Key Takeaways Key Takeaways
  • Psychiatric service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks to assist individuals with psychiatric disabilities, such as medication reminders and interrupting self-harm behaviors, and are legally protected under the ADA to accompany their owners in public spaces, distinguishing them from emotional support dogs who lack such training and rights.

  • These dogs provide crucial support for a variety of psychiatric conditions, including PTSD, severe depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, among others, by performing tasks that directly mitigate the challenges of these conditions.

  • To obtain a psychiatric service dog, one must consult a licensed mental health professional, receive a recommendation, apply through an accredited organization, undergo handler training, and integrate the dog into their daily life, understanding their legal rights throughout the process.

How Psychiatric Service Dogs Provide Support for Mental Health

What are Psychiatric Service Dogs?

Psychiatric service dogs, psychiatric assistance dogs, and emotional support dogs all play valuable roles in supporting individuals with mental health conditions, but they differ in their training, legal definitions, and the roles they perform. Let’s look at each of them.

Psychiatric service dogs are a type of service dog trained to perform specific tasks to assist individuals with disabilities, including psychiatric disabilities. Their training is focused on actionable tasks such as reminding their handler to take medication, providing safety checks or room searches for those with PTSD, interrupting self-harm behaviors, or pulling their handler from an overwhelming situation. Psychiatric service dogs have legal protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), allowing them to accompany their owners in most public places.

Psychiatric Assistance Dogs (PADs) as a term is often used interchangeably with psychiatric service dogs. They are essentially the same, performing specific tasks to help individuals with psychiatric conditions. The key component that defines them as ‘service’ or ‘assistance’ dogs is their task-specific training related to the handler’s disability.

PSDs are trained animals that aren’t to be confused with other types of service animals.

For example, emotional support Dogs provide comfort and support through their presence but are not trained to perform specific tasks that assist with a disability. Emotional support dogs can help alleviate some symptoms of mental health conditions simply by being a companion. They do not have the same legal rights as service dogs in terms of access to all public areas, but they are often allowed to live in housing that otherwise does not allow pets and may fly with their handlers under certain conditions, depending on airline policies.

The primary distinctions lie in the level of training and the legal rights each type of dog has.

Service dogs, including psychiatric service/assistance dogs, require extensive training to perform specific tasks, whereas emotional support dogs do not have such requirements and their main role is to provide comfort by their presence.

What Disabilities Qualify for a Psychiatric Service Dog?

Psychiatric service dogs are specifically trained to assist individuals with mental health disabilities by performing tasks that help to manage or mitigate the challenges associated with these conditions. Here are some psychiatric conditions that commonly qualify for a psychiatric service dog:

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): These dogs can perform tasks like waking their handler from nightmares, providing grounding during panic attacks, and creating a physical barrier in crowded places to reduce anxiety.
  • Severe Depression: A psychiatric service dog can help by providing medication reminders, encouraging activity (like getting out of bed or going for a walk), and offering tactile stimulation which can help interrupt cycles of negative thoughts.
  • Anxiety Disorders: For individuals with severe anxiety or panic disorders, these dogs can alert to signs of an impending anxiety attack, provide deep pressure therapy to calm their handler, or guide them to a safe place.
  • Bipolar Disorder: During episodes of extreme depression or mania, a psychiatric service dog might help by interrupting impulsive or destructive behavior, reminding the handler to take medication, or helping to maintain a routine.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): Dogs can be trained to interrupt repetitive behaviors or compulsions, providing distraction or a physical impediment to performing the compulsive act.
  • Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD): Dogs can help with interrupting distracting behaviors, enhancing daily structure and routine, encouraging physical activity, reducing hyperactivity and improving focus through calming effects.
  • Social Phobias: Dogs can help individuals with social phobias by providing a comforting presence that reduces anxiety, increases feelings of safety in social settings, and facilitates more positive social interactions.
  • Agoraphobia: Dogs can help by providing a sense of security and companionship, reducing anxiety about being alone in public spaces, and aiding in gradually increasing exposure to feared environments under controlled conditions.
  • Panic Disorders: Dogs can help with panic attacks by sensing the onset of an episode, providing immediate physical comfort through touch or pressure, and performing tasks such as leading their handler to a safe place or fetching medication.

In addition to the conditions above, psychiatric service dogs can assist individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. They can assist with reduction of overstimulation by providing a calming presence, leading their handler to a less stimulating environment, or using deep pressure therapy to reduce anxiety and sensory overload. Dogs can act as social bridges, facilitating more natural social interactions for individuals who may struggle with communication. The presence of a dog can make social environments less stressful and more approachable.

Service dogs can also be trained to prevent a child or adult with autism from wandering off by alerting the handler or a caregiver when an individual attempts to leave a designated safe area.

How To Get a Psychiatric Service Dog

To qualify for a psychiatric service dog, the individual must have a psychiatric condition that significantly impairs one or more major life activities. Obtaining a psychiatric service dog involves a series of important steps to ensure the dog is a suitable fit for your specific needs. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to get a psychiatric service dog:

  1. Consult with a Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP) such a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist to determine if a psychiatric service dog could benefit your treatment plan. They can assess your needs and eligibility.
  2. If your healthcare provider agrees that a psychiatric service dog is suitable for you, obtain a letter from them. Think of it as a “prescription” or a “doctor’s note”. Each provider will also use their professional judgment in what to convey. However, there are some common elements in PSD letters and a few items you will want to make sure are included. A PSD letter should:
    • be on the licensed healthcare professional’s letterhead
    • be dated and signed by the professional
    • contain the professional’s contact information
    • contain the professional’s opinion on whether you have a mental or emotional disability that can qualify for a psychiatric service dog
  1. Research Accredited Organizations:
    • Find reputable organizations that train and provide psychiatric service dogs. There is no official certification or training program for psychiatric service dogs (PSDs), but some organizations promote unofficial guidelines and standards. For example, Assistance Dogs International (ADI) is a non-profit that trains and places assistance dogs. The International Guide Dog Federation is another organization that accredits assistance dog programs.
  2. Application Process:
    • Submit an application to one or more organizations. This process may include interviews and detailed questionnaires about your health, lifestyle, and specific needs.
    • Be prepared for potential waiting periods, as it can take time to find and train the right dog for your specific requirements. Also, plan for how you will fund the dog, considering costs such as training, healthcare, and maintenance.
    • The organization will match you with a dog trained to perform tasks specific to your condition. This phase includes ensuring the dog’s temperament and skills align with your lifestyle and needs.
  3. Handler Training:
    • Undergo handler training, where you learn to work effectively with your service dog. This training helps you understand how to command and take care of your dog, ensuring you both can operate as a cohesive team.
  4. Integration:
    • Gradually integrate the service dog into your daily life. This period involves adjusting to each other and establishing a routine that accommodates your new companion.
  5. Know Your Rights:
    • Educate yourself about the legal rights regarding service dogs in your area, such as access rights and any specific regulations or protections under laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Service dogs can go anywhere service dogs are allowed, including places that do not otherwise allow other animals or pets like restaurants, schools, hospitals, hotels, etc.

Following these steps will help you navigate the process of getting a psychiatric service dog, providing you with a supportive companion that can significantly aid in managing your psychiatric condition.

LifeStance mental health care professionals can assist with evaluation of your needs and provide guidance with obtaining a psychiatric service dog. Find a mental health clinic near you to book an appointment or search for a therapist or psychiatrist online.

Authored By 

LifeStance Health
LifeStance Health

LifeStance is a mental healthcare company focused on providing evidence-based, medically driven treatment services for children, adolescents, and adults suffering from a variety of mental health issues in an outpatient care setting, both in-person and through its digital health telemedicine offering.

Reviewed By

Nicholette Leanza, LPCC-S
Nicholette Leanza, LPCC-S

Nicholette is a faculty member at John Carroll University’s Clinical Counseling program, and she is also the host of the LifeStance podcast, Convos from the Couch.