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Service Dog for Anxiety – Everything You Need to Know

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Service Dogs are used for various purposes, ranging from guiding individuals with visual impairments to notifying those with medical disorders of impending episodes. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Service Dogs can also be used by people with mental health illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, and anxiety. These Service Dogs are commonly called Psychiatric Service Dogs (PSD). 

Psychiatric Service Dogs are trained to complete specific tasks that aid a person with a mental health disability. Psychiatric Service Dogs should not be confused with Emotional Support Animals (ESA). 

An ESA is also used to help people with mental and emotional health issues, but an ESA does not require any individualized training. Like all Service Dogs, a Psychiatric Service Dog must be trained to perform a task relating to a person’s disability. 

An ESA requires a letter from a licensed healthcare professional. On the other hand, Psychiatric Service Dogs do not require any documentation, although some owners obtain PSD letters for peace of mind. You do not need a registration, certificate, ID card, vest, or tag for a Psychiatric Service Dog. These are completely optional accessories used by Service Dog owners to help differentiate their dogs from normal dogs. If you have a fully trained Psychiatric Service Dog used for your disability, you can obtain these accessories from Service Dog Certifications

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Psychiatric Service Dogs should not be confused with Emotional Support Animals (ESA). Before a person looks for a dog, they must know the distinction in order to choose the best option for their needs. The difference between the two lies in the training.

How to get a Service Dog for anxiety

One of the most common reasons a person requests a Psychiatric Service Dog is for severe anxiety. To qualify for a Psychiatric Service Dog, a person’s condition must meet the definition of “disability” under the ADA’s rules. 

That means that the person’s anxiety substantially limits one or more major life activities. A licensed healthcare professional is best suited to evaluate someone’s mental health and help determine whether they meet these criteria. 

That is why many PSD owners obtain PSD letters. A PSD letter is a signed letter from a licensed healthcare professional with their determination of whether a person has a mental or emotional health disability. However, a PSD letter does not substitute for proper training of a service animal — it merely helps address whether a person has a qualifying disability.

It’s especially important for Psychiatric Service Dog owners who fly to be certain about their disability and service dog training status. The DOT’s Service Animal Transportation Form requires all traveling Service Dog owners to make various representations on a Federal form regarding their disability-related need for a service animal. Misrepresenting their disability or service dog on this Form can lead to penalties.

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Three Types of Assistance Animals - Comparison Infographic - ServiceDogCertifications
Comparison of (Psychiatric) Service Dog, ESA and Therapy Dog

Where to get a Service Dog for anxiety

Psychiatric Service Dogs need to be individually trained to assist a person with debilitating anxiety. These dogs can be trained independently by the owner or bought through an organization that raises and trains dogs to support people with mental health needs. 

A service dog can be any breed, size, or weight, and you can adopt a service dog through a rescue or a breeder. The important criterion is whether the dog is suited in personality and ability to serve as a service animal. Any dog trained to work as a service animal should have the proper temperament, intelligence, and capability for the job at hand.

A dog that is to be trained to become a PSD should ideally have these minimum characteristics:

  • Ability to master obedience skills
  • No signs of aggression
  • Calm demeanor with no hyperactivity 
  • Ability to ignore distractions in public
  • Ability to reliably perform a task relating to disability
Ideal traits for a psychiatric service dog - Infographic

How to train a Service Dog for anxiety

A Psychiatric Service Dog is not considered a legal service animal until it has fully completed its training to perform a task or job relating to the handler’s disability. For severe anxiety, there are several tasks a Psychiatric Service dog can perform that help with the handler’s condition. These are just a few examples of the important jobs that Psychiatric Service Dogs are called on to perform: 

  • Identifying distress related to anxiety 
  • Calming down their handler during an anxiety attack with tactile stimulation like licking
  • Retrieving medication
  • Applying pressure to their handler to relieve stress 
  • Retrieving a telephone in times of extreme distress 
  • Notifying others if they sense their handler needs additional assistance 
  • Interrupting episodes where the handler is in danger of self-harm. 
service dog or esa
Young Service Dog in training

If a dog obtains these qualities, they will likely have the ability to learn their handler’s tasks and qualify to become a Service Dog. An individual can take training upon themselves, or hire an organization to perform the training. 

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Service Dog tasks for anxiety

A person with severe anxiety may not be able to complete various tasks needed to go through everyday life. In these moments, a Psychiatric Service Dog may be able to step in and assist their handler. Here are some basic tasks that can be beneficial to a person with anxiety:

  • Identifying distress related to anxiety 
  • Calming down their handler during an anxiety attack
  • Retrieving medication
  • Applying pressure to their handler to relieve stress 
  • Retrieving a telephone
  • Notifying others if they sense their handler needs additional assistance 

The tasks that the dog is trained to perform will depend on what is valuable to the individual person. Not all dogs need to learn all tasks, and not all tasks will be helpful to every person. Each individual needs to determine how their dog can help them, and train them accordingly.  

Man and his Service Dog side by side
Man and his Service Dog side by side

Best Service Dog breeds for anxiety 

Certain dog breeds exhibit specific traits that are beneficial for Service Dogs. For example, dogs are easier to train if they’re naturally intelligent. They should be calm and even-tempered to stay focused and on the task at home and in public. They should be eager to please and happy to work for their handler. Not all dogs fit these prerequisites, but the ones that do can excel as Psychiatric Service Dogs.

There is no such thing as a “best” breed for a Service Dog used for anxiety — the type of dog used depends on the specific needs of the handler and the way their Service Dog will be used. The ADA does not limit service dogs to a certain breed or size. The following are some common breeds used as Service Dogs: 

  • Labrador Retriever 
  • German Shepherd 
  • Border Collie
  • Golden Retriever 
Service Dog Breeds for Anxiety
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  1. Patricia Puhalski says: March 15, 2021
  2. Bethann Horton says: January 25, 2020

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