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How to Train a PSD

How to Train a Psychiatric Service Dog - ServiceDogCertifications

In a 2018 survey of Assistance Dogs International members, only 1.5% of their members had psychiatric service dogs. Compared to the largest service dog group (mobility service dogs at 48%), psychiatric service dogs represent a small portion of all service dogs. Interestingly, psychiatric disorders are common.

According to statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 5.2% of adults in the United States have a serious mental illness. When taking the number of psychiatric service dogs into account, along with the percentage of adults who have a serious emotional or mental disorder, it appears that psychiatric service dogs may have a larger role to play in the future.   

What Can Psychiatric Service Dogs Provide?

Psychiatric service dogs (PSD) receive extensive training to perform tasks needed by people with a mental illness or disorder. Because they are essential to an individual’s safety and wellbeing, psychiatric service dogs are protected under federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Air Carrier Access Act, and the Fair Housing Act (FHA). These laws not only allow service animals ⁠— like psychiatric service dogs ⁠— into public areas where typically no pets are allowed, but they also enable service dogs to travel and live with their handlers. 

Why are service dogs given so much freedom to remain with their handlers? Because service dogs are vital to the health and well-being of their handlers. Service dogs are also considered “reasonable accommodations” for a person’s disability, protecting the rights of a person with a disability.

Psychiatric service dogs, in particular, assist people with emotional or mental disorders. The assistance is typically an action or task that would be challenging or impossible for the person with the disability to perform on their own. Here are some examples of the kind of services a PSD can provide: 

  • Circle their handler during a crisis episode to keep strangers and crowds at a safe distance. 
  • Lead their handler to exit during a panic attack or overcrowded situation. 
  • Serve as a barrier between their handler and a stranger in close quarters (elevator, small rooms, etc.)
  • Nudge or paw at the handler to break a dissociative stance. 
  • Assess an area for intruders or strangers when entering a room or a home. 
  • Contact emergency through a K-9 rescue phone or another method should a psychiatric crisis arise. 
  • Nudge or paw at their handler or get assistance if their handler begins to perform self-injurious behaviors. 

There are no limits to what tasks a psychiatric service dog can do for its handler. What’s important is that the PSD is trained well and can perform the tasks correctly. The tasks should be relevant to their handler’s psychiatric disorder and contribute to their health and independence. 

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Wonder if you qualify for a Psychiatric Service Dog?
Get an assessment from a licensed medical health professional. If you qualify, they can issue a PSD Letter so that you confidently can train and own a PSD.

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Train Your Own Psychiatric Service Dog

The ADA defines a service dog as a dog trained to perform a specific action to help a person with a disability. Although training a service dog is vital, the ADA does not require a dog to be professionally trained. In short, a handler may train their own dog. 

Purchasing a professionally trained psychiatric service dog is convenient but has drawbacks. For example, a trained service dog can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000, depending on the dog and what tasks it will need to provide. In addition, psychiatric disorders are very subjective, and the symptoms vary significantly from person to person. Therefore, having a service dog that is individualized to the needs of its specific handler is essential. 

For people who are looking to train their own psychiatric service dog, there are two ways to approach the situation: 

  1. Outsource portions of the training that don’t require individualized tasks, like the Public Access portion of the training. 
  2. Perform all the training yourself. 

Before starting training, it’s vital to assess what tasks are necessary for the dog to perform. Collaborating with a physician or mental health professional can provide a solid framework. Once the required tasks are identified, it’s time to find the right dog.  

1. Search for the Right Psychiatric Service Dog

Finding a dog with the ideal temperament is crucial to a service dog’s success. Good psychiatric service dog candidates are:

  • Calm and do not startle easily.
  • Eager to please. 
  • Likes social interaction with people and other animals. 
  • Intelligent, alert, and attentive. 
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2. Start Socialization and Basic Skills

Socializing service dog candidates right away places them on the right track for training. Exposure to new places, people, and situations allows the dog to develop a tolerance to different external stimuli. Fostering a dog’s comfort level in a variety of locations makes training easier and sets the dog up for success. Training a dog on their basic skills (sit, stay, heel, etc.) gives handlers a good idea of how receptive a service dog candidate is to training. Ideal candidates should be eager to learn and not tire or get distracted easily. 

3. Public Access Skills and Individual Response Training

Public access skills are vital to having a safe and effective service dog. For a service dog to remain in public areas with its handler, the dog must behave safely and always under the handler’s control. Training should occur in different locations for a dog to fulfill public access test requirements. Practicing in various situations allows the dog to gain comfort in following directions, even in new and distracting environments. Service dogs are known for their exemplary behavior, which comes through temperament and training.

When training a dog to carry out individualized tasks, it’s important to choose tasks a dog can reasonably perform. Training a dog on tasks that are not realistic for them to perform only sets the dog and the handler up for disappointment and frustration. Choose tasks that are important and can be accomplished consistently. Provide the PSD candidate ample opportunities to practice through simulated events. 

Show that your Psychiatric Service Dog has mastered the Public Access Test.
Get your Handler-Certified Public Access Test certificate.

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Keeping A Training Log

When training a psychiatric service dog, it’s advised to keep a service dog training log for every session. Keeping a training log serves 4 benefits:

  1. It keeps the training and trainer organized.
  2. It ensures that the quality of the training is upheld or even improved.
  3. The training log helps to identify strengths and weaknesses and what areas might need to be trained more often.
  4. And finally, the training log serves as proof of training if the handler ever needs to provide this information.

The training log does not need to be complex. A page with the date, training location, commands and prompts used, as well as rating the service dog’s performance, can help to keep track of the progress.

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You can start your training log by downloading this free sample Service Dog Training Log, provided by Service Dog Certifications.

Psychiatric Service Dog and Mental Health

Unlike emotional support animals, service dogs must have public access skills and individual task response training. Repetition and positive feedback is the key to owning an effective service dog training. And psychiatric service dogs need to excel in the training, just like all other types of service dogs.

With patience and discipline, psychiatric service dogs can assist their handlers in life-altering ways, giving them back a piece of the good life their mental disorder took from them. 

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