Trained service dogs can help ease symptoms for many mental health conditions. Here’s how.

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Dogs have long offered comfort, companionship, safety, and joy, but did you know some dogs can be specially trained to offer mental health support?

Psychiatric service dogs provide the general benefits of pet ownership in addition to tailored support for mental health conditions.

Psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) are specially trained to help people manage mental health condition episodes, distress, triggers, and medication adherence.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act National Network, a psychiatric service animal is any dog that’s custom-trained to do work or perform tasks to aid an individual living with a disability, including an intellectual, physical, psychiatric, sensory, or other mental disability.

Pet ownership is associated with mental health benefits ranging from reduced stress to companionship, according to Mental Health America. Psychiatric service dogs, though, offer more.

Psychiatric service dogs receive extensive training to perform tasks tailored to individuals to help improve their daily functioning such as retrieving medication and even dialing 911.

Psychiatric service dogs, for example, might wake someone with depression up who may need an extra boost getting out of bed or accompany someone with social anxiety to a high-stress environment.

A 2019 study found the following owner benefits to having a psychiatric service dog:

An increase in:

  • independence
  • social relationships
  • self-esteem
  • life satisfaction

A decrease in:

  • anxiety
  • stress
  • loneliness

Research from 2020 suggests that psychiatric service dogs are also beneficial for improving the quality of life of veterans by helping to improve PTSD symptoms, for example, infusing calm during a state of hypervigilance.

How is a PSD different from an ESA?

It’s common for psychiatric service dogs to be confused with emotional support animals. Below are some distinctions.

Psychiatric service dogEmotional support animal
protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Department of Transportation (DOT), and Housing and Urban Development (HUD)not protected through ADA or DOT
task-trained to help a person with a mental health condition or disabilityprovides comfort but not legally considered a service animal
takes an average of 2–3 years to trainvariable training, if at all
permitted in public locations even if it’s a “no pets” locationnot permitted in public if its presence is unreasonable or it infringes on the rights of others
only dogs can be trained to be a PSD any domesticated animal can serve as an ESA
under HUD, permitted to live with owner even with a “no pets” policy under HUD, permitted to live with owner even with a “no pets” policy

Research from 2019 found psychiatric service dogs can help with the following conditions:

Psychiatric service dogs can also help with the following conditions:

One of the first steps of getting a psychiatric service dog is talking about it with a therapist.

Next, you’ll also need to obtain a letter from a licensed mental health professional. This letter should confirm your diagnosis and explain how a therapy dog could support you.

Keep in mind how service dogs are classified under the ADA and that it defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits at least one major life activity.

If you live in the United States, you might explore getting a PSD from a service dog training agency or, if you already have a dog or want to get your own, consider self-training. You might keep in mind self-training needs to be strategic and targeted to specific tasks.

If you live abroad, you can check out Assistance Dogs International. The organization outlines requirements for “assistance dogs” all over the globe.

Be sure to check the laws and regulations in your state and local area around vaccination and licensing requirements for dogs.

Here are some tasks that psychiatric service dogs are trained for:

  • applying soothing physical contact such as deep pressure therapy to lower anxiety
  • providing tactile stimulation to reduce disassociation and bring someone to a present state
  • retrieving medications
  • waking owner from night terrors or nightmares
  • accompanying owner to high stress environments
  • preventing or intervening in self-harming behavior
  • serving as a cushion between owner and people around them

If you’re thinking that you could use a psychiatric service dog’s help with the above tasks, here are three tasks that may help inform your plan:

  1. Consider making a list of tasks a psychiatric service dog could help you with.
  2. Consider breaking your list into the top three needs to start. Maybe that includes regulating emotions, getting on a healthy sleep schedule, and taking medication.
  3. Ask yourself what level of support you need. Perhaps rate the level of support you need on a scale of minimal, moderate, and full.

It’s possible to train a dog yourself or you can hire a professional through a variety of individuals and organizations, such as:

Research from 2019 found that people who had self-trained their service dogs faced more burdens (such as lack of PSD skills and behavior problems at the beginning of the process) than those living with professionally trained service dogs.

Here are a few more things to keep in mind:

  • The ADA does not require a uniform training program or certification. They only require service dogs to be trained to perform tasks tailored to a person’s condition or disability.
  • The wait time for a pretrained psychiatric service dog can be between 2 and 3 years.

Q: Can I make my current dog a psychiatric service dog?

A: Yes. You can find more information on how to register your dog as a service dog through National Service Animal Registry.

Here’s some guidance on how to train your dog.

Q: Does insurance cover a psychiatric service dog or do I pay out of pocket?

A: Generally, no, insurance does not cover psychiatric service dogs. Psychiatric service dogs can cost between $20,000 and $30,000, according to Service Dog Training School International.

Dog trainers can cost between $150 and $250 per hour.

In addition to leaving room in the budget for extra fees that are bound to crop up, it’s also good to set aside money for supplies such as veterinary care, medication, food, and toys.

Some organizations can help mitigate costs, including Little Angels.

Q: Which are the best breeds for psychiatric service dogs?

A: Temperament and training are generally important to consider over breed, according to the American Kennel Club.

The ADA agrees service dogs can be any type or breed.

Some breeds that are reported to work well include:

  • Labrador retriever
  • Mixed breeds
  • Maltese poodle
  • Yorkshire terrier
  • Golden retriever
  • Poodle
  • German shepherd

Q: Can psychiatric service dogs go anywhere?

A: Generally, yes. Service dogs are allowed in hospitals, hotels, and public spaces, according to the ADA.

However, if the owner is not in a state where they can care for the dog, it is recommended they find alternative assistance.

Receiving mental health condition support in the form of a furry friend trained specifically to help manage symptoms may be an option for you.

Try not to be discouraged by the lengthy and costly training process. If you think a psychiatric service dog may help support you, first discuss it with a therapist.

Talking with a variety of dog trainers in your area might help you become more informed about specific needs, costs, and the time frame involved as you consider training your current dog or searching for one already trained.