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How to Make a Dog a Service Dog: A Guide

Learning how to make a dog a service dog can be invaluable for those who live with a mental health disorder and have a dog in their life. This guide will teach you how to make your pet a PSD.
Expert reviewed by:  
Written by:
Susana Bradford
Published on:  
February 15, 2023

A psychiatric service dog (PSD) is a dog of any size or breed that is specially trained to assist people with symptoms related to mental illness.

Over 20% of people in the United States have a diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder, and many have wondered about making their dog a psychiatric service dog.

This guide answers critical PSDs-related questions, including “how to make my dog a service dog?” and “what’s involved in psychiatric service dog training?”

What Is a Psychiatric Service Dog?

A psychiatric service dog is a type of service dog trained to help people with mental health conditions increase their quality of life and deal with symptoms of mental or emotional disabilities in a holistic manner. PSDs have the same rights as other service dogs and are protected by ADA service dog laws.

Psychiatric service dogs can enter places regular pets can’t, such as restaurants, grocery stores and planes. They can also live with their owners in apartments and rental properties that don’t typically allow pets, provided their handler has been diagnosed with a qualifying condition by a mental health professional. 

Any type of dog can be a psychiatric service dog. However, common breeds include German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Border Collies and Australian Shepherds.

Psychiatric Service Dogs vs. Emotional Support Animals (PSD vs. ESA)

A psychiatric service dog differs from an emotional support animal (ESA). ESAs help people feel more relaxed or comforted with their presence and also require a handler’s qualified diagnosis from a mental health professional. However, they aren’t legally protected the same way PSDs and other service dogs are. 

In regards to housing, both Emotional Support Animals and Psychiatric Service Dogs are protected by law to live with their handler in spite of property rules, provided they do not pose as an unreasonable disruption to other tenants or cause property damage. Emotional support animals, however, are not typically allowed to travel in a cabin on an airplane with their handler, per the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA.) Psychiatric service dogs are also required to undergo more intense training than ESAs and must be able to assist their handler in the event of a mental health emergency while remaining well-behaved at all other times.

Types of Psychiatric Service Dog Training

PSD training can be an intense process without some form of guidance. Some PSD handlers opt to purchase an already trained service dog to support their needs but this expense can often set a person back by more than five figures. Alternatively, most people opt to enroll their own pet in a PSD training program. Luckily, there are multiple options to choose from when deciding the psychiatric service dog training plan that will work for you: 

Online PSD training

Online psychiatric service dog training is one of the most common forms of training for those choosing to make their pet a PSD. This type of training often consists of several lessons of video modules where a professional dog trainer will walk you through specific commands that can be used to train a dog to learn basic obedience and tasks related to mental health intervention. Online PSD training courses will typically also include helpful tips for getting the dog to commit these commands to memory, such as by recommending clickers and teaching proper rewarding, and will also help a handler learn how to read the dog’s xbody language to ensure the dog is committed to the training. Training a psychiatric service dog via online courses can also allow a handler to train their PSD on their own schedule and at a pace that the dog can comfortably keep up with, something not found with in-person training.

In-person PSD training

In-person PSD training may take place in a dedicated dog training facility. Some dog trainers will also come to the owner’s home and work with them and their dog one-on-one. This type of training can often teach a dog to perform as a psychiatric service dog in a swift manner, however, it is often costly and some dogs may not be able to keep up with the pace of in-person training. Additionally, some dogs may benefit from learning commands directly from their handler and be more apt to perform when needed as opposed to those learning from a separate trainer.

What to Expect from PSD Training

Over the course of both virtual and in-person training courses, the dog owner will start with basic obedience, such as proper sitting behavior and how to avoid barking. From there, the dog will be trained in more specific tasks related to alleviating symptoms of mental disorer, such as performing deep pressure therapy during the onset of a panic attack.

Instructors often recommend luring with treats and using a clicker to mark particular behaviors during PSD training.

This approach helps train psychiatric service dogs because it creates more clarity (it reinforces behaviors the owner wants the dog to perform) without relying on punishing behaviors that can potentially harm the dog or damage its relationship with the owner.

Purchasing a Psychiatric Service Dog

Another way to get a PSD is to purchase one from a breeder.

Some dog breeders specifically breed dogs with the intention of training them to be service dogs.

These breeders use ethical breeding practices to increase the chances that their dogs will be healthy and have a good temperament. They will also handle the training process before selling them. Unfortuneatly, this option is often too expensive for many in need of a psychiatric service dog (typically ranging between $10,000 and $50,000) and maynot be ideal for someone who already has a dog in their life.

Service Dog Qualifications

To qualify for a psychiatric service dog, you must have a mental health condition that limits at least one activity in your life.

According to the ADA, PSDs do not have to undergo a specific professional training program or be certified by a particular organization but they must be trained to perform in the event of a mental health crisis and must be obedient enough to not cause any disruption or hrm to people or property wehen in public. Psychiatric service dogs do not need to wear a vest or another type of identification showing they’re service dogs either.

States and cities may have laws that require service dogs to be licensed and vaccinated. They may also offer voluntary service dog registration programs. However, they cannot require service dogs to be certified or registered, nor can they ban them because they’re a specific breed.

Psychiatric Service Dog Tasks

A psychiatric service dog helps its owner manage the symptoms of their mental illness. The following are some examples of psychiatric service dog tasks:

  • Remind people to take their medication or even retrieve it for them
  • Lick someone’s hand to lets them know they’re about to experience a panic attack
  • Use deep pressure therapy (DPT) — applying pressure with its body — to help someone with anxiety calm down
  • Nudges someone with their nose to prevent them from engaging in self-harming behaviors
  • Circling someone to create personal space around them

Psychiatric service dogs are often trained to assist those with anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression. However, they can also help with other diagnosable mental health conditions.

How to Certify a Service Dog

Many online and in-person trainers offer service dog certification programs. Once you and your dog complete one of these programs, you will receive a certificate or other document showing that your dog has been trained to perform a specific task for you. It is important to note, however, that no official certification isd required to possess a psychiatric service dog. It only must have undertaken PSD training and have learned tasks related to the betterment of its owner’s mental health.

How to Register a Service Dog

Legally, you do not need to register a psychiatric service dog to have one and take them with you in public spaces. However, one may opt to receive a letter, ID card or additional documentation describing their dog’s training and their own mental health qualifications to set them at ease when in public or traveling.

Meet the author:
Susana Bradford

Susana is an avid animal lover and has been around animals her entire life, and has volunteered at several different animal shelters in Southern California. She has a loving family at home that consists of her husband, son, two dogs, and one cat. She enjoys trying new Italian recipes, playing piano, making pottery, and outdoor hiking with her family and dogs in her spare time.