Probably no category of assistance dog is as poorly understood as psychiatric service dogs, especially among the general population. First, assistance dogs are often stereotypically thought of as dogs that help the blind, deaf or people with other disabilities – some obvious and others invisible. Lots of people don’t realize that the work or tasks performed by an assistance dog must be directly related to the individual’s disability.
Examples of work or tasks include, but are not limited to:
- assisting individuals who are blind or have low vision with navigation and other tasks
- alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of people or sounds
- pulling a wheelchair
- assisting an individual during a seizure
- retrieving items such as medicine or the telephone
- helping individuals with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors
Psychiatric service dogs are one such working animal. These service dogs are individually trained to perform tasks which mitigate the psychiatric disabilities of their disabled partners. Every individual partnered with this type of service dog enjoys all the same rights granted other assistance dog partners under Federal laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Fair Housing Act, the Air Carrier Access Act, and so on.
Now we’d like to help demystify psychiatric service dogs, clear up some common misconceptions, and showcase what these amazing canines do for their human partners.
Psychiatric Service vs. Therapy vs. Emotional Support Dogs
Most people have heard of therapy dogs and emotional support animals. But not everyone has heard of psychiatric service dogs—and when they do, they often automatically associate them with one or both of these other two types of dogs. However, all three of these dogs are very different in significant ways.
There’s one thing we’d like to stress here, though: Of these three types of dogs: Psychiatric Service Dogs vs. Therapy Dogs vs. Emotional Support Dogs, only psychiatric service dogs are considered assistance dogs under Federal law. They are thoroughly trained—usually for about two years—to perform particular tasks to mitigate their partner’s diagnosed psychiatric disability in specific ways, as well as to behave appropriately in all manner of public settings.
Who Uses Psychiatric Service Dogs?
Like any other type of assistance dog, psychiatric service dogs are trained for people with diagnosed disabilities whose quality of life can be improved by working dogs trained to perform certain daily tasks for them. In these cases, the disabilities are related to psychiatric conditions. They must be severe enough to be debilitating in one or more ways.
Individuals paired with psychiatric service dogs suffer from a wide range of psychiatric conditions and disabilities stemming from all sorts of symptoms. Some conditions that lead to partnerships include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, major depression, dissociative identity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, and anxiety disorders.
How Do Psychiatric Service Dogs Help?
Some of the general public mistakenly think of these working animals as something to “help people feel better.” While they are certainly a source of companionship and emotional support, this is a major misunderstanding of what these exceptional dogs are capable of, what they do, and of the needs of the people who partner with them.
Psychiatric service dogs can perform an incredible variety of tasks to help mitigate their human partner’s disability. All dogs are trained to meet the specific needs of their partner, and they may undergo additional training if and when those needs change.
Below are some examples of tasks psychiatric service dogs are taught to perform. Remember, theses are just common examples of tasks your dog could be trained to perform. Your dogs training will actually be personalized to perform the necessary tasks to assist you.
Psychiatric service dogs may:
- Guide their confused or disoriented partner away from danger or to familiar destinations
- Nudge, paw, or otherwise physically encourage their partner to snap out of an undesirable mental state
- Provide tactile stimulation and redirection to interrupt potentially harmful behaviors
- Draw attention to inappropriate, uncontrolled, or dangerous behaviors
- Identify hallucinations or dissociative states
- Offer balancing or other physical support as needed due to symptoms or medication
- Locate a specific person or call for help should the handler become unable to do so
- Find and fetch needed items—including medication in an emergency
- Remind their partner to take medications
- Search the home or other locations systematically for threats (as for people with PTSD or certain anxieties)
- Alert their partner to important sounds (doorbell, smoke alarm, timers, etc.) if they are unable to hear or process them
- Initiate play to distract, redirect, or encourage more alertness
- Doll out affection in the form of snuggling, nuzzling, hugging, licking, etc. to calm or comfort
- Administer calming deep pressure therapy
Considering a Psychiatric Service Dog?
These amazing animals can make a huge difference in quality of life for people with psychiatric disorders. Talk to your mental health professional about whether a partnership might be of benefit to you or your loved one.
Also, take a look at our article about deciding whether an assistance dog is right for you. We also have tips for finding a reputable service dog provider.