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Training a Psychiatric Service Dog: A Complete Guide

Training a psychiatric service dog to support your mental health needs is no small task, but this guide can make things easier. Learn PSD training best practices, qualifications, tools and more. Train your PSD with Pettable today.
Expert reviewed by:  
Written by:
Susana Bradford
Published on:  
February 15, 2023

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.

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 and 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 in restaurants, and are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA.)

How to qualify for a service dog

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.

Psychiatric Service Dog Training Programs

When training a dog for work as a psychiatric service animal, you have three main choices.

Self-guided online psychiatric service dog training

  • One of the most common methods of psychiatric service dog training is self-training your own pet through an online program. This is an excellent option for those looking to deepen their bond with their dog and receive the support they need while progressing at a comfortable pace and on their schedule. Self-training is recognized by both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Department of Transportation as an acceptable method of PSD legitimacy. However, some PSD handlers may not have the time, or energy to self-train a PSD and may opt for a different approach.

In-person Psychiatric Service Dog Training

  • The hands-on approach of an in-person psychiatric service dog trainer may be the best option for those whose pet struggles with listening to commands or is not succeeding within an online PSD training program. Costs for this type of training are typically higher than guided online PSD training programs but less expensive than adopting a trained service dog.

Psychiatric Service Dog Adoption

  • Many organizations exist with a goal of pairing trained psychiatric service dogs with handlers in need of mental health support. When you bring home a PSD from one of these organizations, it will be trained and ready to help. This will often be the most expensive option and may exist outside of a person’s budget without insurance coverage, with prices typically ranging from $15,000–$30,000.

Both in-person and online psychiatric service dog training have their own set of pros and cons that you should consider when deciding which method to use.

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, on the other hand, 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 the pace that can be made comfortable to 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 the both of you.

What are the requirements for a service dog?

There are many disabilities that a person may be faced with, both physically and mentally, that would qualify them for a service dog. Some of the disabilities that qualify for psychiatric service dog treatment include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Stress
  • Personality disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia

There are many other conditions that qualify for a psychiatric service dog, including all conditions that qualify for an emotional support animal (ESA.) More information on conditions that qualify for a PSD can be found through the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Psychiatric Service Dog Qualifications

In order 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 provide assistance for 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.

What tasks can a Psychiatric Service Dog Perform?

A psychiatric service dog’s key responsibility is to ensure its handler’s well-being when faced with symptoms of a mental disability, such as a violent flashback or a panic attack. It is important to ensure your PSD is capable of tending to your specific needs and is well-trained at recognizing symptoms as they arise. Some of the tasks a psychiatric service dog can perform include:

  • Alerting their handler to an oncoming panic attack or episode of anxiety
  • Providing deep pressure therapy to calm their handler during an anxiety attack
  • Retrieving medication for their handler
  • Interrupting self-harming behaviors
  • Providing emotional support during times of distress
  • Helping to ground their handler during flashbacks or nightmares
  • Helping their handler navigate through crowded areas
  • Helping their handler to stay focused during tasks
  • Helping their handler to manage their symptoms of depression.

Keep in mind that not all psychiatric service dogs can perform all of these tasks, and the specific task will vary depending on the person's needs and the specific training the dog has received.

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:

  1. 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).
  2. Determine your preferred method for acquiring your psychiatric service dog. This is a decision that should be made based on a number of 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. 
  3. 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 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.

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.