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Psychiatric Service Dog for Depression: Everything You Need to Know (2023)

Psychiatric service dogs can be an effective treatment for those suffering from depression. Find out what a psychiatric service dog is and what they do with Pettable.
Expert reviewed by:  
Written by:
Susana Bradford
Published on:  
February 24, 2023

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) close to 21 million people were reported to be suffering from depression in 2020, affecting the quality of their daily life. To counteract the effects of depression, many take a multi-faceted approach to treatment, incorporating elements into life that encourage positivity and help stabilize mindset, such as a psychiatric service dog. Psychiatric service dogs, or PSDs, can effectively be used to treat symptoms of depression by inspiring purpose and encouraging a sense of physical and mental health in their handler. Additionally, psychiatric service dogs can also be trained to perform specific tasks related to their handler’s symptoms, such as deep pressure therapy. 

What is a psychiatric service dog?

A psychiatric service dog is a dog that is professionally trained to offer assistance and support to people with specific needs related to mental health. These dogs undergo special training to recognize and interrupt harmful behavior, offer emotional support, encourage healthy activities and get help when their human is in danger.

Psychiatric service animals are considered a form of animal therapy, a type of treatment in which the company of highly intelligent and empathetic animals is used to help those experiencing some form of mental illness. 

How to Qualify for a Psychiatric Service Dog

Qualifying for a psychiatric service dog means that the patient is struggling with some form of mental illness. This means that you have been diagnosed with some form of mental disorder by a licensed mental health professional. These disorders may include, but are not limited to:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • PTSD
  • Stress
  • Personality Disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Phobias

What is depression? How is it diagnosed?

According to the American Psychiatric Association(APA), depression is a severe medical illness that affects how a person feels, thinks and acts. The disorder can affect anyone, with past trauma, hardship and genetic predisposition often serving as underlying factors that impact the presence and severity of the condition. 

Depression is diagnosed through a thorough evaluation of symptoms and medical history. A healthcare professional may conduct a physical exam, psychological evaluation and/or laboratory tests to rule out other potential causes of depressive symptoms. The individual may also be asked to fill out a standardized questionnaire or participate in a clinical interview to assess the presence and severity of their depression symptoms.

How can a psychiatric service dog help with depression?

Psychiatric service dogs help with depression by providing their handler with a variety of physical tasks to accomplish throughout the day, such as going on walks and feeding the animal. This creates a sense of structure, routine and purpose, all key to staving off symptoms of depression. Additionally, psychiatric service dogs can be trained in tasks that help reduce the impact of emotional triggers in daily life. Let’s go more in-depth.

Provide Emotional Support

A psychiatric service dog can provide emotional support and comfort to individuals with depression, helping alleviate symptoms and improve overall well-being. These dogs are trained to perform tasks such as providing deep pressure therapy, interrupting self-harm behaviors and reminding the individual to take prescribed medications.

Provide a Sense of Structure

Psychiatric service dogs can provide a sense of structure and routine to individuals with depression, helping them participate in activities they may otherwise avoid. These dogs can also help to reduce anxiety and promote a sense of safety and security, which can be particularly helpful for individuals who struggle with depression and anxiety.

Create a Sense of Safety

Another benefit of psychiatric service dogs is their ability to provide a sense of safety and security. Individuals with depression often experience feelings of fear and worry, but having a service dog by their side can help alleviate these concerns to some degree. The dog's presence can serve as a reminder that the individual is not alone and that there is someone there to help them through difficult times.

Promote Physical Activity

Psychiatric service dogs also play a key role in promoting physical activity and exercise, behavior linked to better mental health. Many individuals with depression struggle with motivation and may avoid exercise and physical activity. Caring for a service dog by providing walks and play time can help change that behavior and encourage further activity within an individual. 

Reduce Feelings of Isolation

Psychiatric service dogs can provide social support and help reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness. Depression can make it difficult for individuals to form and maintain relationships, but having a service dog can provide a constant source of support and comfort. As a result, a person with depression may experience improvement in their overall sense of well-being and promote feelings of happiness and fulfillment.

Man training a dalmation

Psychiatric service dog tasks

In addition to acting as a counterpart for an individual struggling with depression, a psychiatric service dog is trained in specific tasks dedicated to reducing the harm caused by symptoms of mental illness. These tasks can range from learning simple ways to remind a person to take medication to full-on intervention in cases of emergency. Examples of specific psychiatric service dog tasks include:

  • Interrupting self-harming behavior: a psychiatric service dog must be trained in recognizing and physically interrupting, interfering with or stopping self-harm and related behavior. This can be through barking or contact with their handler.
  • Providing emotional support through physical contact: PSDs may be trained to snuggle and be present with their handler to combat loneliness related to depression.
  • Encouraging physical activity: if the dog notices the human staying indoors or in bed for more than they are trained to see as normal, they will encourage outdoor activity by bringing balls or leading the human to the door. 
  • Providing deep pressure therapy: deep pressure therapy refers to when the dog applies pressure to the human’s body by laying on the human’s lap or even resting their head on the human’s knee. This contact creates a sense of comfort that can help to reduce compounding depressive thoughts.
  • Alerting the owner of triggers that may lead to severe depressive moods: a psychiatric service dog will be trained to identify an individual’s unique triggers. For example, if their owner's mood changes because of the weather, a PSD can nudge them to take steps to alleviate the onset of depressive symptoms.

Psychiatric service dog qualifications

For a dog to qualify as a PSD, the animal must complete basic obedience training, task-specific training, public access training and be able to maintain a good temperament for a lengthy duration. This includes ensuring the dog will not bark, cause a disturbance, cause harm or relieve itself when in public places a dog would otherwise not be allowed. The dog must also be able to perform tasks related to its handler’s mental disorder. 

A person must have been diagnosed with a qualifying mental health condition by a licensed mental health professional. A common misconception is that one must also possess a PSD letter from a mental health professional but this is false. A PSD letter will not be required when completing travel paperwork for your PSD. These forms will only require you to attest to your dog’s training as a PSD and provide information related to the qualifying mental disorder.

What psychiatric service dog breed is best for depression?

For a dog to be a successful psychiatric service dog, it needs to be attentive, highly intelligent and patient to thoroughly complete training. Some breeds are more naturally inclined to perform as a PSD, including: 

German Shepherds

German shepherds are known for their intelligence, obedience, and empathy. They are a go-to choice for most PSD trainers.

Golden Retrievers

Golden retrievers are amongst the most popular dog breeds in the world. Their intelligence and great personalities allow them to pass the training easily.

Other breeds that may prove successful as psychiatric service dogs include: rottweilers, pitbulls, goldendoodles, chihuahuas and several others.

How Do I Get a Psychiatric Service Dog for Depression?

There are three primary ways to get a psychiatric service dog: online psychiatric service dog training, in-person psychiatric service dog training or by purchasing a PSD. One must first prove to be eligible by having a documented mental health condition to acquire a PSD.

To help determine whether you are eligible for a service dog, Pettable has created a brief online assessment. If you have been determined to be eligible for a PSD upon completion, we will help you book an appointment with a licensed mental health professional in your state. Once you have been determined to have a qualifying mental health condition by a licensed mental health professional, there are several options for acquiring a psychiatric service dog.

Online Psychiatric Service Dog Training

Pettable offers an online psychiatric service dog training program led by a professional dog trainer certified in psychiatric service dog training. This 15-part video series will empower you to train your own dog in specific tasks related to your mental health at the pace that works best for you and your dog. Each lesson provides a thorough guide on how you can teach your pet specific techniques through reward systems and obedience training, complete with practical tips to help your pet remember the information and obey commands – crucial for maintaining behavior when in public. Online psychiatric service dog training is also effective at deepening the bond between you and your dog while typically being the most cost-effective form of PSD training

In-Person PSD Training

Alternatively, some opt for physical in-person PSD training. This type of training involves going for training sessions with your dog at a nearby training center, either for private or group training sessions.  This is typically a more expensive option than online PSD training and some dogs may not be able to keep up with the pace of the lessons when led by a new person while others may benefit from the interaction.

Buying a Psychiatric Service Dog

If you do not already have a dog or find the process of training your own dog too challenging, you can buy one that is already trained. The issue with purchasing a PSD is that these dogs can often cost upwards of five figures, existing well outside of the price range of those who may 

Service dog wearing a vest

Frequently Asked Questions

Acquiring a psychiatric service dog can be a big decision. Learn more about what to expect from PSDs and explore some of the commonly asked questions to help you make an informed decision that will benefit your long-term mental health.

Can I get an emotional support animal instead?

Yes, you can get an emotional support animal instead if you feel a PSD is not a good fit for you. However, since they are not trained to perform specific tasks, the support they offer will be limited. Consult your mental health professional to find a solution that will work best for you.

How much does it cost to get a depression psychiatric service dog?

There are several methods of acquiring a psychiatric service dog and each method comes at its own price point. Online psychiatric service dog training through Pettable costs a flat rate of $199, or $249 with an ESA letter for housing purposes included. In-person PSD training can typically cost up to several hundreds of dollars per hour. Adopting a psychiatric service dog costs between $10,000 to $50,000, depending on the breed and level of training the PSD has received. 

Does insurance cover a psychiatric service dog for depression?

No, most insurance carriers do not cover the cost of psychiatric service dogs.

Do you need a PSD letter?

No, you do not require a PSD letter to acquire a psychiatric service dog, though this is a common misconception. You will, however, need a diagnosis of a qualifying mental health condition, such as depression, from a qualifying mental health professional. At this point, you will be eligible for a psychiatric service dog. A dog qualifies as a psychiatric service dog once it has completed psychiatric service dog training and can successfully assist in mental health episodes while remaining obedient at all other times. When traveling, you may be required to complete paperwork asserting that your dog has completed PSD training. In situations where a landlord will not allow pets, you may be provided with an ESA letter documenting your right to have your service animal in your home.

Do you need to certify a psychiatric service dog?

No, you do not need to certify or register a service dog. For many with invisible disabilities such as depression, however, one may feel more comfortable carrying some sort of documentation identifying your animal as a psychiatric service dog. Pettable provides a certificate of completion at the end of our PSD training program for such situations.

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.