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How to Get a Psychiatric Service Dog (PSD)

A Psychiatric Service Dog (PSD) is a Service Animal specifically trained to support individuals diagnosed with a mental illness. A well trained PSD is able to ease symptoms caused by the mental disability and can comfort their handler in times of distress.

In this article, we’ll cover how to be approved for a PSD, what to look for when selecting a dog, and how to train a Psychiatric Service Dog to become a handler’s life-saver.

Is there a registry for Psychiatric Service Dogs?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not require any registration for Service Dogs. Psychiatric Service Dogs can accompany their handlers unmarked and without any id or paperwork. However, some handlers find it reassuring to register their Service Dogs and to purchase a vest and id. It helps them to communicate that their dog is, in fact, a working Service dog and their rights should be respected.

service dog registration button

1) Speak with a Health Care Professional about Psychiatric Service Dogs

A Psychiatric Service Dog can only be acquired if a health professional gives a diagnosis of mental illness. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a Service Dog must be able to assist their handler with tasks that directly relate to their disability. To be eligible for a Psychiatric Service Dog the diagnosis may include:

With this diagnosis, an individual is allowed to get a Psychiatric Service Dog and train it to complete tasks that help them with their symptoms. 

2) Obtain your Psychiatric Service Dog 

When starting to look for a Psychiatric Service Dog several considerations are necessary. Most dogs have the potential of being a Service Dog but not every dog can perform the tasks their handlers require to help reduce the impact of the mental disorder.

Where to find a dog

To select the perfect Psychiatric Service Dog the two most common ways are:

  • Purchase from an organization that specifically trains PSDs.
  • Adopt from a local animal shelter.

Either way, it is crucial to find a dog that is best suited for the work ahead. Among these considerations are the dog’s characteristics, breed as well as its age and health.

Characteristics

When choosing a dog, the handler must be aware of certain behavioral traits. While there are no specific regulations that a handler must follow, it’s important that the dog displays the following qualities:

  • Eager to please
  • Easily trainable
  • Non-aggressive
  • Accepting of strangers
  • Disciplined 
  • Strong work ethic

Dogs with these traits tend to succeed as Service Dogs, as they want to please their handlers and enjoy learning new tasks. It is crucial to adopt a dog that enjoys working on specific tasks. It’s important not to choose a dog for the wrong reasons; handlers may need to change the PSD if they seem to be in distress while training or cannot comprehend the tasks they should perform.

A handler needs to take special consideration finding a Psychiatric Service Dog to guarantee they are a perfect fit for the challenges ahead. 

Service Dog Guidelines infographic.

Breed

With the right characteristics, any dog has the potential to become a Psychiatric Service Dog. The ADA does not restrict breeds that qualify to become a Service Animal and therefore facilities and landlords do not have the right to exclude a Service Dog based on breed. However, among the dog breeds that generally excel in this type of work are:

  • Labrador Retrievers
  • German Shepherds
  • Border Collies
  • Poodles
  • Golden Retrievers

These breeds share traits, such as high levels of trainability, desire to please, intense focus, and generally good temperament. Dogs with these characteristics usually do well in training and are able to form a strong bond with their handlers.

Psychiatric Service Dog best breeds infographic.

Health and age

For any Service Animal, it is essential that they are in top health condition. Any health issue, such as diabetes or arthritis, could hinder the Psychiatric Service Dog of performing the tasks in the time needed and therefore become an additional burden in times of distress.

To get the best out of the Psychiatric Service Dog these points need to be recognized:

  • An inaugural visit to the vet is absolutely needed, to make sure the dog is in top condition.
  • Once the PSD is in service, taking well care of them and revisiting the vet for regular checkups is necessary.
  • All Service Dogs should be neutered. This will make males less aggressive and females without distraction when in heat.
  • The dog should be at least 6 months old and more importantly have outgrown the puppy phase.

If the handler understands and can accommodate these prerequisites, finding the perfect Psychiatric Service Dog is merely a matter of time. However, it’s still only halfway through the process as the next, big step of training the dog will begin.

Image of a psychiatric service getting a check up from a veterinarian.
Regular checkups for Psychiatric Service Dogs are a must (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

3) Train your Psychiatric Service Dog

Each dog will respond differently to learning the tasks needed; some are naturally intuitive and already understand what their handler needs, others might require several training sessions to master the complexity of the task. Therefore, a Psychiatric Service Dog doesn’t need to attend any specific training program. The only requirement is that the PSD is trained to perform tasks that directly relate to their handler’s disability.

For example a person living with anxiety could train their Psychiatric Service Dog to detect panic attacks. The PSD would alert its owner of an upcoming panic attack, and then work to comfort and support their handler until the attack subsides.

Using a reputable PSD trainer

Handlers might want to get the help of a professional Psychiatric Service Dog trainer if they are not confident enough to do all of the training themselves.

The cost of having the PSD trained professionally will differ based on the dog’s ability to learn and the complexity of the tasks needed. Talk to several potential trainers beforehand and get an estimate of the time and effort involved. However, the benefits of having a fully dependable Psychiatric Service Dog at hand could be worth every penny spent.

When looking for a trainer, handlers should put some research into the trainers available in their region. Getting recommendations from other individuals with PSDs are a safe way to be connected with a reputable trainer.

Train yourself

If the tasks at hand are easy, or the dog and their handler already have a strong bond, training themselves could be an option. Training might start with basic commands and slowly building up the skills until the PSD knows how to behave in public and stressful situations.

It is important that the Psychiatric Service Dog has enough confidence in performing the special task even in conditions when the handler might not be able to give proper instructions. Following a strict regimen will help the PSD to learn what is needed and to perform the tasks with few to no errors. 

As long as the Psychiatric Service Dog is able to complete the tasks directly related to the handler’s mental disability, it does not matter who trains them.

Psychiatric Service Dog in training
Starting training at a young age will help weed out bad habits.

4) Be aware of the stipulations surrounding Psychiatric Service Dog

Per the ADA, handlers are allowed to bring their Service Dogs into pubic establishments that normally wouldn’t allow pets, such as:

  • Apartment complexes
  • Hotels
  • Restaurants
  • Movie theaters
  • Retail stores and markets

Although the ADA doesn’t require Psychiatric Service Dogs to be registered, handlers can bring their PSD unmarked into these buildings. Nevertheless, some handlers do prefer to register their Service Dogs to ensure that their rights will be respected. Establishment owners are unable to legally ask if a dog is a Service Animal. They are, however, allowed to ask two questions:

  • Does the dog assist the handler with a task related to their disability?
  • And if so, what tasks do they perform?

Handlers should be prepared to answer the two questions but also remain aware of the limitations of what can be asked. 

Benefits of a service dog ID card infographic.

Patience and knowledge will lead to the perfect Psychiatric Service Dog

The path to finding and training a Psychiatric Service Dogs for the tasks needed may be long. Still, once the PSD is ready and can help their handler to overcome symptoms caused by the mental disability, the handler’s life will become safer and more fulfilling.  

Service Dog Registration

2 comments

  1. Tina Schaeffer says: March 3, 2020

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