What is a Psychiatric Service Dog

What is a Psychiatric Service Dog? A Complete Guide to PSDs

With so many different types of support animals out there, from therapy dogs to emotional support animals (ESAs) to service animals, it can be difficult to distinguish one type of assistance animal from the next. That’s where we come in. 

If you are interested in obtaining a psychiatric service dog (PSD), then you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we will break down what exactly a psychiatric service dog is (PSD), along with the other types of support animals out there. Once you know exactly what a PSD is, how to qualify for a PSD, and what tasks a PSD is trained to perform, you can confirm whether or not a PSD is truly the right support dog for you. 

Bottom Line: 

  • What is a psychiatric service dog? – a type of service animal trained to perform tasks for their human companions who have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder or disability.
  • Do I qualify for a psychiatric service dog if you are grappling with a severe psychiatric, mental, or intellectual disability, there is a strong chance that you qualify for a PSD. See if you qualify today!
  • How to train a psychiatric service dog – handlers can self-train or professionally train their dogs or adopt a pre-trained dog from a service dog organization
dog and woman on a couch

What is a psychiatric service dog?

Psychiatric service dogs are often confused with emotional support dogs and therapy dogs. Before diving into the ins and outs of what PSDs are, let’s first clarify what a psychiatric service dog is not. 

  • Therapy Dog: a pet that has been tested for its social temperament, trained to be well behaved, and registered with a therapy dog organization. In most cases, most therapy dog owners are volunteers. Therapy dogs provide comfort to people in nursing homes, hospitals, schools, or other institutions. Therapy dogs do not qualify as service animals and do not have public access rights. 
  • Emotional Support Dogs: Also known as ESAs, emotional support animals provide comfort and companionship to their owners through their mere presence. Emotional support animals are not qualified to undergo any special training, however, to certify an emotional support dog owners must receive an ESA letter from a licensed therapist. Although emotional support animals receive special housing laws under federal law through the Fair Housing Act, they do not have public access rights. 

Unlike therapy dogs and emotional support animals, a psychiatric service dog (PSD) is a type of service animal. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) are trained to perform tasks for their human companions who have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder or disability. While service dogs have historically been used to help those who are visually impaired, nowadays, these assistance animals are trained to perform all types of tasks for individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. While the exact number of PSDs in the United States is unknown, facilities have recognized a growing need for this specific type of service animal. As a result, the number of dogs in service dog training facilities has increased.

One of the most important factors that set PSDs apart from other assistance animals are their public access rights. Under the law, all service dogs, including PSDs are considered the same, regardless of the handler’s disability or disorder. If you are grappling with a psychiatric disability and/or an “invisible disability” it’s important to know your rights as a PSD owner. Legally, businesses are not able to ask for documentation from you. However, they are permitted to ask you two questions: Is the dog a service dog? What task has the dog been trained to perform? If you can confirm that the dog is a service dog, then a business or a public place must make reasonable accommodation for you and your animal. 

Keep in mind, when you bring your PSD to a public place your dog must always be on a leash, harness, or tethered to you in some way or form. The one exception to this rule is when this might interfere with the PSD’s ability to perform its necessary task or function. Aside from knowing how to assist an individual with a specific mental health disability, a PSD must also know how to be on good behavior at all times.

The bottom line? According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, for a dog to be considered a psychiatric service dog, the animal be:

  • Trained to perform certain tasks (natural dog behaviors do not qualify)
  • Mitigate the person’s disability
  • Must be indispensable by the specific handler

Do I qualify for a psychiatric service dog?

To be eligible for a psychiatric service dog, an individual must have a mental disability that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The ADA defines a mental disability as any mental or psychological disorder such as emotional or mental illness and specific learning disabilities. If you are suffering from any of the disabilities listed below, then there is a strong chance that you qualify for a psychiatric service dog. 

  • Clinical depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Phobias
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Autism

On top of grappling with a psychiatric, intellectual, or mental disability, PSD owners must also need a task-trained dog to assist with their condition. If your PSD has not been trained to perform a task but provides you with comfort and companionship in times of stress or loneliness, then your furry friend is more likely an emotional support animal (ESA). See if you qualify for a PSD letter today.

What are psychiatric service dogs trained to do?

Psychiatric service dogs can be trained to perform a wealth of tasks to help their owners with their mental disorders and disabilities. Some common tasks that service dogs are trained to perform include:

  • Balance Assistance – a PSD can provide an individual with added security when walking (eg. For individuals who take tranquilizers to stay calm)
  • Wake Someone Up – a PSD can wake their owner up if they are experiencing nightmares or night terrors
  • Locating a person – a PSD can help individuals who suffer from anxiety and may become lost or disoriented in a large crowd
  • Interrupt and Redirect – a PSD can help limit obsessive-compulsive and self-destructive behaviors by interrupting their handler and redirecting them to a new activity
  • Body Contact – a PSD can use body contact and pressure therapy to provide calm and comfort to a handler that is suffering from anxiety
  • Block People — a PSD can help block people and provide a buffer to help guide their owner through chaotic environments
  • Nudge and Re-Orient – a PSD can help ground their handler back into a more present state of mind during an anxiety attack
  • Alert to Sound – a PSD can alert their handler to smoke or security alarms 
  • Retrieve Medications – a PSD can be trained to retrieve medication for its owner or remind its owner of a medication that needs to be taken
  • Search a Room – a PSD can be trained to search a room for items that might be triggering to someone with PTSD. 
  • Maintain Structure and Routine – a PSD can help its owner maintain a routine by preventing them from sleeping in or reminding them to perform daily tasks
woman hugging a dog

How to train a psychiatric service dog

Training a PSD takes a lot of time and patience. Keep in mind, you are not obligated to self-train your PSD, although that is certainly an option. Below we’ve listed the three different routes you can take when training your PSD. 

Self-training

The ADA and the U.S Department of Transportation (DOT) specifically allow owners to self-train their assistance animals. That being said, there is no official training program that you must follow to train your PSD, which can make it difficult for those with little to no knowledge of the subject. If you are looking for the best guidelines to follow, the General Public Access Test provides general guidelines that you can follow to help ensure good manners and behavior in your PSD whenever you’re in a public place. 

Adopt from a service dog organization

If you do not wish to self-train your psychiatric service dog, you can also opt to adopt a dog from a service dog organization. The dogs at these facilities will have already received extensive and adequate training for a wide variety of mental health disorders. This means when you bring your service dog home, it will already be able to assist you. Keep in mind, while this may be a relatively convenient option for those with busy schedules, the convenience comes at a cost. Animals from these organizations cost anywhere between $15,000 to $30,000. 

Work with a professional dog trainer

If neither of the two options above appeal to you, working with a professional dog trainer is the most popular training option for a reason. It’s certainly not as difficult as training your dog yourself, and it’s not as expensive as adopting the dog from an organization. A professional dog trainer will have years of experience in training PSDs. Not only will they be able to train your service dog to perform a certain task and assist you with a specific disorder, but a trainer will also be able to train your dog to meet the General Public Access Test guidelines. This type of training is necessary if you plan on bringing your service dog with you during air travel or air carriers. The Department of Transportation allows airlines to ask PSD owners to submit a certification form before departure. This form requires that you provide proof that your PSD has been trained to assist with a disability, and proof that your PSD will be exhibit good behavior on a flight. If you have worked with an expert trainer, you will be able to provide the appropriate proof necessary to fly with your animal. 

How to make my dog an emotional support dog

It is possible to train your current pet or emotional support animal to become a psychiatric service dog. If you decide to opt for this route, you will need to consult with a mental health professional (make sure that this person is a licensed mental health professional) to ensure that you have a qualifying mental health disability under the ADA. You will then need to self-train or professionally train your dog to perform the necessary task that you need from a PSD. Additionally, you will also need to ensure that your dog can be calm, alert, and well-behaved in various public environments, including airports and stores. Lastly, you will need to order a uniform for your service dog to notify others that your dog is an on-duty PSD. 

Another route that you can take is to purchase an already trained dog from a service dog facility or organization. No matter what route you take, you will need a signed PSD letter. 

woman with two dogs with laptop

FAQs on Psychiatric Service Dogs

Who can prescribe a psychiatric service dog?

To qualify for a psychiatric service dog, you will need a licensed mental health professional (LMHP) to prescribe one for you in the form of a PSD letter (note that this is different from an ESA letter). The PSD letter will state that you need a dog to assist you with a major life task as a result of your disability. 

What breeds make the best psychiatric service dogs?

While any task-trained dog can become a psychiatric service dog, some dog breeds possess unique traits that help individuals with mental and emotional disabilities. These dog breeds include a Havanese, Labrador Retriever, German Shepherd, Lhasa Apso, Poodle, Boxer, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Doberman, Border Collie, and Miniature Schnauzer.

Can I train my own psychiatric service dog?

The ADA and DOT both state in their regulations that owners and handlers can train their own psychiatric service dogs. That being said, there are no specific training protocols that are provided for owners in need of assistance and guidance. It is far more common for owners to hire someone to professionally train their PSD. 

What are psychiatric service dogs trained to do?

Psychiatric service dogs are trained to perform a specific task related to their owner’s mental disability. PSDs can be trained to wake someone up, search a room, retrieve a medication, or remind their owner to perform a daily task. 

What qualifies a dog as a psychiatric service dog?

A service dog is a task-trained dog who has been trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. A psychiatric service dog, in particular, is trained to perform tasks for individuals who are suffering from a mental, psychiatric, or intellectual disability, rather than a physical one. 

What is the difference between a psychiatric service dog and an emotional support animal?

Emotional support animals (ESAs) are not required to undergo special training. Emotional support animals provide comfort and companionship to their owners through their mere presence and existence. A psychiatric service dog must undergo specific training to assist its owner with special tasks related to their mental disability. 

Can psychiatric service dogs go anywhere?

Wherever the public is permitted to go, service dogs are also allowed to go. This includes restaurants, grocery stores, and airplanes. Service animals may be excluded if admitting a service animal to a public place would fundamentally alter the nature of a service or a program. For example, if you are attending a boarding school, your PSD might be restricted from certain areas of a dormitory if your dog poses a threat to the health of another student or the safety of others.

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