Welcome to How to Train a Service Dog for Anxiety
In this article, we will discuss training your dog to recognize and respond to:
- Dissociative states
- Other psychiatric issues
There are two recommended methods you can use to train your service dog to recognize and respond to anxiety and other episodes, such as psychiatric episodes.
Can you get a service dog for anxiety?
Yes, you can absolutely get a service dog for anxiety. Legally speaking, psychiatric service dogs are trained to recognize and respond to your condition in a way that mitigates your disability. We will use anxiety as an example in this article, but the training methods can work for many other types of psychiatric disabilities, too.
Table of Contents
Getting started with training your service dog for anxiety
One of the first things to do is to get your dog to recognize that something is different. In other words, something is going on that is different from your normal behavior or baseline state.
When you notice yourself becoming anxious or starting to have a panic attack, start by calling your dog to you and giving them special treats that they love while you are having issues. You can do this even if the dog is just a young puppy.
If you have a dog that isn’t so motivated by special treats, and your dog is maybe more motivated by toys or something else, use whatever is rewarding for your particular dog.
Soon enough, your dog may start noticing your anxiety when it is starting and come over to you on its own.
Training the dog for specific behavior you’d like them to do
Before you train them, some dogs might show certain behaviors on their own. They might automatically bark persistently or lick you. Of course, if you don’t prefer barking or another behavior, you can change it.
Reducing your anxiety
What helps your anxiety might be different compared to someone else who also has anxiety. Here are some possibilities:
- You might just want your dog to provide you with an anxiety notification. Then, you can do something helpful for your anxiety such as breathing exercises or taking anxiety medication
- Or, you might just want your dog to do something to directly help relieve the anxiety symptoms
Decide what behavior you want your dog to do
Possible behaviors could include:
- A lick
- Paws up
- Spinning in circles
- Something else that works for you
Train your dog to perform a specific behavior first without associating it with your anxiety. Do this until you and your dog have it down reliably.
Then, every time you find yourself feeling anxious and your dog comes over to you, delay giving your dog treats until you ask them to do the behavior you’d like, and they do it successfully.
After that, keep asking for the behavior and rewarding for that behavior over and over again during your issue. Make sure not to do it so much that your dog gets bored.
Changing the behavior that is offered
If your dog comes over to you during your anxiety and does not offer the preferred behavior, you can ask for the one you prefer, and then reward your dog.
If your dog offers an inappropriate behavior (or just a behavior that you don’t want) on its own, then simply ignore this. After that, ask for your preferred behavior, and offer your dog’s preferred reward.
Learning which behavior is preferred
Your dog will learn that one type of behavior is not rewarded. Therefore, that particular behavior will begin to stop. The preferred behavior will become more common because it is being rewarded.
Over time, you may notice that when you start feeling anxious, your dog will start coming over to see you. But in addition, your dog will simply go ahead and do your preferred behavior in anticipation of the treats or their preferred reward.
When your dog begins to do this, offer your dog a gigantic reward. In other words, offer your dog tons of treats quickly, and praise your dog a massive amount while you are doing so.
Helping to notice your anxiety rising
For many people, anxiety rises for a bit of time before it becomes unmanageable. People might not even notice this is happening. Service dogs can be trained to let you know when the anxiety is rising so it can be stopped or slowed down.
When thinking about training your service dog for anxiety, this means you must make sure your dog’s behavior is able to reliably track your rising anxiety.
Using a log to keep track
One way to keep track of this is to start making a log. Every time your dog comes to you and shows the behavior, reward the behavior and note it in your log. Do this even if you’re not sure of what your anxiety level is.
Then, do a self-check right away. For anxiety, this means monitoring your breathing, and heart rate. In addition, you may try assessing what you’ve been thinking about and feeling, or if anything stressful has been happening. This will hopefully help let you know if you are actually anxious at that moment, or not.
Keeping track in your anxiety log
In your log, note down the time (and possible context) of any time you are having anxiety symptoms. Do this if your dog did the behavior or not.
Compare in your log your dog’s behavior and your anxiety levels. This can easily help to show you if your dog is actually picking up on your anxiety levels. In addition, the log can help you figure out any time differences such as a lag between your dog’s behavior, and when you can verify you’ve had an anxiety issue.
Once you have found out whether there’s a lag time and how much it tends to be, do a type of self-check before giving the treat when your dog comes over and offers the preferred behavior. If you are able to verify you are indeed having an anxiety issue, then it makes sense to reward your dog a lot.
Troubleshooting lag times
If you sometimes have a lag time and are unable to verify any significant anxiety levels, then you can spread out the rewarding process.
This will basically allow you to verify your anxiety levels before going all-in with rewarding your dog. Slowly start delaying the reward by a few seconds at a time until you build up to your usual lag time. We’re talking about the time between your dog’s warning of your anxiety, and when you can actually verify it with confidence.
Then, reward when you can detect your anxiety issue. If you get to the time you know you should have had verifiable anxiety if you were going to, but you don’t, then don’t reward your dog. This will help your dog to understand that they are only being rewarded for the anxiety issue.
Dogs can pick up on small issues and give advanced warnings based on signals they picked up from the human body. These may be things like cortisol levels, heart rate, breathing, or other chemical changes in the body that might have a slight scent that dogs can notice.
An alternative method
Another way to possibly train your dog to respond to anxiety or other conditions involves a behavior of yours (or a service dog handler). This is basically something that others can notice when you are going into an anxious state.
This can work if the first method doesn’t work well for you or even as an addition to the first method.
Ask the people in your life what you do when you start to get anxious. This could be something you do with your hands, a particular way of breathing, something you say, or a motion you make with your body. It could be anything.
Begin by training the behavior you want your dog to do in response to your behavior.
Then, you simply add a new cue. This is going to be whatever your behavior is. Give the new cue (for example, rubbing your forearm), and immediately after this, ask for the behavior you want (using your old cue), then reward.
Repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. Gradually, you can start putting some space between the new cues and the old cues. This makes the new connection stronger.
For example, someone who rubs their forearms when they get anxious would wait about a second, and then give the old cue word for the previous behavior.
Gradually, you can lengthen and vary the time between the new cue and the old cue. This gives your dog a couple of seconds to think about what you are asking them to do.
Dogs are smart and will generally pick up on the idea that the new cue now means the same thing as the old cue. Bonus when they do it on their own with just the new cue. Keep repeating to solidify the training.