Psychiatric service dogs are a special kind of service dog. They are trained to help people who live with certain psychiatric disabilities to live better lives. These animals are individually trained specifically for someone’s disability and/or situation.
They perform certain work or tasks, such as waking someone up from a nightmare, interrupting destructive behavior, or providing deep pressure therapy, just a few examples. Emotional support animals are not service dogs, as they are not individually trained. Emotional support animals help people with their mere presence. Keep reading for all the details.
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What is a Psychiatric Service Dog?
As a quick reminder, a service dog is a special type of working dog that has been individually trained to assist someone who lives with a physical, psychiatric, or intellectual disability by doing certain tasks or “work.”
A psychiatric service dog is a service dog that has been individually trained to help its handler in certain, specific ways, to mitigate the effects of a disability, and to allow the person to live a better life.
Service dogs are trained for public access and trained service dogs have public access rights in most places, including housing, employment, and public places that have “no pets” policies. Service animals are not pets.
The service dog handler will have been diagnosed with a mental health condition.
What conditions may qualify for a service dog?
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Panic Attacks
- Anxiety (Social / Generalized)
- Bipolar disorder
- Borderline personality disorder
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
- Eating disorders
- Agoraphobia (a type of anxiety disorder)
Psychiatric Service Dog Tasks
Psychiatric service dog tasks may include:
- Tactile stimulation can help reduce anxiety
- Nudging/pawing can help to bring a person back to the present moment
- Interrupting undesirable behavior
- Constant body contact
- Deep pressure stimulation
- Blocking contact with other people
- Waking someone up from night terrors
- Interrupting anger
- Helping to get people out of the house
- Reminding people to take medication
- Providing a “reality check” from anxiety, dissociation, hallucination
- Going and getting help
Psychiatric Service Dogs Effects on People
The effects of psychiatric service dogs on people are very positive. People who use psychiatric service dogs have reported:
- Decreased instances of suicide attempts
- Less requirement for hospitalization
- Less requirements for medication
- Enhanced ability to attend appointments
- Increased independence and confidence
- Increased social function
- Increased sense of safety and hope
Is a Psychiatric Dog a Service Dog?
Yes, a psychiatric dog is a type of service dog that can help people who live with psychiatric conditions, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and others.
Psychiatric dogs are indeed considered service dogs in the U.S. as long as they meet the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) definition of a service animal, which is, “A dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.”
Under the ADA definition, which is used for public access rights (and other rights in housing and employment) a service dog’s work or tasks must be directly related to the individual’s disability. The work or tasks that the dog does must also mitigate or lessen some of the effects of a disability.
So, any dog that has been trained to do psychiatric work or tasks for a specific person’s disability, is a service dog, just as much as a guide dog that guides somebody who is blind, or a mobility service dog that helps balance someone with stability issues or diabetic alert service dog that can warn of dangerous blood sugar levels.
Sometimes psychiatric service dogs can be confused with emotional support dogs. While these are similar, there is an important difference: emotional support dogs are not individually trained to do work or tasks. They help people by simply being there.
So, if a dog has been trained to wake up a person from a nightmare, for example, or bring medication and water after a panic attack, then that meets the definition of a service dog.
If an animal merely comforts a person who is living with anxiety just by being with the person, but not performing any specific tasks, then that is considered an emotional support animal. Emotional support animals are helpful for many people but don’t have the same public access rights under the ADA laws.
Emotional support animals do, however, have more rights when it comes to housing under the Fair Housing Act, where the definition of “assistance animal” is broader.
Psychiatric Service Dog Breeds
Wondering about what the best psychiatric service dog breeds are? While the ADA states that any type, any size, and any breed of dog can be a service dog, there are certainly some breeds that stand out in terms of being the best psychiatric service dog breeds.
What makes a good service dog, anyway? The best service dogs are:
- Very smart
- Have a temperament that makes them easy to train
- Calm under pressure
- Not easily distracted
- Must remain focused and responsive to their handlers’ needs
- Must remain unaffected by crowds of people, including children, traffic, loud noises, or other dogs or other kinds of animals
We will go through some of the best psychiatric service dog breeds here in no particular order.
Golden retrievers tend to be:
- Sociable & loyal
- Easy-going temperament
- Don’t get ruffled easily
- Highly intelligent, including emotional intelligence
- Affectionate & gentle
- Eager to please
- Easy to train for specific tasks
- Active breed requiring daily exercise (good for people who are out and about)
- Go-to breed for PTSD dogs for veterans
- One of the most popular service dog breeds
- Friendly and easy-going
- Devoted and eager to please
- Very intelligent
- Calm and quiet
- Easy to train
- Attentive to their handlers’ needs
- Hardy and athletic physically, lots of energy if need be
- Hyper-aware of their surroundings
- Highly Intelligent
- Extremely loyal
- Can easily learn a wide range of tasks
- Able to assist with a variety of disabilities
- Think of them as a Labrador Retriever but with added strength and loyalty
- Cheerful, loyal, and loving
- Have a nose for detecting allergens
- Social, adaptable, curious
- Extremely sharp & trainable
- Their coats have less dander and are less likely to cause allergic reactions
- Good choice for people who suffer from allergies
- Can be easily trained to look for triggers and signs of flashbacks
- Can help cope with the consequences of triggers and flashbacks, and fetch helpful items like medication and water
- Sweet and loving nature
- Great with children
- Have relatively simple needs
- They love people, places, and other animals
- Able to “make themselves at home” anywhere they go
- Can be trained for a wide variety of tasks
- Think of a Labrador Retriever, but way bigger
- Massive size – not the best fit for everyone
- Very smart
- Great with children
- Calm and cheerful
- A thick double coat requires regular grooming
- Cheerful disposition
- Able to recognize different moods & respond appropriately
- Able to nudge people back to the right course of action
- Likes strangers
- Will always stick by the side of their handler when the handler is feeling vulnerable
- Bond very tightly with their handler
- Known for following their handler from room to room and insisting on being close at all times
- Very alert
- Very attentive
- Physical strength and capability
- They love mental exercises and they love helping people
- Affectionate in nature
- Tendency to be extremely loyal
- Calm & good-natured
- Adaptability to training
- Tendency to slobber a lot
Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
- Extremely affectionate
- Cuddly & relaxed
- Constant companionship
- Easy to handle
- Quick learners
Is a PTSD Dog a Service Dog or Emotional Support?
This can get confusing. A PTSD dog is a type of service dog. Service dogs, by definition, have been individually trained to do work or tasks for someone who is living with a disability. PTSD service dogs do tasks related to psychiatric disabilities.
Some examples are waking someone up from a nightmare, interrupting destructive behavior, keeping someone safe during a panic attack, and bringing medication and water after a panic attack.
Emotional support dogs are not necessarily trained. They are often not trained at all. They provide comfort and support just by their mere presence. So, if a dog comforts someone with anxiety just by being there with them, then it’s considered an emotional support dog.
Someone living with PTSD could have:
- A PTSD service dog that does a specific task or tasks related to PTSD symptoms, such as waking them up from a nightmare
- Or they could simply have an untrained emotional support dog that comforts them without performing any tasks
Psychiatric Service Dogs on Airlines
While the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) governs the use of service animals where public access rights are concerned, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disabilities in air travel and governs the use of service dogs there.
The ACAA applies to:
- All flights of U.S. airlines
- All flights to or from the United States by foreign airlines
Summary of ACAA Rules
- Under the ACAA, a service animal is defined as a dog (any breed or type) that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified person with a disability. This includes a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.
- The ACAA allows airlines to recognize emotional support animals as pets, rather than service animals
- The ACAA permits airlines to limit the number of service animals that one passenger can bring onboard an aircraft to two service animals
- The ACAA allows airlines to require passengers with a disability who will be traveling with their service animal to complete and submit to the airline a form. This form is developed by DOT. It basically says something about the animal’s training and good behavior and certifies that the dog is in good health
- For long flights – eight hours or more – passengers must complete and submit a DOT form that says that their dog has the ability either not to relieve itself or to relieve itself in a sanitary manner
- You can read all the fine print here on the ACAA final rule.
Can Psychiatric Service Dogs Go Anywhere?
As long as a dog meets the ADA definition of a service animal, then it can generally go anywhere the public can go. In other words, if the dog has been individually trained to do work or perform a task or tasks for somebody living with a psychiatric disability, then, yes, the dog may go almost anywhere with its handler.
If the dog merely provides comfort and support with its presence and is not trained to do a specific job or task for someone with a disability, then it’s considered an emotional support animal and does not have the same public access rights as service dogs do under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).
In this regard, psychiatric service dogs are no different from mobility service dogs, guide dogs for people who are blind, seizure response service dogs, diabetic service dogs, or autism service dogs.
Service dogs – including psychiatric service dogs – and their handler may go to restaurants, hotels, schools, movie theatres, salad bars, grocery stores, malls, government buildings, and almost anywhere else that the public is invited or allowed to go.
There are a few exceptions; places or situations that do not need to permit service animals.
Service animals may be excluded legally under the ADA laws:
- Religious organizations
- Swimming pools (although service animals must be allowed on the pool deck, change rooms, and other areas the public can go)
- Sensitive environments where the dog would compromise safety (hospital burn units, hospital operating rooms, although service animals are allowed in the ER, patient rooms, and other areas)
- Where the dog’s presence would compromise safety (in a crowded ambulance where the dog would interfere with the medical staff’s ability to work)
- Check out our ADA Service Dog Laws Summary to find out more about the ADA rules