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Everything You Should Know About Getting a Service Animal for Autism

Psychiatric service dogs provide emotional support and assistance with essential tasks to help people with autism lead more independent lives.
Expert reviewed by:  
Written by:
Susana Bradford
Published on:  
September 7, 2022
Updated on:  
September 7, 2022

Autism spectrum disorder, otherwise known as autism or ASD, is a complex developmental disorder that affects around 2% of adults and children in the United States. However, the severity and symptoms of this diverse group of conditions are varied, ranging from severely debilitating to high-functioning. Autism commonly appears as behavioral and social challenges such as social anxiety, missing social cues, or being triggered by loud or crowded areas. Nearly one-third of people with autism also have epilepsy or seizure disorder. 

Although autism presents many challenges in daily life, a psychiatric service animal can provide a range of benefits for people with autism. Autism service dogs are trained to perform tasks and offer emotional support to people with autism, allowing them to live more independently. 

If you're interested in learning more about how a PSD can help an individual with autism, here's everything you need to know about getting an autism assistance dog. 

At a Glance:

  • What Is a Psychiatric Service Dog?
    Psychiatric service dogs provide emotional support and practical assistance with specific tasks to help their owner manage a disability. 
  • Do I Qualify for a Service Dog?
    You must talk with a licensed mental health professional to determine whether you qualify for a service dog – you likely qualify if you have autism, anxiety, depression, or another psychiatric condition.
  • What Can Service Dogs Do for Autism?
    Adults and children with autism may find assistance dogs helpful in emotion regulation, alleviating anxiety, coping with social interaction, catching the warning signs of a panic attack, or intervening in self-harming behaviors. 
  • How Do I Get a Psychiatric Service Dog?
    You must overcome several hurdles to get a psychiatric service dog, including getting documentation of an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis. Additionally, you need to attend and pay for obedience classes, have a fenced yard, and treat the dog with patience and kindness throughout the training process.

What Is a Psychiatric Service Dog?

Psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) help people manage a range of mental illnesses, developmental disorders, and learning disabilities. These assistance dogs are specially trained to perform tasks that are difficult for the owner to do themselves. For some, a psychiatric service dog helps manage the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. Others may have a PSD to deal with schizophrenia, lessen the severity of PTSD symptoms, or help alleviate clinical depression. 

Regardless of the psychiatric concern, studies show that the intervention of service animals can ease the impacts of mental illness and help people lead more independent and stable lives. 

It's important to know that psychiatric service dogs are not the same as emotional support animals (ESAs). Though both types of assistance animals provide their owner with emotional support and help alleviate symptoms of a mental health disorder, ESAs can be any animal or breed. Nor do ESAs require any training! Their presence alone provides a person with emotional support. 

On the other hand, a psychiatric service dog must go through extensive training to be certified. Once the dog's training is complete, it is protected under law by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the Department of Transportation (DOT). These protections allow people to take their PSD anywhere regardless of the usual animal restrictions. By contrast, ESAs have limited access to public places.

What Can Service Dogs Do for Autism?

In most cases, people with autism spectrum disorders can benefit significantly from the presence of a service dog. Here are some ways an autism service dog can provide emotional and task-based support. 

Increase the frequency of social outings

Social anxiety is one main symptom of autism. Because of this, people with autism may exhibit characteristics like preferring alone time over social interactions, avoiding eye contact, lacking communication skills, or being unable to understand their emotions or the emotions of others. Autism service dogs can facilitate more successful social outings by providing a comforting presence through tactile support. PSDs are also trained to look for triggers in a social setting before their owner enters a room. If the dog senses warning signs of a panic attack, it will block people from approaching the autistic person if they need space to settle their emotions.

Alleviate anxiety and triggers in the environment

Some people with autism experience high levels of anxiety. Roughly 40% of autistic children with autism show signs of severe anxiety disorder in addition to their autistic symptoms. The presence of an autism service dog can lead to significant positive changes in their lives. Autism service dogs provide this support by being trained to recognize anxiety triggers and divert their owner from an overwhelming environment. In other scenarios, a PSD may recognize when their owner is starting to panic – the dog may gently lean against their owner to provide tactile distraction and emotional support.

Provide prescription medication reminders

People with autism may have additional mental health conditions, some of which require prescription medications. Whether it's anti-anxiety medication to soothe anxiety symptoms, a sleep disorder prescription, or anti-depressants, a range of medications may be prescribed to alleviate some of the conditions linked to autism. Because of the importance of medication in helping people with autism, autism service dogs are often trained to remind their owners about taking essential prescriptions. In the event of a panic attack or another psychiatric episode, the dog may even bring the necessary medications to their owner!

Reduce stress and phobias

Many individuals with autism have phobias and high stress levels. The prevalence of fear-based symptoms makes it difficult for a person with autism to go about their daily life and interact with others. However, the presence of a service dog may reduce stress-related mental health challenges (e.g., agoraphobia, anxiety, and depression) while also improving social responsiveness so that the person can better engage in daily activities.

Detect the onset of seizures and warn others

Epilepsy, also known as seizure disorder, affects nearly one-third of people with autism. An epileptic episode starts in the brain and causes muscles throughout the body to stiffen, twitch, or jerk uncontrollably. Some people may even lose awareness during the seizure. A properly trained PSD can support its owner through these episodes. The dog can learn to identify the warning signs of a seizure's onset and clear a room for its owner. They may also learn to alert others about the episode or bring medication to their owner. 

Do I Qualify For a Service Dog?

Many people are uncertain whether their symptoms qualify them for an autism service dog. Here are three examples of situations in which an individual would be eligible for a PSD.

Case 1: A high-functioning autistic adult with depression

An adult with high-functioning autism is likely to go about their day without their condition getting in the way of most daily tasks. However, this doesn't mean their autism is invalid. Instead, these individuals may experience "invisible" symptoms like depression. The comforting effects of a service dog can provide the stability a person with high-functioning autism and depression needs to keep their mental health on track. The PSD may also give medication reminders or offer a tactile distraction from negative thought spirals.

Case 2: A child with severe autism symptoms who is prone to emotional outbursts, anger, and anxiety

An autistic child who exhibits severe symptoms may benefit from a service dog's stabilizing and soothing presence. Many children with autism have trouble dealing with changes in their environment, loud noises, bright lights, and crowded areas. Whereas kids with less severe symptoms may learn to manage these environmental triggers, an autistic child with more severe symptoms may experience anxiety, anger, and even emotional outbursts. There is significant evidence that autism service dogs can provide autistic kids with emotional support, such as calming the child's anxiety and developing more empathy and patience. 

Case 3: An autistic person with epilepsy

Epilepsy is a common autism symptom that may come on suddenly, potentially putting an autistic person at risk if they experience an epileptic attack outside their home. A psychiatric service dog can support the person to ensure they are safe if a seizure occurs. Autism service dogs do this by learning to recognize seizure warning signs. The dog may also learn how to alert another person to receive help. If the person with autism has medication to help with seizures, the dog can bring the medication to their owner to help manage the episode.

What Is the Best Psychiatric Service Dog for Autism?

Many dog breeds provide the emotional support benefits of a service animal. However, only some breeds are trainable, attentive, and patient enough to make an excellent service dog for autism. Here are three breeds to consider for your PSD to help in your search for the best psychiatric service dog for autism.  

German Shepherd

  • In the 1920s, a German Shepherd became the first-ever service dog to help people with physical disabilities. They remain among the most popular service dogs for various physical and mental health disorders because of their fierce loyalty and calm temperament.
  • German Shepherds are highly trainable, making them perfect for people wanting a PSD that performs specific tasks like prescription reminders or sensing epileptic episodes.
  • For autistic people with anxiety symptoms, German Shepherds also provide a steadying presence that can help people stay grounded during anxiety or panic attacks.
  • This breed is on the large side, weighing an average of 125 pounds. Owners should be ready to take on the responsibility of caring for and feeding a large dog. 

Golden Retriever

  • Famous for being friendly and loyal, Golden Retrievers are among the most popular psychiatric service dogs, and for a good reason.
  • These dogs are highly trainable and eager to please, making them good assistance dogs for people who need an animal to provide support with daily tasks.
  • Remember that Golden Retrievers have a lot of energy and need regular physical activity. This also means that your dog can keep up with you throughout the day, even if you are going on frequent outings. When fully grown, these loveable dogs can weigh up to 75 pounds. 

Poodle

  • Poodles are highly intelligent and fiercely loyal, making them excellent service dogs for numerous conditions.
  • This breed is one of the most trainable. Poodles can provide support with various tasks like fetching items, interrupting harmful behavior, or calling for help in an emergency.
  • Poodles are especially popular due to their short coat. Poodles shed very little when their fur is clipped close to their bodies, making them one of the best options for households with allergies.
  • Poodles range in size from large Standard Poodles to Miniature and Toy Poodles. 

How Do I Get a Psychiatric Service Dog for Autism?

Before you go out and buy a new dog, take some time to understand the process of acquiring a PSD letter. You may also be able to train a current pet to become a service dog.

A psychiatric service dog letter (PSD letter) certifies your qualification for a service animal and is legally protected by the ADA, HUD, and the DOT. If you choose to get your PSD letter online, the first step is to complete a short assessment. You'll fill out general information about your mental health concerns and needs. In this assessment, you must select whether you want a PSD letter for travel, housing, or both.

You will then need a consultation with a licensed therapist to discuss your situation further. You can attend an in-person meeting with a mental health provider or connect with a licensed mental health professional online. The therapist will decide whether you qualify for a PSD during the consultation. If they determine that the dog is crucial for your health and well-being – and to help you with the activities of daily life – you will receive a legally-recognized psychiatric service dog letter that complies with state and federal regulations.

Once you have your qualification letter, you're ready to find your dog and start its service training!

How Do I Make My Pet A Psychiatric Service Dog?

If you want to make your pet a PSD, be prepared to put in the time and money to train your four-legged friend. 

Start the process of making your pet a psychiatric service dog by talking with your therapist or mental health professional. If they think you qualify for a service dog, they will provide you with a PSD qualification letter. This letter is crucial in making your pet a PSD. Once you receive the qualification letter, you may register your pet in an accredited training program. 

The hardest part of the process is determining whether your existing pet fits your needs. Many dogs may not be well-suited to the job if you need help completing complicated tasks or receiving support during a panic attack. Statistics show that up to 70% of dogs participating in training programs don't meet the personality and training standards to become PSDs. Because training programs usually have a high price tag – often around $25,000 for the entire program – be sure to find a reputable trainer and organization to ensure your animal is well-trained.

Frequently Asked Questions

Want to learn more about PSDs and autism service dogs? Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about autism assistance dogs.

Can I get an emotional support animal instead?

It depends on whether you want the dog to perform highly specialized tasks or provide emotional comfort. If you need comfort and emotional support from your animal, then an emotional support animal will meet your needs. 

Can someone with autism have a service dog?

Yes! Many people with autism can benefit from the highly-specialized support a service dog provides. However, the person must be patient and unaggressive with the animal. They must also be able to care for the dog and provide it with the necessary training.

What is the best service dog for autism?

Service dogs for autism must be loyal, highly trainable, and remain calm in high-stress situations. German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, Poodles, Golden Retrievers, and Corgis are some of the best breeds for autism service dogs.  

What do service dogs do for adults with autism?

There are many different ways that service dogs support adults with autism. Tasks include:

  • Delivering medications in the event of a seizure.
  • Disrupting self-harming behavior.
  • Providing tactile relief in a stressful situation.
  • Warning people away if they sense that their owner is distressed. 

Can any dog breed be a psychiatric service dog?

In theory, any dog can be a psychiatric service dog, regardless of breed. However, not every breed is well-suited because of the high level of training that service animals must complete. Autism service dogs must also be carefully vetted for temperament.

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.