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Everything You Need to Know About Psychiatric Service Dog Training

Service dogs help their owners on a daily basis with a variety of tasks. A service dog is defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as a dog “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.”
Expert reviewed by:  
Written by:
Susana Bradford
Published on:  
September 7, 2022
Updated on:  
September 7, 2022

Service dogs help their owners on a daily basis with a variety of tasks. A service dog is defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as a dog “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.”

There are various kinds of service dogs, such as service animals who help with visual or audible impairments, and psychiatric service dogs (PSD) who help their owners with a psychiatric or mental disability. PSDs can be trained professionally by a dog trainer or can be self-trained by their owner at home.

What are Psychiatric Service Dogs?

PSDs are dogs trained to help owners with a mental illness. In order to qualify for a PSD, the owner must have a mental illness that prevents them from living their full quality of life. PSDs are trained to perform tasks for their owner that could otherwise stress the mental illness. These tasks can include going into a darkened room to turn on a light, noticing signs of a panic attack starting or even being able to sense when their owner is having a bad dream in the middle of the night.

Similar to a PSD is an emotional support animal (ESA), however ESAs are not trained to perform a specific job and simply provide comfort just by being with their owner. According to the ADA, this is not a service dog.

What Do Psychiatric Service Dogs Do?

PSDs are specifically trained to aid in multiple areas, specifically with owners who have a mental illness. The mental illness can include but is not limited to:

  • Agoraphobia (fear of entering open or crowded places, leaving one’s home or being in places where escape is difficult)
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorders
  • Depression
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Panic Attacks
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Schizophrenia
  • Social phobias

When PSDs are trained, they learn to focus on the signs that relate to the owner’s mental illness. For example, if a PSD is trained for an owner that has PTSD and cannot enter a darkened room, the PSD is able to enter the room and turn on a light before the owner enters. If the owner has agoraphobia, the PSD is able to stay by the owner’s side and can keep the owner calm. PSDs can also alert their owners when it is time for medication, and some are able to retrieve medication and water for their owner. All PSDs are trained to stay by their owners’ side during moments of panic and disorientation. They also have federally protected rights, such as being able to have access to public areas where pets are normally not allowed, there are no extra fees to having a PSD in an airplane, and there is fair accommodation in housing even if there is a ‘no pets’ policy.

Can Anyone Train a Psychiatric Service Dog?

    There is a variety of different options for training a PSD. Owners can opt to have their PSD professionally trained by a trainer or can adopt and already-trained PSD. Owners are also able to personally train their PSD, should they so choose, however it could take longer to self-train than professionally train.

Self-Training a PSD

Self-training a PSD can be daunting a time-consuming, but may be the option that works best, depending on the owner and what the PSD is being trained to help with. Owners are permitted by the ADA and Department of Transportation (DOT) to self-train their PSD, however it may be difficult to determine the best practices and methods to use.

Personally training your PSD can take anywhere from six months to a year, depending on the frequency of which the training is conducted.

Professional Dog Trainer

   Working with a professional dog trainer is the most popular option. Dog trainers are able to teach the dog quickly and effectively. There are two stages of professional dog training, which includes teaching the PSD the seven basic commands which include:

  • Sit
  • Stay
  • Down
  • Come
  • Heel
  • Drop It
  • Go to Mat

During the first stage, the trainer will also teach the PSD stress reduction/relaxation techniques. The second stage involves specialized training, which includes public access training and task training to the specific individual.

Professional training can take between 1-2 years to complete, depending on the situation and the owner and trainer keep in touch quarterly, until the end of the PSD’s working life, which is anywhere from 6-8 years, during which time a successor PSD will begin training while the owner can still benefit from the previous PSD.

Adopting an Already-Trained PSD

 Adopting an already-trained PSD is also an option if an individual does not wish to wait on their animal to be trained after receiving it. By going with this option, the individual is able to speak with a shelter and trainer to be matched with a PSD that is already qualified for their specific mental illness. Some training may still need to be done, so the PSD is able to perform tasks specific to the individual’s needs and symptoms.

All dogs are trained to remain by their owner’s side, no matter the mental disability, however there may be a need to train the PSD for a particular job, such as keeping stressors on a minimal level or guiding the owner through a crowded place.

The average cost of adopting an already-trained PSD can range from $15,000 - $30,000, making this option a less popular one for those interested.

Psychiatric Service Dog Training

Training can be stressful for both dog and individual, even if they are a trainer. There are certain dog breeds that can make good PSDs and there are certain dog breeds that are too aggressive or high-strung for the job. According to the AKC, the dog should show a general interest and enjoyment in learning how to be a PSD. If the dog is unsuitable to be trained, labeled as “washing out,” then the best interest of the dog is to be considered. In some cases, the individual will be asked to keep the dog unless there are circumstances where they cannot, then the dog will be placed in a new home.

During training, the PSD will be taken into different circumstances to see how it acts around loud environments, such as city streets or crowds, and how it acts toward other dogs – whether it is aggressive or not. Most times, the behavior can be corrected during training, but if it cannot, that is when the PSD would be considered to be “washing out.”

PSDs should also show no signs of hyperactivity and should be able to learn basic skills, as well as being able to ignore distractions in public.

What Breeds Make the Best Psychiatric Service Dogs?

There are various breeds that are suitable for service dogs. Some things to look for in the different breeds include the size, hyperactivity, learning ability and gentleness. Certain dogs, like Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherds are great for those with a physical disability, while smaller dogs, like Miniature Schnauzers, can be great for those with a mental illness, such as PTSD or anxiety and depression.

Some Common PSD Breeds:

  • Border Collies
  • Boxers
  • Cavalier King Charles Spaniels
  • Doberman Pinschers
  • German Shepherds
  • Havanese
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Lhasa Apso
  • Miniature Schnauzers

Border Collies

Border Collies prefer an active lifestyle both physically and mentally. Border collies are used to having jobs to do and enjoy being constantly active. This can help if the individual enjoys walks, getting outdoors and may have a stronger need for a PSD to help with waking up, getting and staying active and needing to have a companion.

Training with border collies can be difficult, and requires patience, but they are quick learners and do not forget easily. They are recommended for individuals who may need help picking up dropped items, opening and closing doors and are well-known for being alert and on their toes within a moment’s notice.

German Shepherds

German shepherds are the most commonly used service dog. They first were known in the 1920’s as a seeing-eye dog for blind individuals. They are resilient and self-assured and mostly known for being a guard or protection dog. They are excellent for herding and are known to be protective of their owners and individual needs.

German Shepherds are herders and are best for individuals who need help in public or crowded places and who may have a mental illness that causes fear. German Shepherds are very alert and aware when needed.

Labrador Retrievers

Perhaps the most common breed known, Labrador retrievers enjoy having jobs and tasks available that they can focus on. They are gentle giants who care deeply about their owners. They are highly intelligent and quick learners, making them ideal as service dogs.

Labrador Retrievers are able to do many things, including sniffing out danger and being able to sense time, which can come in handy for those on timely medications and those who may be OCD or bipolar.

Is A Psychiatric Service Dog Vest Required?

The government does not require service animals to have a vest, and the ADA also does not require service dogs to display identification or wear vests. Many times, a trainer will be training a dog that is wearing identification that specifies it is a service dog or a service dog in training. While items like harnesses, identification and vests are not required, it can be helpful to have when citing the PSD is a service dog that helps the individual with a specific mental illness or that the PSD has a specific job.

How to Get a Psychiatric Service Dog

The steps to receiving a PSD can be overwhelming, however it is not impossible with the help of Pettable’s site. By following the steps of completing the assessment, consulting with a therapist to receiving the PSD letter, the steps to receiving a PSD are made easier.

Complete Our Assessment

The first step is to complete a quick online assessment to help Pettable evaluate the situation and needs that a PSD can help with. After completing the assessment, individuals can select the type of letter needed. The letters available are a housing letter, used for a residential area that as a ‘no pets’ policy; a travel letter, which is used when traveling with a PSD and needed proof that it is not an ESA, but a PSD that has a specific job to help with the individual’s quality of life; or there is the option of a combination of the two.

Consult With a Therapist

After completing the assessment, individuals will be asked to fill out some privacy and consent forms. The information is not shared outside of Pettable and individuals will be matched with a licensed mental health professional. A link to book a live consultation with the professional will be sent, where a mental health evaluation will determine if the individual qualifies.

Get a Psychiatric Service Letter

Once it has been determined the individual qualifies for the PSD, a legally recognized emotional support letter will be sent from the Pettable mental health professional to the individual. This letter states that a PSD is necessary to lead a full life.

Your satisfaction is important to us. In the unlikely even that your ESA letter does not work for you, we will provide a 100% refund.

How to Make Your Dog a Psychiatric Service Dog

If you already have a dog you would like to make a PSD, after going through the training process, individuals can voluntarily enter the information onto a registration database. www.servicedogcertifications.org is one place that also offers service animal paraphernalia, such as vests, leashes, collars and more.  However, the dog will have to go through the training process and the owner must have proof that a PSD is needed, such as the letter from Pettable or a letter from a health care professional.

Frequently Asked Questions about Psychiatric Service Dogs

      The process of gaining a PSD can be arduous and long, however it is worth it in the end for all those involved. An ESA in general can help aid in mental health, but a PSD can be a constant aid and help in guiding its owner in a day-to-day lifestyle. However, there are many questions that still surround training a PSD.

How much does training a psychiatric service dog cost?

      It depends on the trainer, but the usual amount for a professional dog trainer can be anywhere from $150 to $250 per hour to train an already owned dog. If the dog has been already trained prior to ownership, it can cost between $15,000 and $30,000.

Does PetSmart train psychiatric service dogs?

      While PetSmart does not offer specific PSD training, they do offer therapy training which serves to train dogs as therapy pets.

Does it take a long time to train a psychiatric service dog?

      Depending on the circumstances and situation, as well as how quickly the PSD learns and retains information, it can take anywhere from six months to two years. If professionally training the PSD, it can take typically 1-2 years. If personally training the PSD, it can take anywhere from six months to a year, but it is recommended to constantly be working on the training.

Can psychiatric service dogs be trained for more than one ailment?

         While this can be done, it is typically recommended to have different service animals for different ailments, as it can be easier on the owner. However, there must be different paperwork done for both animals, and equal the amount of paperwork done for the same animal.

Can you train a puppy to be a psychiatric service dog?

       Yes, it is possible to train a puppy to be a PSD, however training may take longer, as puppies have not yet developed all the abilities of a fully grown dog.

Is scent training part of a psychiatric service dog training?

        While some service animals are trained specifically to smell out different behaviors or sense changes in moods, PSD training does not focus on scent training unless the individual requests it upon beginning the training.

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.