Service dogs are dogs that act as aides or companions to people with a disability. This traditionally includes people with visual, hearing, or mobility impairments. However, service dogs can also assist people who have a condition that is not visible, e.g. diabetes, as well as mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Service dogs are very different from regular pets. To obtain legal recognition as a service animal, these dogs undergo training to perform tasks that can be of assistance to someone with a disability. Depending on the unique needs of the person, this can mean anything from finding help during a medical emergency to bringing medication to a person in times of a crisis.
What are Psychiatric Service Dogs?
Similar to “standard” service dogs, these psychiatric service dogs are coached to help people in need of assistance with their chores and tasks and protection from harm.
Typically, these dogs help the elderly with dementia or Alzheimer’s or people with mental health conditions that may impede their daily lives. For example, you can get a service dog for depression if your condition prevents you from performing normal everyday tasks.
If you suffer from anxiety, a psychiatric service dog may help you by:
- Bringing the medication you need, or water to help you swallow the medication, when you are having an anxiety attack
- Bringing a phone to you when you are having an anxiety attack, so that you can contact your therapist or other support system
- Leading someone to come and help you if you are in crisis
- Providing you with tactile stimulation, like licking your face, in order to help in disrupting an emotional overload
- Providing pressure against your abdomen or chest in order to create a calming effect when you are going through moments of distress
In many cases, people do not know the difference between psychiatric service dogs and emotional support dogs. What an emotional support animal does is provide the owner with therapeutic presence. They are not provided with any training to perform any tasks. The reason for this is that the intention of their presence is the mitigation of any emotional or psychological symptoms that the owner may be experiencing.
Other Tasks Performed by Psychiatric Service Dogs
Psychiatric service dogs can be trained to perform a number of tasks in order to help their owners live healthy and more productive lives. Some of these tasks and functions include:
How are Psychiatric Service Dogs Trained?
- Assessing the environment in particular for owners with schizophrenia and are prone to hallucinations or paranoia
- Reminding owners when it is time to take their medication
- Interrupting harmful or dangerous behaviors like self-harming or self-injury or nervous habits like pulling out hair
- Retrieving items that their owner needs to take medication, perform duties, or feel comforted
- Serving as a brace in situations where the owner feels disoriented or dizzy
- Guiding their owner in situations where they do not feel safe and to avoid triggering any panic attacks
- Physically comforting their owner to ground them when they are having a panic attack
- Providing their owner with a link to reality if they suffer from paranoid delusions or hallucinations
- Accompanying their owner in to difficult or strange situations, e.g., leaving the home for an agoraphobic
The majority of psychiatric service dogs are given training in a core set of tasks that assist their owners. Additionally, these dogs will also receive specific instruction in tasks that are important to the condition and state of well-being of their owner. For example, every service dog will be trained to stay by their owner’s side when they are experiencing moments of disorientation or panic, but not every dog will be trained to assess the possibility of hallucinations.
Psychiatric service dogs are amazing companions. They save lives and help some people actually live! Their presence is profound and their love for their owner is genuine and tremendous.