When living with emotional or mental health disorders, it is important to incorporate healthy, natural mechanisms into daily life to help alleviate symptoms and increase quality of life. One of the most effective ways to do this is by welcoming and training a psychiatric service dog (PSD) to support your needs.
Training a Psychiatric Service Dog: A Complete Guide
You have a few options for training a psychiatric service dog. You can either opt to pay a trainer to train your dog, purchase an animal that has already been trained, or train a psychiatric service dog yourself. If you elect to self-train your service animal it is recommended you make use of training resources such as an online psychiatric service dog training course.
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Psychiatric Service Dog Training
Psychiatric service dog training is a specialized process that trains dogs to perform specific tasks to help individuals with psychiatric conditions, such as PTSD, severe depression, anxiety disorders, and bipolar disorder. These tasks can include reminding the owner to take medication, providing deep pressure therapy to alleviate panic attacks, or interrupting harmful behaviors. The training focuses on developing a dog's ability to sense and respond to their handler's emotional state and needs, ensuring they can offer the necessary support to improve their handler's quality of life and independence.
How to Train a Psychiatric Service Dog
The most important aspect of having a psychiatric service dog (PSD) is its training. All PSDs are required to be trained to perform specific tasks related to their owners’ mental health conditions. There are a few ways to get your canine companion ready to serve as your assistance animal:
- Self-Training a Psychiatric Service Dog: For some dog lovers, training comes naturally, making self-training a PSD an attractive option. This could be a solo effort or in tandem with a professional online training program, such as what is offered by Pettable. While self-training is recognized as legitimate by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other federal regulations, it can be a daunting task for dog owners who lack the proper experience or free time.
- Adopting a Trained Service Dog: One of the easiest but most expensive options is to purchase or adopt a dog that has already been trained to perform necessary tasks directly related to your mental health condition. For all the time you save, there is a significant financial investment, and unlike other training options, this lacks the building of a special connection between the canine and its master.
- Using a Professional Dog Trainer: For some dogs, training works best when working in a real-life setting with a professional dog trainer. This option is typically more expensive than self-training but less expensive than purchasing a pre-trained PSD. However, using a professional approach with the involvement of the owner can be a balanced and effective way to properly train the dog and foster a connection between the two.
What is a Psychiatric Service Dog?
Psychiatric service dogs are service animals that have been trained to perform specific tasks for people who are struggling with mental illness, such as anxiety, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and more. Psychiatric service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks dedicated to their handler’s well-being. Tasks may vary from PSD to PSD, but generally, some psychiatric service dog tasks include deep pressure therapy, medication reminders, and clearing a room for their handler.
A psychiatric service dog is similar to an emotional support animal (ESA) when it comes to mental health, however, these two types of service animals serve very different purposes. While emotional support animals can also be an exceptional option for those struggling with many of the same mental health disorders, psychiatric service dogs require more specific training to perform tasks on command while ensuring obedience at all times. PSDs can also go places where therapy dogs or emotional support animals are not allowed, such as on public transportation, in stores, and restaurants, and are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Who Qualifies for Psychiatric Service Dogs?
To be eligible for a psychiatric service dog, you must have a mental health disability that affects your everyday life in some way. Mental health disabilities are common and will vary in severity from person to person, meaning treatment options will also differ. However, most people suffering from any sort of mental illness that impacts their ability to carry out daily tasks will benefit from the help of a psychiatric service dog.
Many Psychiatric Service Dog owners receive letters from their doctor or another medical professional, known as PSD letters. A PSD letter expresses a medical professional's assessment of a patient's eligibility for ADA benefits due to a learning disorder or psychiatric disability.
It is important to understand that under the ADA, service dog documentation is not necessary. This means that a PSD letter only exists to support peace of mind and provide proof of a handler’s mental disability, something to keep in mind when choosing a psychiatric service dog training program or provider. This may also be an important factor for those struggling with what could be considered an “Invisible illness”, or a condition that is not immediately apparent in daily life.
Anyone with a diagnosed mental health disorder can qualify for a PSD, as long as the animal is trained to perform specific tasks related to the condition. Qualifying mental health conditions include (but are not limited to):
- Clinical depression
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Bipolar disorder
- Anxiety or panic disorder
- Borderline personality disorder
To know for certain if you qualify, consult with a mental health professional.
Online Vs. In-Person Psychiatric Service Dog Training Programs
Generally speaking, if you are looking for a psychiatric service dog training program you have two options: online or in-person.
Online PSD Training Programs
With online training, you can train your pet from the comfort of your own home, at your own pace, and on a schedule that is convenient for you. It's also often more cost-effective than training in person. Most online self-training programs offer video lessons led by professional trainers to guide you through training on a skill-by-skill basis, slowly ramping up the difficulty of training with every consecutive lesson. However, online training may present difficulty for dogs who struggle with maintaining attention or handlers who are not able to stick to a consistent schedule, making it harder for dogs to commit their newfound skills to memory.
In-person PSD Training Programs
In-person training offers both advantages and disadvantages over online psychiatric service dog training., In-person training enables close contact between the trainer and the dog, which can help to ensure that the dog is properly socialized and trained, as well as that it is aware of the tasks it must complete. In-person training also allows for hands-on instruction and demonstration, which can benefit both the dog and the owner.
On the other hand, in-person training can be costly and time-consuming. It may be necessary to travel to the trainer's location, and the training may last several weeks or even months. Online psychiatric service dog training offers the ability to train your pet at a pace that can be made comfortable for your pet while sticking to your schedule. Many online PSD training programs are guided by professional service dog trainers through video lessons, and you may find that self-training your PSD is a more fulfilling and effective experience for both of you.
Training Requirements for a Psychiatric Service Dog
For your best to qualify as a service dog, there are certain qualifications it must meet regarding its behavior in public. Remember: your psychiatric service dog DOES NOT require documentation, such as a PSD letter. Instead, your dog must possess the following:
- The ability to behave in a public setting. Your psychiatric service dog must not cause disruption or harm to the people or property nearby and must be able to immediately obey your commands. Additionally, your dog must not bark unless providing a handler with care. This is why basic obedience training is a massive part of PSD training.
- The ability to provide care that eases symptoms of a handler’s mental disability. This can manifest in many ways, including but not limited to deep pressure therapy and face licking during panic attacks.
Many psychiatric service dogs assist with invisible disabilities, so it is important to be ready to answer questions about your psychiatric service dog if asked by a landlord, store owner, or Department of Transportation employee. While not required, accessories such as a service dog vest may help provide clarity about your psychiatric service dog’s presence. Some psychiatric service dog training programs also provide certificates of completion for your animal upon completion of the training regiment, but again, this is not a requirement for service animal recognition.
General Public Access Training
In addition to learning to perform tasks, a PSD must be trained in general public access to ensure they exhibit proper behavior when accompanying their owner. This includes:
- Proper response to common behavior commands such as sit, stay, down, and heel
- Entering and exiting public buildings or public transportation without being disruptive
- Showing no signs of aggression toward humans or other animals
- Remaining under their owner’s control in all situations
Specialized Psychiatric Service Dog Tasks
Of course, the most important aspect of a PSD’s job is to perform specialized tasks that aid or alleviate their owner’s mental health disorder. These tasks cover a wide range of needs for specific conditions, including:
- Reminding about or fetching medications
- Responding to emergencies
- Intervening during potential self-harm episodes
- Providing tactile stimulation or DPT before the onset of a panic attack
Psychiatric Service Dog Tasks
- Deep Pressure Therapy (DPT): Physical stimulation and pressure therapy performed by a service dog can alleviate stress, ground an individual before the onset of a panic attack, and provide a calming presence. Commonly used for anxiety, depression, PTSD, and suicidal ideation.
- Medical Alert and Intervention: If an individual requires medications to treat their disorder, a service dog can serve as a reminder to take them at the appropriate times. A PSD can also be trained to respond to signs of emergency and intervene in case of a sudden onset anxiety episode. Commonly used for dissociative episodes, panic attacks, insomnia, and medical emergencies.
- Assistive Actions: Some individuals living with mental health disorders require some extra assistance, whether emotional or physical, to perform seemingly simple tasks. This can include fetching medications, turning lights off and on, and more. They can also assist with sleep difficulties such as insomnia or night terrors. Commonly used for depression-related lethargy, dissociative episodes, and sleep disruptions.
- Grounding: Some individuals with mental health disorders can experience sensory or emotional overload out of nowhere; a PSD can intervene and ground their owner. This could include licking the owner’s face, pawing at them, or providing other physical attention. This can also help manage sensory overload. Commonly used for anxiety, panic attacks, dissociative episodes, sensory overload, and self-harm.
How to get a psychiatric service animal certificate?
Though not necessary for handling a psychiatric service dog, many feel at ease after receiving a certificate stating their PSD's completion of a psychiatric service dog training program. To get a psychiatric service animal certificate, you will need to follow these steps:
- Seek a diagnosis for your condition from a licensed mental health professional such as a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. They will need to determine that your condition is a mental disability as recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
- Determine your preferred method for acquiring your psychiatric service dog. This is a decision that should be made based on several factors, including the cost of the training or the cost of purchasing a trained psychiatric service dog, the time required to train a psychiatric service dog, and your existing pet’s ability to complete psychiatric service dog training, if applicable.
- If you are training your pet to become a psychiatric service dog, you will need to enroll it in a certified PSD training program, whether online or in person. Upon completion of your pet’s training, it may be issued a psychiatric service dog certificate. If purchasing a pre-trained psychiatric service dog, you may be provided with a PSD certificate at the time of purchase.
Do I need a psychiatric service dog letter?
No, you are not required to receive a psychiatric service dog letter to handle a PSD. You only need a diagnosis with a qualifying mental health condition from a mental health professional to qualify. A dog is considered a psychiatric service dog once it has completed a PSD training program and is actively working to treat symptoms of a handler’s mental condition. However, many people feel more comfortable possessing a letter stating that they are eligible for psychiatric service dog care, as this is often requested by landlords. A PSD letter, which also may be known as a letter of necessity or a prescription letter, can be acquired from a mental health professional at the time of or after diagnosis. When traveling with your psychiatric service dog, it is only required that you fill out the appropriate paperwork declaring your animal as a PSD.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Whether you choose to self-train your PSD or enroll your dog in professional classes, you may still have questions about the process. Here are the answers to some of our most frequently asked questions about PSD training.
What commands does a psychiatric service dog need to learn?
The most important commands your PSD must learn are standard behavior commands like sit, stay, heel, down, and fetch. Any other commands will be more related to the specific mental health condition.
How many commands does a psychiatric service dog need to know?
The more commands your PSD learns, the better, but there is no set number of commands they must know. The most important thing is that the dog is completely trained to behave and assist its owner.
Who Can Train a Psychiatric Service Dog?
PSDs may be trained by either professional dog trainers or by their owners, whether they have experience or choose a guided training program — such as the online PSD training program offered by Pettable.
How Much Does Psychiatric Service Dog Training Cost?
PSD training can range in price from reasonable to expensive. Some professional PSD training programs can cost anywhere between $15,000-$30,000; on the other hand, guided online training is considerably less, sometimes as low as $200.