You have likely seen a service dog helping a person with a physical disability. For example, they are often with the vision-impaired or those in wheelchairs. However, you may not know that you can have a service dog for mental ailments too, such as anxiety. These are known as either psychiatric service dogs (PSD) or emotional support dogs.
What is a Psychiatric Service Dog?
Psychiatric service animals, especially dogs, are trained to accomplish specific tasks that support a person’s emotional health. They can be any size or breed. Not only are they prepared to behave in public, but they also provide a sense of security for their owners and can help during a medical crisis. For instance, they learn how to offer varying types of ‘treatment’ in response to panic or anxiety attacks, thereby enabling their owners to stave off bad reactions to stress or stimuli.
Who can have service dogs or emotional support animals?
Anyone suffering from a mental ailment that significantly impedes their ability to perform routine functions may qualify for a service dog. These mental health problems include anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic attacks, and more.
In what ways do emotional service dogs help their owners?
An emotional support animal can assist their handler in multiple ways. Many tasks are performed without being asked as the dog is in tune with the person and responds to emotional queues. For instance, they can sense a panic attack coming on. When they alert the owner to the situation, the person knows to take medication or leave the circumstance that is stressing them. Another example is non-aggressively reacting to environmental clues to help a person discern what is real and what may be a hallucination.
Of course, these dogs are also able to take verbal commands. Beyond the typical sit, stay, lay down, or training a dog to come when called, etc., those explicitly trained for mental health learn how to accomplish tasks like sweeping rooms before a person enters so they have peace of mind. Likewise, they may learn how to turn lights off and on, check under beds, and perform various other tasks that further a sense of security and ease in their owner.
In public, these animals can protect their handler’s well-being by navigating them to a safe area should they become cognitively impaired.
Besides the above, service dogs are also trained to perform assistance to their owners in the following ways:
- Reminding the person to take their medication at the right time of day
- Perform calming actions like offering a paw or licking the person
- Provide deep pressure therapy to calm a person down
- Get help for a person in distress while in public
- Fetch a phone for a person suffering an episode alone at home
- Bring medicine and water during an anxiety attack or other type of episode
- Prevent strangers from approaching an owner to reduce stressful situations
As you can see, emotional support service dogs go far beyond just being a dog for anxiety alleviation. You may think all of these animals go through professional service dog training, but this is not always the case. Many people train their dogs to be support animals on their own. Training a service dog is not as difficult as some think, and you may be able to train a dog on your own to help you cope with emotional issues.
How to Train a Service Dog for Anxiety: Basic Steps
Choose the Right Service Dog
A dog’s temperament must be taken into account when choosing one to train as a service animal. While any breed can technically be an emotional support dog, some do not have the right personality. A service dog needs to be smart, calm the majority of the time, not easily excitable, and willing to learn and work.
While you can certainly look into reputable service dog breeders, finding a potential service dog at your local shelter is also possible. Look for one that is alert without startling easily. The dog should be social and quick to greet you, follow you attentively, and not mind being touched and held.
Some of the more popular breeds that are conducive to performing well as service dogs are:
- German shepherds
- Golden retrievers
- Labrador retrievers
Bonding With Your Service Dog
Once you have found the perfect service dog for anxiety or another ailment, you will need to train them. The first step in the process is bonding. Forming a mutual attachment with the dog will establish a baseline for your dog regarding what is normal and what isn’t. In doing so, they will begin to learn your moods, such as when you are relaxed or when an anxiety attack is coming on. Being empathetic creatures and naturally attentive, a dog will intuitively pick up on this.
You can enhance the bonding process by being patient and loving, establishing firm rules and expectations using positive reinforcement, playing and exercising with your dog, and relaxing together.
Service Dog Socialization Skills
Breeders that specialize in service dogs handle them extensively as puppies. The animals are introduced to new people, animals, and situations regularly as part of the service dog training process.
If you choose your service dog from a shelter, some of these benefits are not there, which is something to keep in mind. In addition, wherever you get your dog from, it is vital to continue socialization so they are not stressed out or easily frightened by new environments. After all, it would defeat the purpose if your dog suffers from anxiety and panic attacks, too!
You can socialize your dog through frequent walks around the neighborhood, taking them to dog parks and allowing them to experience new people, places, and animals regularly.
Teach Basic Training Skills
Any dog should have basic training, whether it is a service animal or not. A solid foundation is critical when it comes to service dogs, however. You will want to teach your dog the following commands before even attempting anything else:
- Lay Down
In the event you cannot train your dog basic obedience, it would be wise to enlist the help of a professional trainer. They possess the skills to assess your dog’s temperament to figure out the best way to train them. Likewise, they can give you pointers on how to continue further training to ensure success.
Teach Your Service Dog How to Act in Public
Once a potential service dog is trained in the basics, it is time to work on how he acts in public. You can accomplish this by taking the dog to pet-friendly retail stores, outdoor restaurants, dog parks, and more. By continuing the obedience training in these places, the dog learns how to navigate the hustle and bustle and ignore it while performing the tasks you ask of him.
Response Training to Your Individual Needs
It can be exceedingly difficult to train a dog outright to alert a person to an impending panic attack or other mental situation. Because of this, it is vital that the bonding between the person and dog is strong. A close connection is the best way for your dog to learn to recognize any changes in body language. Furthermore, fear and panic attacks cause chemical changes in the body, which an attentive dog can pick up.
Some anxiety sufferers have reported success in aiding this response by giving their service dogs a treat when they experience symptoms. Doing so can teach the dog to recognize the act with the changes in their handler. However, not everyone is capable of doing this in the middle of an attack. If you are, though, it is worth trying.
Another technique is to hold your dog when you are stressed or feeling anxious. Not all dogs take well to being cuddled, which is why choosing one with a docile temperament is essential. The act of hugging your dog will not only have a calming effect on you but can help your PSD learn your ‘tells.’
Additional Benefits of Owning a Service Dog
Merely owning a dog provides many benefits to people, whether they suffer from a disability or not. Some of these include:
- Company: having an animal reduces feelings of isolation and loneliness
- Exercise: Vital to physical health, regular exercise can also help alleviate symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression.
- Spending Time Outside: Walking a dog is an excuse to get outdoors and soak up some sunshine, both of which can be hard for people. As the sun provides Vitamin D, getting outdoors more can be a mood-booster.
Training a Service Dog for Anxiety – Final Thoughts
It takes time to train service dogs. Suppose you decide to train an emotional support animal for your own needs. In that case, you will need to have patience and be persistent, especially if you acquire your dog as a puppy. Always start with the basics and use them as building blocks for more complicated tasks. Practice socialization prior to training in public areas. Above all, remember that the end result is well worth the hard work you and your dog put in, as having a personal support system to help guide you through panic and anxiety attacks, PTSD, and stress is priceless.
Service Dogs FAQ
How long does it take to train a service dog for anxiety?
A professionally-trained service dog often goes through as much as 600 hours of rigorous training. People who train their own emotional support dog can expect it to take upwards of two years.
What anxiety disorders qualify for a service dog?
Psychiatric service dogs can assist people suffering from many disorders, including bipolar disorder, depression, generalized anxiety, panic attacks, and PTSD.
Can you get a service dog for anxiety and depression?
Yes. Psychiatric service dogs are specially trained for anxiety, depression, and other mental disorders.
How much is it to train a service dog for anxiety?
Service dogs are not cheap. Professionally trained animals can cost between $30-40 thousand, which includes over 600 hours of training, grooming, boarding, and veterinarian fees. The prohibitive cost is why many people choose to train their service dogs themselves. However, this can also be costly when a certified trainer is used.
Some programs help people get service dogs at a reduced cost or for free through donations or fundraisers. Nonetheless, these programs can be hard to qualify for and often have extensive waiting lists.
Do PSDs have to be registered, licensed, and vaccinated like pet dogs?
Service animals are required to have the same licensing and registration as pets. Check with your local law enforcement agency or city website for details and requirements in your area.
Where are psychiatric service dogs allowed?
It is important to note that while psychiatric service animals are emotional supports, the reverse does not apply in the eyes of the law. Emotional support animals that have not received the extensive training that certified PSDs receive are considered pets and must adhere to the same regulations that pets do.
However, professionally instructed service dogs that complete their rigorous training are recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) . As a result, these dogs are allowed anywhere their owners go, from airplanes to restaurants and anywhere else.