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Psychiatric Service Dog Training Lessons & Tips
A psychiatric service dog is a type of service dog that assists people who are living with a variety of psychiatric disabilities, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), just to name a few.
Under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) for public access rights, psychiatric service dog training can be done either by the owner of the dog or with the help of a trainer or service dog organization. Check out our blog also on psychiatric service dog tasks and How to train a service dog for anxiety & psych tasks.
Training your own psychiatric service dog
Service dogs do need to be trained, but not necessarily by a professional trainer. Many people train their dogs themselves, and this is exactly where this guide hopes to help, even if just a bit.
Table of Contents
Traits of a Good Service Dog Candidate
Not just any dog will automatically make a good service dog, and the same is true for psychiatric service dogs. Some dogs just aren’t cut out for service dog work and are better off as pets. A service dog candidate needs to:
- Be calm, especially when in unfamiliar surroundings
- Always be alert, but not reactive
- Be willing to please and learn
- Able to retain information that they learn
- Be able to be socialized in many different situations and environments
- Be reliable in performing tasks that may be repetitive in nature
Service dog in training manners checklist
- Your dog should not be overly stressed, or uncomfortable
- Your service dog in training should be fully housetrained
- The dog should not growl, nip or bite, show teeth, lunge in an attacking manner, bark, or be unpredictable
- Dogs need to be clean and well cared for, and healthy
- Dogs must be able to sit and wait quietly and patiently
- Work on startle recovery: dropping keys on the ground, for example, and then quickly recovering to pay attention to the handler once again
- Work on leash training: a loose leash without any strong leash corrections
- Work on your dog being able to lie down or sit down on cue
- Practice having your dog be left temporarily (30 seconds or more) with another person; your dog might need to be able to do this in real life and it’s important for the dog to remain calm and quiet controlled during this time
- Practice having your dog remain focused on you, even in the presence of other dogs, or other service dog teams
- Practice going through doors safely; a variety of different types of doors
- Practice getting in and out of a vehicle safely
Structure of Psychiatric Service Dog Training
Before jumping into psychiatric service dog training – training a service dog for various service dog tasks – make sure the basic foundations of dog training are in place. This will make the whole process so much smoother.
Work on service dog foundation skills first:
- House training your dog includes eliminating on-command in different locations
- Socialize your dog with the goal of having your dog remain on task even when there are unfamiliar people and even children, places, sights, scents, sounds, and even other animals
- Your dog needs to learn to focus on you and ignore all and any distractions.
- Check out the AKC Canine Good Citizen program, which can provide you with basic guidelines and benchmarks for these very essential foundation skills
- After all of these basic steps, you can proceed with training your dog to perform work or tasks to help you with your specific disability and needs
ADA Rules & Service Dog Questions
Under ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) laws, only two questions can be asked of people who are using service dogs for public access rights, in situations where it’s not so obvious that a dog is a service animal, such as when there are invisible disabilities.
(1) Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
(2) What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
Your reply to question (2) must affirm that your animal has indeed been trained to take a specific action or do a specific task when needed to help you with your disability or its symptoms.
Tactile Stimulation & Deep Pressure Therapy
Tactile stimulation and deep pressure therapy (DPT) is a type of psychiatric service dog training task that can help ground someone. It can help to offer a therapeutic distraction from depression, anxiety, or a panic attack, for example. This is a great task for dogs that already enjoy human contact, as it will be that much easier to train. Check out the deep pressure therapy article on our blog to learn more.
Check out this weighted blanket on Amazon (affiliate link) which may help in the meantime (especially with sleeping) if you’re in the process of training your service dog.
What will the dog do?
Your psychiatric service dog can be trained to place pressure on your chest, abdomen, or lap, or lie across a particular area of your body on cue.
How does this help?
If you’re familiar with weighted blankets, the concept is similar. Having your dog apply deep pressure therapy can promote relaxation and other positive effects, such as:
- This can help to encourage emotional regulation
- This can bring calm to a situation
- The dog’s weight and/or warmth provides and grounding effect, and calming pressure
- It can be a distraction from the pain in other parts of the body
- It may help to slow down breathing and heart rate
- It may help to switch someone from “fight or flight” to a more relaxed state of being
Commonly can be used for:
- Disengagement or Apathy
- Dissociative episode/flashback
- Fear / Fear of Leaving Home
- Feelings of Isolation
- Fight or Flight Response
- Increase in heart rate or Pounding Heart
- Intrusive Thoughts/Images
- Panic Attacks
- Sensory Overload
- Muscular or Nerve Pain
- Racing Thoughts
- Suicidal Ideation
Psychiatric Service Dog Training – Deep Pressure Therapy
How to begin training deep pressure therapy
Please know that there is no right or wrong way to train your dog. What works for one dog may not work for another dog, so use your intuition. Here are a few ideas of what may work to train your dog for deep-pressure therapy work.
- Try getting into a comfortable position. This can be done sitting in a chair, sitting somewhere else, or lying down somewhere.
- Use one of your dog’s favorite treats to lure your dog towards you, and guide your dog until they are standing above you and/or at the part of your body you want pressure on
- Give your dog the treat and lots of praise before you release them
- Practice this as many times as it takes for your dog to be comfortable with standing up and over top of you in this position
- Next, do this again but lower the hand with the treat to the position where you’d like your dog to apply pressure to you. Be calm and praise your dog and offer them a treat after getting into the right position
- Keep praising your dog until they settle in and release their body weight onto you
- Try not to get your dog excited, because this is supposed to be a calm and calming exercise
- Give this a name and let your dog know what it is
Your dog can also provide deep pressure therapy with only their front two paws and elbows on you, the back feet can still be planted on the floor.
To teach your dog this version, tap your lap and ask your dog to come up, and then reward your dog with a treat and mark this action with a name like “hug.”
After each session, use an “off” or similar cue to let your dog know that it’s time to go back down.
YouTube Videos on DPT Service Dog Training:
- How to Train Deep Pressure Therapy (Service Dog Training)
- Train Deep Pressure Therapy (DoggyU)
- How to Deep Pressure Therapy Train Your Service Dog (Dream K9)
Becoming a Service Dog Handler – The Process
It might seem overwhelming to become a service dog handler. Not to worry. This is all about baby steps. And it’s not a race, so always go at your own pace, and take your time.
You must have a disability
Service dogs are for people who have life-limiting conditions or disabilities. You can speak with your doctor to verify that you do indeed have a disability that a dog may be able to help with. You can also talk about which type of work or tasks the service dog might be trained to do to help with your disability. If a dog is simply “being there” for you, that doesn’t count as work or a task.
Temperament test your dog
It’s important to do your research and find a good dog trainer. When you find one, have your dog’s temperament tested. This is to make sure that your dog is likely to be successful as a service dog for you.
Any signs of aggression in a dog toward humans or other animals are not acceptable. The service dog community has a reputation, and members of the public trust service dogs to behave professionally.
- Speak with the trainer to be sure your dog will safely be able to do the work or tasks needed to help you
- Have your dog checked out by a veterinarian to make sure the potential service dog is healthy enough to work
Start with basic dog training and obedience
Master basic obedience in a variety of places. Start with easier environments and slowly work your way up.
- At home
- Dog training classes
- Local parks
- Pet stores
- Other dog-friendly stores
- Some hardware stores and bookstores will allow pets; you can call ahead and find out
Get your dog used to people & other animals
It is so important to also work on socialization and other exposures. Make sure your dog is used to people of every color, shape, and size, and other animals, etc. Here are some more ideas:
Exposure to people
- Children and other strangers
- Babies crying
- Kids playing
- People with hats, beards, and sunglasses
- First responders & sirens
- People of all different races
- People wearing uniforms
- People running
- People wearing heavy shoes
- People wearing costumes
- People who are living on the streets
- People playing sports and throwing balls
- People doing yoga and tai chi
- People dancing, hugging, and kissing the service dog handler
- People with wild hats and dresses
- People with disabilities
- People using canes, crutches, wheelchairs
Exposure to places
- Busy areas
- Car wash
- Riding in cars, trucks, and busses if possible
- Pet stores
- Sidewalk with traffic closeby
- Outdoor mall
- Vet’s office
- Escalators and moving walkways
- Yardwork equipment
- Construction sites
- Food smells, cafeteria or food court
- Other people’s homes
- Street fairs and music
- Different types of stairs, parking lots
Exposure to various surfaces
- Sand, rocks, gravel, mulch
- Grates, carpet, tile, wood flooring
- Wood decks and bridges
- Wet grass
- Yoga mats
- Newspaper & crumpled newspaper
- Styrofoam, cardboard
- Aluminum foil & parchment paper
- Air mattresses
- Bubble wrap and other wrappers
Exposure to different things
- Farm animals, zoos, exotic animals
- Sudden noises
- Other dogs of all different sizes
- Thunder and lightning storms
- Skateboards, bicycles, carts
- Hoverboards, motorcycles
- Laser lights, strobe lights
- Kites, balloons, backpacks
- Trains, subways, streetcars
- Shopping carts
- Vending machines
- Mirrors, doorbells
- Hair dryers
- Firetrucks, sirens
- Brooms, vacuum cleaners
Find more about your state laws for service dogs in training (SDiT)
Spend a bit of time checking out and researching your state or area laws to find out some information regarding your public access rights with a service dog in training (SDiT). Check out this article on our blog to learn more about each state’s laws for service dogs in training.
Gradually, you can visit more and more difficult environments. These can be in pet-friendly places. Keep doing baby steps and save the more difficult stuff for later.
Moving on to more challenging situations
Once you and your dog are feeling confident about the basics, you can move on to more challenging places and situations. If your local laws or stores allow it, begin training in no-pets places. It’s recommended for your dog wear a vest or other gear labeled with an “in training” label or patches so that members of the public are aware it’s a service dog in training and that you are working on things.
You can slowly increase exposure in places such as with food and other distracting things for dogs. Keep working on staying relaxed while stationary for longer periods of time. Avoid stressing your dog.
Read more on our blog:
- Psychiatric Service Dog Tasks – 17 Examples
- What is a Psychiatric Service Dog?
- Federal U.S. ADA Service Dog Laws General Guide & FAQ