public space.
Room search. Example: A person with severe hypervigilance due to PTSD finds she is unable to enter her own home. Her symptom causes her to believe there is an intruder in her home who will attack her if she enters. Her dog is trained to perform a systematic search of any room or building and bark on finding someone. When her dog finishes the search pattern and returns, she knows it really is safe to enter and that the presumed intruder was just a symptom. The same task can be used at her office, at hotel rooms, at friends’ homes or any other area that is supposed to be vacant.
Signal for certain sounds. Example: A person, heavily sedated, in a flashback or in a psychotic episode fails to respond to a smoke alarm. The dog is trained to persistently and very firmly signal the disabled handler until he responds. Alternately, the dog may be trained to take hold of his handler’s arm or sleeve in his mouth and lead him outside.
Wake from nightmares: Common challenges for those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are nightmares or night terrors. The trained dog learns to recognize indications that their handler is having a nightmare. They can then perform certain actions, such as turning on lights, gently awakening their handler, and providing a source of comfort and grounding through tactile sensations.
The ability to serve as a Psychiatric Service Dog (PSD) has nothing to do with the dog’s breed. Mixed breed dogs are very well suited to assist those coping with mental illness. These dogs can be in-home companions or full-time Service Dogs who also accompany their companions out in public and to work.
Trainers look for specific traits when scouting potential dogs to serve as a psychiatric-specific service dog. Some traits are physical. For example, a dog must be of adequate size and strength for the tasks it is intended to perform. Other traits are less tangible. Service dogs must be perceptive and able to detect things in the environment that could potentially trigger their handler. They must be sensitive to physical and verbal cues given by their handler that indicate care is required. In addition, they need to perform these duties independently when their handler is in crisis.
Each person requiring a service dog as part of their psychiatric treatment and management plan has different needs. Therefore, each dog is trained to react as their handler needs to prevent or react to the specific circumstance. For example, to detect cortisol levels, the dog is exposed to cortisol samples taken from their intended handler. They then receive rewards for performing an action upon detection of that scent.
Professional dog trainers select and train most service dogs, matching them to a list of qualified recipients. The dog and handler typically go through a training period where the handler learns the proper commands to give the dog as well as the signals the dog may give in return to mitigate the handler’s psychiatric challenges. Individual training plans are available where the handler can train their own dog, including dogs they already own as pets.
According to National Service Animal Registry (www.nsarco.com), it is not enough to have a mental illness to qualify for a disability under the ADA. Some 26% of adults in the U.S. suffer from a mental illness in any given year, but only 6% are severely mentally ill. So more than three quarters of those with a diagnosed mental illness are not disabled by that illness and would not qualify to use a service animal even if they would benefit from one.
Far more than a pet, psychiatric service dogs are an important part of a strategy to manage emotional, mental, or cognitive disabilities. They are only one piece of that strategy, however, and aren’t intended to replace others.