Guide to Psychiatric Service Dogs for Mental Health Treatment

For thousands of years, humans and animals have had close relationships, and it is no surprise that the first domesticated animal is the one that remains closest to some human hearts: the dog. Dogs have guarded human campsites, hunted, herded, and provided companionship to us for at least 12,000 years. As we have evolved, the role dogs played for us evolved as well. Sixteenth century nursery rhymes included lines such as “B was a blind man/Led by a dog,” some of the first references to dogs being used specifically to help the blind. In 1927, the first official school to train dogs to assist the disabled opened in Germany. Recently, the role of the dog has expanded again to help those with mental disabilities regain a sense of control and independence. Enjoy our guide to psychiatric service dogs for mental health treatment.

What is a Psychiatric Service Dog (PSD)?

While we would all like to think of our pets as providing a service, this is not always the case. A psychiatric service dog (PSD) is a true service animal and is much more than a pet. Service animals are highly trained to help their owner with tasks that they cannot do themselves that are considered life-limiting. A psychiatric service dog is a service animal that is trained to aid its owner in curtailing certain behaviors associated with a mental illness along with everyday tasks.

What Role do Psychiatric Service Dogs Fulfill?

PSDs, like all service animals, are trained to assist with day-to-day activities such as turning on lights or reminding a person to take their medication. Service dogs of this type can also be trained to detect the onset of psychiatric episodes and respond to lessen the severity of the episode, shorten its duration, or seek help when necessary. This is done in several different ways, such as interrupting destructive behaviors like self-mutilation or providing safety for a person who has become confused or disoriented. They can also be trained to reduce anxiety by checking and clearing rooms for their owner.

What is the Difference Between Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)?

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service dogs are defined as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” These include dogs trained for specific disabilities such as guide or Seeing Eye dogs that help those who are blind or severely visually impaired to achieve greater mobility. Other service dogs include sensory signal dogs and seizure response dogs. In all cases, these animals have been individually trained to assist with a specific task. Signal dogs are often used to stop certain repetitive behaviors in people with autism, while seizure response dogs may be trained to stand guard over their owner or to go for help if a seizure occurs.
Emotional support, comfort, and therapy dogs do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. While the animal itself can and often does help support its owner’s mental well-being by providing companionship and helping with emotional difficulties, they are not service dogs because they have not received training to complete a specific task. This applies even if the animal is prescribed to a person by a doctor or therapist. Other animals, with the exception of certain miniature horse breeds, also do not qualify as service animals.

How Are PSDs Helpful in Mental Health Treatment?

The main job of a psychiatric service dog is to support and help their owner as needed. This can be achieved through completing simple tasks such as retrieving mail for people who are house-bound (agoraphobic), reminding their owner when to take medications, or alerting them to the onset of a psychiatric event such as a panic attack. Dogs can give psychiatric help by breaking disruptive psychological states such as night terrors, repetitive thought cycles, or fugue states through tactile contact. Psychiatric service dogs can be trained to dial 911 in case of emergency (when the owner is unresponsive or unable to give verbal commands) or any other pre-programmed phone number through a K-9 Rescue Phone. Through a psychiatric service dog, those with mental health issues can have a greater sense of security, independence, and control.

How Are PSDs Obtained?

There are two main ways to get a psychiatric service dog: buy a dog from a formal training agency or self-train a dog of your choosing. While there are no set guidelines for formally training a PSD, the general rule is the dog must be trained in specific tasks that will help the owner along with being well-socialized and trained to behave in public settings. Purchasing a dog pre-trained has the benefit of acquiring an animal that has gone through a selection and training process that requires no extensive time commitment on the part of the owner. Pre-trained animals are screened for temperament and are often checked for health issues that may be related to their breed. Some organizations offer intensive training to new owners and their service animal to make sure the owner knows how to handle their dog. It also allows the process of bonding between them to begin in a controlled environment. Training programs may have waiting lists or be limited in the breed(s) of dog they provide.

Self-training an animal is time- and resource-intensive but can yield the same results as a purchased pre-trained dog. When a dog is self-trained, there are no limits on the size or breed of the animal, and potential long wait lists are circumvented. Pre-existing pets can also be trained as psychiatric service dogs, eliminating the need to buy a new animal. There are no formal studies to suggest that a self-trained dog is more responsive or a better choice than a pre-trained dog or vice versa.

What Restrictions Are There on Traveling and Taking Them Out in Public?

Psychiatric service dogs are service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act, so there are very few restrictions about where they can go with their owners. Under Title II and III of the ADA, a service animal is allowed to go with its handler to any place in a building or facility where program participants, members of the public, customers, or clients have access. Because service animals are not classified as pets, no-pets policies do not apply to them. This includes but is not limited to venues such as restaurants, grocery stores, malls, or other places where pets are not normally allowed access. Under federal regulations, a business can ask two questions to decide if a dog qualifies as a service animal:

  1. Is the animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the animal been trained to do?

Service animals may be denied access if they seem to be a threat to other patrons (being overly aggressive, growling, etc.) or their presence significantly impacts regular business practices.
Under the ADA, service animals are allowed to travel on planes, trains, cruise ships, buses, and other public transportation vehicles provided that the animal is well-trained and does not pose a threat to passengers or operation of the vehicle in question. This right is echoed in the Air Carrier Access Act, which sets guidelines for service animals traveling specifically by plane. As with all things, there may be added rules and guidelines passengers must follow when traveling with a service animal, such as size restrictions, documentation requirements, or quarantine procedures. These vary and should be researched well in advance.