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Need a Service Animal for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Here's Everything You Need to Know

If you have PTSD, a psychiatric service animal can be an additional course of treatment. Here is what you need to know about these service animals.
Expert reviewed by:  
Written by:
Susana Bradford
Published on:  
September 7, 2022
Updated on:  
September 7, 2022

The US Department of Veteran Affairs defines post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, whether it's a car accident, combat, natural disaster, or sexual assault. 

Some common symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, nightmares, and frequent and intense bouts of anxiety. These strong symptoms of anxiety often lead people with PTSD to rely on unhealthy coping methods, such as drug and alcohol use.

Grappling with PTSD can be challenging, particularly if you are trying to do so without the help of a therapist or self-help resources. Working with a psychiatric service dog (PSD) is another way to help people suffering from PTSD.

At a glance:

What is a Psychiatric Service Dog? – a psychiatric service dog is a dog specifically trained to assist an individual with their mental health disorder. Psychiatric service dogs are granted access to all public places.

Do I Qualify for a Service Dog? – only individuals with mental health disorders can qualify for a psychiatric service dog. An individual can only be declared eligible for a psychiatric service dog by a licensed mental health professional. 

What Can Service Dogs Do for PTSD? – service dogs can help interrupt harmful behavior, perform room searches, act as barriers in crowded places, alert their owners to take medication, and provide companionship

How Do I Get a Psychiatric Service Dog? – individuals can purchase a trained service dog from organizations that train these assistance animals or attempt to train a dog that they have already adopted or purchased

Take the Next Steps: Get a Psychiatric Service Dog Letter 

What is a Psychiatric Service Dog? 

Psychiatric service animals are dogs that are specifically trained to help people with mental health disabilities such as schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Service dogs tend to work with people with physical disabilities. A PTSD service dog is one type of psychiatric service dog trained to do work and perform tasks to help alleviate the symptoms of PTSD. 

Psychiatric service dogs have the same rights as service dogs, meaning that they are granted access to all public places. This allows a PSD to remain by its owner's side at all times, whether they are at the grocery store, at the movies, or on the plane. Unlike emotional support animals, service animals must be dogs. However, a service dog can be any breed of dog or any size. 

What Can Service Dogs Do for PTSD? 

There are many ways that a service dog can help alleviate the symptoms of an individual suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Interrupting Tasks

Service dogs very frequently perform "interruption tasks," which is a way of distracting their handler from a certain circumstance. Service dogs can be trained to interrupt a panic attack, self-harm, dissociation, or a flashback. 

For example, PTSD patients very frequently experience nightmares or night terrors. A service dog can be trained to recognize the signs of a night terror and interrupt their handler during this episode by lying on them, licking their face, or gently pawing at their body. Some service dogs can even be trained to turn on the lights as a means to wake up their owner. 

Perform Room Searches

Active military members or veterans exposed to violence have a high risk of developing PTSD. Today it is estimated that 23% of veterans deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan are impacted by PTSD. 

Former military members can significantly benefit from a service dog who can perform room checks. The service dog will enter the area first, investigate each room, and then alert the handler that the space is safe. 

This peace of mind of knowing that danger is not lurking around the corner can go a long way in easing a PTSD victim's anxiety. People living with PTSD from sexual assault, domestic violence, or breaking-and-entering can also benefit from this service.

Act as a Barrier

Entering a crowded space can be difficult for someone with PTSD for more reasons than one. People with PTSD often fear entering a space without knowing what to expect and may be triggered if they are approached from behind. A service dog can be trained to act as a barrier between its handler and other people. To achieve this, a service dog will circle its handler's body and prevent them from being approached. If their handler is stationary, then a service dog may stand behind its handler to prevent them from being approached from behind. 

Alert Tasks

It is very common for service dogs to perform what is called an "alert task." An alert task is essentially a service dog reminding its handler to do something. For instance, a service dog will often remind its handler when it's time to take medication by retrieving the medicines for them.

Other everyday alert tasks include alerting the handler of an approaching person or car, alerting to a panic attack, and routine reminder alerts, such as when it's time to eat and sleep. The ability of service dogs to perform alert tasks makes it possible for individuals living with PTSD to live an independent lifestyle. 

Provide Companionship

While service dogs may be trained to perform tasks directly related to their owner's disability, they also provide their owners with an additional benefit: companionship. Service dogs give their owners a reason to get out of bed in the morning, go outside and exercise, and tackle the day ahead. Having someone to take care of can also grant people living with PTSD a higher purpose, which can reduce anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts. 

Do I Qualify for a Service Dog? 

If you have PTSD, there's a great chance that you qualify for a psychiatric service dog. Most PTSD victims have experienced severe trauma, whether that trauma was caused by Military Combat, witnessing a terrible accident, or experiencing a natural disaster. While some people who see or experience these terrifying events overcome their anxious thoughts after a few weeks or months, it doesn't go away for others. This anxiety can manifest in different ways. Some individuals may experience severe anxiety or panic attacks triggered by reminders of the event. 

Individuals with PTSD must consult a licensed mental health professional to be deemed eligible for a PSD. A healthcare professional will be able to provide you with documentation stating that you are being treated for an emotional or psychiatric disorder and require the assistance of an animal because of it. Below are several other examples of individuals who would also qualify for a PSD. 

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Like PTSD, obsessive-compulsive disorder is a debilitating mental health disorder. One of the significant symptoms of OCD is disruptive thoughts derailing an individual from completing day-to-day tasks. For instance, a person with OCD may not be able to focus during a meeting because they are so consumed by the stack of unorganized papers sitting in front of them. 

A service dog can be trained to identify the difference between negative and positive behaviors. In moments when people with OCD are consumed with a disruptive thought or behavior, a PSD can paw, lick, or nudge the individual until you stop this behavior. While this sounds like a minor task, people with OCD frequently experience these disruptive thoughts daily. A service dog's ability to disrupt its owner from these episodes can allow them to live a fairly normal lifestyle. 

Agoraphobia

This type of anxiety disorder is characterized by fear of places and situations that might cause panic, helplessness, or embarrassment. This type of anxiety disorder usually results after one or more panic attacks. A service dog can perform several tasks to help support someone with agoraphobia, from retrieving medication to alerting them of an imminent panic attack. 

A PSD can also perform room checks to ensure that a room is safe before entering, which can help an individual with agoraphobia feel more at ease upon entering an unfamiliar space. People with agoraphobia often fear entering crowded areas, and PSDs can also act as barriers between their owners and other people. 

Anxiety

An anxiety disorder impacts nearly 30% of adults at some point in their lives. Any individual suffering from an anxiety disorder can benefit from the support of a service animal.

Service animals can perform retrieving tasks, such as retrieving medications or an individual's cell phone when they are suffering from an anxiety attack or panic attack. If you live with another person, this assistance animal can even bring another person to you during an anxiety attack, so you are not alone. 

Service animals can also perform tasks that help alleviate the physical symptoms that you experience during an anxiety attack, including heavy breathing, chest pain, and heart palpitations. By lying on your chest or abdomen, a service dog can help provide pressure and create a calming effect during moments of stress. Licking your face can also help alleviate tension and distract you from an emotional overload. 

What is the Best Service Dog for PTSD?

While some dog breeds may make great service dogs, they might not be catered toward providing support for PTSD patients. For instance, species with natural protective instincts might make excellent guard dogs, but they cause even more anxiety for individuals with PTSD. For example, their spontaneous bouts of barking may cause even further anxiety for people with post-traumatic stress disorder. Here are a few dog breeds that would make excellent service dog picks for individuals with PTSD. 

  • Golden Retriever – One of the reasons that golden retrievers make popular service dog picks is because these creatures strike the perfect balance between intelligent and eager to please and emotionally intelligent and affectionate. Golden retrievers are susceptible to retrieving medication, minimizing flashbacks, and providing overall support and companionship. This breed is the go-to pick for veterans who have PTSD. 
  • Labrador retriever – Labrador retrievers are a go-to service dog breed for guide dog programs, but they also make excellent PSDs for individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder. Labs are intelligent, quiet, and can be easily trained to perform various tasks. This breed is also very attuned to everything going on around them, which allows them to warn their owners of imminent danger when necessary. 
  • Lhasa apso – These small and cuddly creatures are adept at recognizing human moods. This makes it easier to train Lhasa Apsos to respond appropriately to various human behaviors and attitudes. 

How do I Get a Psychiatric Service Dog for PTSD?

As previously mentioned, to qualify for a psychiatric service dog, you must first be deemed eligible for this type of assistance animal by a healthcare professional. Once you have received the written documentation from a therapist or psychiatrist, you can begin searching for your service animal. 

There are two main pathways to securing a psychiatric service dog. The first option is purchasing an already trained service animal from an organization. While this is undoubtedly the more convenient option, service dogs cost a pretty penny. Depending on a service dog's breed and the type of training it has received, service dogs tend to cost between $15,000 and $50,000. Individuals can also choose to buy or adopt an untrained dog. They can then either train the dog themselves or hire a trainer to train the dog for them. 

How Do I Make My Dog a Service Dog?

It is possible to make your dog a service dog. While service dogs need to receive PTSD service dog training to perform a task directly related to your mental health disorder, they are not required to undergo any specific training regimen. Before committing to one path, consider your dog's personality and natural abilities. 

Unfortunately, some dogs do not possess the natural disposition to be effective psychiatric service animals. In service dog training programs, approximately 55-75% of canines are not deemed suitable service dogs and are thus not granted service dog placement. Some telltale signs that your dog is fit to be a service dog include its ability to keep calm in unfamiliar spaces, learn and retain new tasks, repeat specific tasks, and focus on you, and only you. 

Take The Next Steps: Get Qualified for a Psychiatric Service Dog Letter Today!

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I Get an Emotional Support Animal instead?

Some individuals grappling with mental health disorders obtain an emotional support dog instead of a PSD. Emotional support animals differ from PSDs because they are not usually trained to perform specific tasks; they provide support through companionship. While ESAs are granted housing rights, they are not granted access to all public places like PSDs. 

Do people with PTSD qualify for a service dog?

Yes. While only a licensed mental health professional can determine whether someone qualifies for a service dog, individuals who have PTSD will commonly qualify for a service animal. 

What kind of dog helps with PTSD?

Dog breeds that are intelligent, quiet, and calm typically work best with people suffering from PTSD. Some typical PTSD service animal breeds include golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, Doberman pinschers, standard poodles, boxers, and Lhasa apsos. 

How do I train my dog to be a service dog for PTSD?

If you want to train your current dog to become a service dog, you can enroll your dog in a training program or attempt to train it on your own. Remember that not all dogs have what it takes to become service animals. Approximately 55-75% of dogs admitted into service dog training programs are deemed unsuitable for the role.

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.