Psychiatric Service Dogs | What They Do & How They Help

Psychiatric Service Dogs

Animals can help us through our daily lives in so many ways. Every pet can have a benefit for your life, but certain animals are trained to assist you in more specific, functional ways. This includes psychiatric service dogs, a type of service animal that you may not yet be familiar with.

What Is a Psychiatric Service Dog?

Just like the well-known seeing-eye dogs and other service dogs that help people with physical disabilities, psychiatric service dogs help those with debilitating psychiatric conditions. Some psychiatric conditions are debilitating to the point where a person cannot live a normal life and function in a healthy way without assistance.

Psychiatric service dogs act as those assistants, just as other trained service dogs help people with physical disabilities navigate the world. They can perform helpful tasks for that person on a daily basis to dramatically increase the person’s independence and quality of life.

Psychiatric Service Dogs Vs. Emotional Support Animals

Psychiatric service dogs are not the same as emotional support animals. There are distinct differences between them that will shape who benefits most from each kind of animal.

The main difference between the two comes down to one thing: Emotional support animals (ESAs) are trained to provide emotional support to any person they’re assigned to, regardless of their specific condition and abilities. Psychiatric service dogs are specially trained to assist one specific person with their individual needs, with emotional support being a secondary benefit and not their primary purpose.

Unlike an emotional support animal, psychiatric service dogs are task-oriented service dogs that are recognized by the ADA. While they can provide emotional support to their owners, their main service is to help with tasks that are necessary to the person’s wellbeing and ability to live a normal life. These are tasks that the person would not be able to do on their own, making the dog a necessity.

A psychiatric service dog is recognized by the ADA, and it has rights and privileges that are not afforded to ESAs. For instance, service dogs are allowed inside public facilities, even those that do not allow animals normally. No one can charge extra for providing reasonable accommodation for a service dog to stay near their owner in these situations.

Service animal Types Vs. ESAs

One smaller difference is that ESAs can be many different types of animals, while only dogs can be made into psychiatric service animals. There is no such thing as a recognized service animal that is not a dog, while therapeutic and emotional support animals can be more wide-ranging.

While ESAs do provide a wonderful service to their owners, psychiatric service dogs do play a more active role in the everyday lives of their handlers. Many handlers wouldn’t be able to function as well in normal life situations without the help of their dogs. Having a psychiatric service dog is life-changing for many handlers, allowing them to live a fuller life without need of a caretaker.

Emotional support animals play an important role to whomever they live with, and they go through training to help with emotional support. Psychiatric service dogs go through extensive training to meet the specific needs of an individual they’re assigned to.

What Can a Psychiatric Service Dog Do?

Psychiatric service dogs are trained to do specific tasks to aid the specific person they’re assigned to help. There are many types of tasks these dogs can be trained to do, but there is no default that they will all be trained for. Among the tasks that psychiatric service dogs are trained for, routine, simple tasks are the most common.

Here are some examples of what the dogs can be trained to do:


People with psychiatric conditions that cause them to perform destructive behaviors repeatedly can benefit from this task. If the person starts unconsciously engaging in self-destructive behavior (such as zoning out into a flashback, pulling hair, scratching skin, etc.), the dog will notice this and attempt to get the handler’s attention.

Some dogs may be trained to bring the handler an item they can use that won’t cause harm, such as a dog brush or stress relieving object. Others may be trained to redirect the handler’s focus in an attempt to pull them out of a self-destructive episode. They may do this by pulling gently on an arm or leg, or by engaging in attention-seeking behaviors.

PTSD Support

Individuals with PTSD often need unique and specific assistance in their everyday life. Dogs can be trained to do everything from inspecting a space for intruders to alerting the owner if someone or something is on the other side of a blind corner.

Service dogs are not trained for defense, but they may be able to help someone with PTSD operate in public and private spaces. Depending on the person, the dog may be trained differently to cover a variety of needs or one specific need.


Some psychiatric conditions lead people to wander off without knowing where they’re going or how to get back to where they were before. During an episode, a dog may be able to guide the person to follow safe routes while wandering, by avoiding roads or other obstacles. Once the person has returned to their normal state of mind, the dog will follow its own scent to lead the person back.

Anticipation & Recognition

Dogs can be trained to anticipate when you’re having an anxiety attack or entering another unhealthy mental state. They may be able to act in a way that helps bring you back to your normal state, reduces the negative effects of the attack, or helps you recover more quickly. This includes comforting you, bringing water or medication, locating a person to assist you, keeping strangers away, providing deep pressure therapy, and more.

Bring Help

When a person is suffering from a severe psychotic episode, a dog may be trained to get a person to help. They can go out and find someone nearby and bring them back to their handler to assist when necessary.

Hallucinations & Delusions

It can be difficult for a person experiencing a hallucination to identify it as such. Service dogs can be trained to greet or acknowledge people on command. In case of any confusion, a handler can command the dog to greet the person they’re seeing. If the dog does not acknowledge the person on command, the handler can have some certainty that they’re experiencing a hallucination.

Psychiatric service dogs are not trained to perform tasks that the human handler would be otherwise able to do without much difficulty. If you are able to do something for yourself without assistance and without inhibiting your normal life, that task is not likely to be taught to a service dog. They are trained to be your aid in circumstances where you can’t act as needed or where your mental state is likely to inhibit you from acting in a normal, healthy way in a situation.

Who Is Qualified for a Psychiatric Service Dog?

There is no official certification process or organization that deals with all service dogs. Instead, dogs are trained by individuals or organizations and may be recognized under the ADA. Dogs must complete a certain amount of training and specific types of training to be recognized. No specific organization has to complete this training and individuals can even do it for themselves. However, it’s a long and very difficult process that may be easier for experienced trainers.

The organizations that train, certify, and disperse service dogs will usually go through a consultation process on a case-by-case basis to decide on each applicant’s viability for a dog. Some organizations will have their own requirements for candidates and may have prohibitively high fees.

If the condition the person suffers from cannot be helped with routine tasks, a psychiatric service dog may not be appropriate. These dogs are often seen with individuals who suffer PTSD, anxiety, severe depression, schizophrenia, and other debilitating mental disorders.

To be eligible for a service dog, you need a letter from the licensed mental health professional. In this letter, they should detail how your psychiatric condition is debilitating and why a service dog is necessary for day to day life tasks.

Getting a Psychiatric Service Dog

If you feel like you would benefit from a service dog, talk to your licensed mental health provider and see what they think of the idea. It’s not an appropriate solution for everyone, but it may be for you.

Service dogs can be expensive. Training the dogs takes hundreds of hours of hard work and consistent dedication. Organizations that train and give out service dogs sometimes have programs to help with costs, or you may be able to find a less costly solution for your situation.

If your mental health provider agrees that a dog is a great option for you, talk with them about how to proceed. They will be more familiar with local programs and organizations in your area and can give you advice to help you move forward.