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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 mental health conditions. These service dogs are known as Psychiatric Service Dogs.

What is a Psychiatric Service Dog?

Psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) help with mental health conditions and have the same legal rights as service dogs that assist with physical disabilities.

Psychiatric service dogs are similar to emotional support animals (ESAs), but with one major difference. Unlike ESAs, PSDs undergo specialized training to help people with mental illnesses and learning disabilities.

PSDs have broad public access rights that allow them in public places where pets aren’t allowed. PSDs can also fly on planes free of charge.

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. 

Qualifying for a Psychiatric Service Dog

To be eligible for a psychiatric service dog, you must have a mental health condition that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The ADA defines a mental health 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
  • Phobias
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder 
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders
  • Bi-polar disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Autism 

In addition to having a psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental health condition, the handler must need 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. In the next section, we will give some examples of the tasks that PSDs are entrusted to perform. 

To register your Psychiatric Service Dog in the ServiceDogCertifications.org Database, click here: order a PSD ID card and certificate.

If you want to know if you qualify for a Psychiatric Service Dog, apply for your PSD Letter. Through our partner, we can connect you with a licensed healthcare provider so they may assist you.

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Psychiatric Service Dog Tasks

Psychiatric service dogs are trained to do work that allows 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 performed by Psychiatric Service Dogs are:

  • Retrieve Medications – A PSD can pick up medication from a table or ring a bell as a reminder.
  • 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. 
  • 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.
  • Find a person/place – People who suffer from severe anxiety may become disoriented in a large crowd, a PSD can be trained to locate a person and place.
  • Navigation and buffering – A PSD can provide a buffer and help guide their handler through stressful environments. 
  • Room Search – A PSD can be trained to perform a room search to help those that suffer from 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. 

No matter what task your PSD is trained to perform, you have a right to privacy and dignity when it comes to your condition and needs for a service animal. Under the ADA, staff members at an establishment are prohibited from asking you to demonstrate the tasks your PSD 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 PSDs 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. Even if the building strictly bans all dogs, psychiatric service dogs must still be allowed.

In addition, under the DOT’s air travel rules, PSDs are allowed to fly in the cabin with their owners, free of charge. In order to fly with a PSD, owners must submit the DOT’s Service Animal Air Transportation Form to their airline in advance.

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. 

How to get a Letter for a Psychiatric Service Dog

Many Psychiatric Service Dog owners get what are known as PSD letters from their healthcare provider. A PSD letter contains a healthcare provider’s opinion on whether a person has a qualifying ADA psychiatric disability or learning disorder. 

Documentation for service dogs is not required under the ADA. For handlers with invisible disabilities, however, in the form of a psychiatric illness, a PSD letter provides confirmation that they meet service dog disability standards. 

PSD letters are written by licensed mental health professionals such as doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and nurse practitioners. Your provider will first evaluate your mental health and determine whether it meets the criteria of being a disability under the ADA. If you qualify, they can give you a signed PSD letter stating you have an eligible ADA service dog disability. 

How to make my dog a service dog (infographic) - Service Dog Certifications
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ADA Requirements for a Psychiatric Service Dog

Psychiatric service dog handlers have legal rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (commonly known as the “ADA”). While some states may also have their own laws regarding service dogs, the ADA is a federal law that applies to all 50 states. 

Under the ADA, if you’re out in public or at an establishment and someone wants to verify your psychiatric service dog, they are allowed to ask two questions:

  1. Is the dog a psychiatric service dog required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the PSD been trained to perform?

The ADA website specifically recognizes psychiatric service dogs and gives as examples service dogs that remind their handlers to take prescribed medication or calm a person with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack. 

Under the ADA, handlers of psychiatric service dogs:

  • Cannot be isolated from other patrons by a business
  • Cannot be treated less favorably than other customers
  • Cannot be charged fees that are not charged to other customers without animals. 
  • Cannot be charged a deposit or fee that would be paid by customers with normal pets. 

Some other requirements to note under the ADA, a handler cannot be asked to remove his psychiatric service dog from an establishment unless 1. the PSD is out of control and the handler doesn’t take effective action to control it or 2. the PSD is not housebroken. Even when a PSD is properly asked to leave a site, the handler must be offered the opportunity to still obtain goods or services with the animal removed.

Training a Psychiatric Service Dog 

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 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: 

Different Types of PSDs (infographic) - Service Dog Certifications

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 oftentimes do not want to leave their homes 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 reducing 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. 

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