Psychiatric Service Dog
When most people think of service dogs, they usually envision a handler with a physical disability such as vision impairment or limited mobility. Service dogs however are also hard at work helping people with invisible disabilities. Psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) are a type of service animal with the same legal rights as service dogs that help with physical disabilities. PSDs are specially trained to help people with mental illnesses and learning disabilities.
Psychiatric service dogs are also different from emotional support animals (ESAs), even though people frequently think they’re the same. PSDs have the same broad public access rights as other types of service dogs. PSDs may also fly on planes free of charge under the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) new rules which go into effect on January 11th, 2021.
In this article we’ll explain what psychiatric service dogs are, who qualifies for one and the type of work they do. We will also go over the legal rights and protections that PSD owners have under U.S. federal laws.
Table of Contents
- Qualifying for a Psychiatric Service Dog
- Psychiatric Service Dog Tasks
- Psychiatric Service Dog Access Rights
- Verifying a Psychiatric Service Dog
- Training a Psychiatric Service Dog
- Different Types of Psychiatric Service Dogs
- How to Register your Psychiatric Service Dog
Qualifying for a Psychiatric Service Dog
To be eligible for a psychiatric service dog, you must have a mental disability that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The ADA defines a mental disability as “any mental or psychological disorder” such as “emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities”.
Disabilities that can qualify for a Psychiatric Service Dog include:
- Clinical depression
- Anxiety disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders
- Bi-polar disorder
- Obsessive compulsive disorder
In addition to having a psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability, the PSD’s handler must have a need for a task trained dog to assist with their condition. The key difference between a psychiatric service dog and a normal dog is that a PSD must be trained to perform work relating to their handler’s disability.
If the PSD does not perform a task relating to the owner’s disability but provides comfort through its companionship during difficult times, it is more likely an emotional support animal. A dog cannot be considered a service dog until it has been individually trained to perform tasks that help with its owner’s disability. In the next section, we will give some examples of the tasks that PSDs are entrusted to perform.
Psychiatric Service Dog Tasks
Psychiatric service dogs are indispensable to their owners. They are trained to do work that allow people with psychiatric disabilities to function in everyday life. There are too many of these tasks to list in one article, but below is a sample of the important jobs that PSDs perform. The most common tasks the performed by Psychiatric Service Dogs are:
- Balance Assistance – For those that may need the added security when walking (eg. those that may have to take tranquilizers to stay calm).
- Find a person/place – People who suffer from severe anxiety may become disorientated in a large crowd, a PSD can be trained to locate a person and place.
- Ground and reorient – A PSD can help ground their handler back into a more present state of mind during an anxiety attack.
- Interrupt and Redirect – A PSD can help limit obsessive compulsive and self-destructive behaviors by interrupting or redirecting.
- Navigation and buffering – A PSD can provide a buffer and help guide their handler through stressful environments.
- React/Alert to specific sounds – A PSD can alert their handler to smoke or security alarms along with unusual noises.
- Retrieve Medications – A PSD may pick up medication from a table or ring a bell as a reminder.
- Room Search – A PSD can be trained to perform a room search to help those that suffer hyper-vigilance caused by PTSD.
- Stabilize routines – A PSD can help their handler maintain healthy routines by, for example, preventing them from oversleeping or reminding them to do daily tasks.
- Tactile stimulation and pressure therapy – A PSD can use touch or gentle pressure to provide calm and comfort to a handler that is in distress.
No matter what task your PSD is trained to perform, you have a right to privacy and dignity when it comes to your disability and need for a service animal. Under the ADA, staff members at an establishment are prohibited from asking you to have your PSD to demonstrate the tasks that it has been trained to perform.
Overview of Psychiatric Service Dog Access Rights
Psychiatric service dogs have the same access rights as other types of service dogs. Under the ADA, state and local governments, businesses and other organizations that serve the public have to let psychiatric service dogs accompany their owners in all areas where the public is allowed to go.
PSD handlers also have the right to live with their dogs in most types of housing under the Fair Housing Act. Owners of PSDs do not have to pay fees or deposits to their landlord or housing association in order to have a PSD in their residence.
In addition, under the DOT’s air travel rules, PSDs are also allowed to fly in the cabin with their owners, free of charge. In order to fly with a PSD beginning on January 11th, 2021, airlines are allowed to ask PSD owners to submit a signed certification form prior to departure. The form requires the owner to make various certifications, including that their psychiatric service dog has been trained to assist with a disability and is capable of behaving on a flight.
Below are examples of places a psychiatric service dog has access to:
- Housing and lodging: apartment buildings, condos, co-ops, rentals, hotels, college dorms, short term rentals (AirBNB)
- Transportation: airplanes, taxis, and trains
- Public spaces: restaurants, bars, university campuses, offices, libraries, beaches, stores, parks, markets
No matter where you take your PSD, it’s always important to keep in mind that if your PSD is misbehaving it can be asked to leave the premises. Service animals can be denied entry if they are acting aggressively, barking or growling repeatedly or causing an unsanitary condition. A psychiatric service dog has to be under the handler’s control at all times when out in public.
Verifying a Psychiatric Service Dog
If you’re out in public or in an establishment and a staff person wants to verify that your canine is a psychiatric service dog, they are allowed to ask two questions under the ADA: (1) is the dog a psychiatric service dog required because of a disability? and (2) what work or task has the PSD been trained to perform? You do not have to identify your disability or demonstrate the task your PSD has been trained to do.
If you’re flying with your psychiatric service dog, airlines starting on January 11th, 2021 can ask you to submit a certification form. The form requires the PSD owner to make various certifications on a federal form. This includes certifying that their PSD has been trained to perform tasks and behave in public settings. Airplane and airport staff can also ask the two questions above to verify a dog is a PSD.
In addition, the DOT has stated that airlines can observe the behavior of the dog to see whether it remains under the control of its handler. If the dog is being disruptive or out of control, that may be evidence the dog has not yet been successfully trained to be in public.
Lastly, the DOT also allows airlines to look at paraphernalia such as harnesses, vests and tags to determine whether a dog is a PSD. Having these items can be helpful in indicating your dog is a PSD, and is one factor staff can weigh to determine whether they are dealing with a service animal. PSD owners find these accessories especially useful because they suffer from invisible disabilities. Having their PSD outfitted with appropriate paraphernalia helps to cut off unwanted approaches from strangers and broadcasts that their dog is on duty. Keep in mind however that accessories alone do not make a PSD – that comes from appropriate training and a disability-related need.
Training a Psychiatric Service Dog
To train a dog to become a psychiatric service dog you need patience and dedication. Both the ADA and the DOT’s rules permit owners to self-train their psychiatric service dogs. If you’re not comfortable training your own dog however, you can hire a professional trainer or reach out to an organization. Note however that there is no “official” training program for PSDs, although there are entities that issue guidelines and suggestions.
In addition to being trained to perform the task related to a handler’s disability, a PSD must always be under the control of its owner. Under the ADA’s rules, a PSD must be harnessed, leashed or tethered at all times, unless that would interfere with the PSD’s ability to work (in which case, the handler can use other means of control like voice commands or physical signals). For air travel, a PSD must always be harnessed, leashed or tethered and not engage in disruptive behavior.
Tracking Training Milestones
There are important milestones a PSD owner should track in order to determine whether their Psychiatric Service Dog is ready to be taken in public:
- Can the PSD ignore distractions?
- Is the PSD obedient even in busy areas?
- Does the PSD run after or lunge at other people and animals?
- Is the PSD calm when around children and other animals?
- Is the PSD able to maintain its focus on the handler even with the presence of food and treats?
- Does the PSD growl or bark uncontrollably?
- Can the PSD remain on task in loud, crowded places?
- Is the PSD calm around moving vehicles and traffic?
These are just some of the tests you should make sure your PSD can pass with flying colors before going out in public. A PSD that is unruly can be asked to leave an establishment. Of greater concern, a poorly trained PSD may not be able to perform the critical duties it has been entrusted with if it is not accustomed to a particular environment.
Different Types of Psychiatric Service Dogs
There are many types of psychiatric service dogs that serve individuals with a wide range of invisible disabilities. Below are just a few examples:
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Psychiatric Service Dog
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder may affect those that have gone through an extremely stressful or life-changing situation. Many people who suffer from PTSD use psychiatric service dogs to help treat their symptoms. Some of the tasks a PSD can perform for someone with PTSD include:
- Help block and buffer the handler in crowded areas
- Calm the handler using deep pressure therapy
- Retrieve medications
- Provide security enhancement tasks (such as room search)
- Interrupt destructive behaviors
Depression Psychiatric Service Dog
People who suffer from severe depression often times do not want to leave their home and find it difficult to engage in life activities. They have constant negative thoughts and are sometimes suicidal. PSDs help chronically depressed people get back to living a normal life by:
- Providing comfort with responsive touch
- Retrieving medications (and reminding the handler to take them)
- Providing tactile stimulation by licking the face when the handler is distressed
- Helping the handler establish a daily routine
- Preventing the handler from oversleeping or being too sedentary
Anxiety Psychiatric Service Dog
Anxiety can strike us at any time, but for those that have chronic anxiety, it can be debilitating. This condition can create excessive uneasiness and apprehension and may lead to compulsive behaviors or panic attacks. A PSD can be trained to help anxiety attacks by:
- Keeping the person grounded by licking or pawing
- Applying deep pressure therapy (for example, by lying across the handler’s body)
- Recognizing the signs of an impending panic attack
- Retrieving medications
- Leading the handler out of a building
- Alerting a loved one
- Finding/bringing a telephone
- Blocking people from crowding the handler
How Do I Register My Psychiatric Service Dog?
If you have a psychiatric service dog, you may benefit from voluntarily registering your animal with ServiceDogCertifications.org and obtaining service animal paraphernalia. Under ADA rules, registering a service animal does not confer legal rights, but registrations and service animal accessories are routinely used by handlers for their personal convenience.
As someone with an invisible disability, you may want a method for strangers or workers to understand immediately that your animal companion is not just a pet or an emotional support animal. Not only does this help set proper boundaries, PSD registration and accessories can also help protect your privacy by eliminating the need to answer unwelcome questions. Keep in mind this is completely optional and does not substitute for proper training and professional help in evaluating a psychiatric condition.
Vests, tags, ID cards, harnesses and other service animal gear are designed to help you enter public spaces with your PSD with confidence. These items also help ward off annoying and potentially unsafe approaches by strangers and children who may not realize your PSD is a working animal and not a pet. Service Dog Certifications can keep your psychiatric service dog’s information in its registration database and issue an identification ID card, certificate, or vest, depending on your needs.
How to Register your Psychiatric Service Dog
- Train your dog to provide a task to aid in your disability
Your Psychiatric Service Dog can be trained to perform a number of different tasks and it is dependent on your individual needs.
- Consider the benefits of Registering Your Psychiatric Service Dog
Once your dog is trained you may want to register it with a service dog registration organization. Although it is not legally necessary to register your PSD, there are benefits in doing so.
- Enter your Psychiatric Service Dog’s information into the registration data base and order the appropriate identification ID card, certificate, or vest.
Service Dog Certifications can provide you with the proper identification for your Psychiatric Service Dog like vests, ID badges and a certificate stating your need for the service animal. These all come in handy when taking your PSD into public places as you may be asked for proof of your PSD.