Psychiatric Service Dog Explained

What Is A Psychiatric Service Dog?

A psychiatric service dog is a sub-category of service dogs trained to help their handler with a mental disability. These devoted dogs assist someone with a mental health disability, making life easier for their handlers because of specific training. They are specially trained to do tasks that mitigate their handler’s disability. Other types of service dogs assist people with physical disabilities. Psychiatric service dogs help people with emotional or psychiatric disorders like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), severe depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, autism, and anxiety. These incredible dogs do specific tasks to help their handler manage various symptoms.

A psychiatric service dog is trained and will help its handler function more healthily and safely. These dedicated dogs are invaluable partners in everyday life. The specially trained service dog can accompany and assist their handler wherever necessary.


Disabilities can include sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or physical disorders. The work performed by a service dog must be directly related to its handler’s disability.

Sometimes, there are misconceptions about the important work these dogs do for their handlers. The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects its handler from being forced to explain and reveal private health information. Many disabilities are invisible such as a sensory, psychiatric, or a mentally-related disorder. Most disabilities do not travel alone, so many handlers will have more than one diagnosis and numerous symptoms to manage.

Mental illness is an impairment, and when it causes functioning in one or more areas on a minimal level, it is titled a disability. The ADA defines a mental disability as;

“Any mental or psychological disorder, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities.”

How can a psychiatric service dog assist their handler?

Having a psychiatric Service Dog provides a person with a disability the chance to live a better life. This incredible dog provides the handler with the ability to be home alone, leave home, travel, and work. The handler can have confidence knowing and relying on their dependable dog to help them manage any situation.

Psychiatric service dogs are much more than a pet. While they are there to calm you, relieve stress, and add peace, they also allow you to experience the freedom to live a healthier life. The dog does work that can improve the handler’s life by helping them overcome obstacles and improve function.

Understanding how the work a psychiatric service dog does is different from “other” service dogs

A service dog performs a trained behavior to reduce adversity by doing something the disabled person cannot do but needs in order to live. If you can do the task for yourself, it will not qualify as a necessary task for your service dog to perform for you.

While many scenarios can be described to explain how a psychiatric service dog helps its handler, here are some of the most familiar symptoms, services, and tasks where these remarkable dogs serve:

Balance Assistance

A psychiatric service dog will have their handler lean on them as they lead them and provide balance assistance. This is added security for anyone with balance issues or those experiencing dizziness because of medications.


A psychiatric service dog may calm its handler by leaning onto them to provide calming pressure. Dogs can also be specially trained to put the pressure of their own weight onto their handler’s lap and abdomen to physically, and then mentally, relieve anxiety and induce a sense of calm. This calm method can help with various symptoms including a panic attack and provide a behavior interruption.

A panic attack is more than being stressed. It can involve sweating, a pounding heart, rapid breathing, and a feeling of doom. This well-trained dog can often pull a handler out of a panic attack quicker than other calming and relaxation methods.

Clearing the airway

For example, a handler with a disability is experiencing nausea because of a change in medicine and has been uncontrollably vomiting and is now dehydrated. She has fallen on the floor and is incapable of moving or thinking clearly. She is in danger of choking on her vomit or becoming even further dehydrated. Her service dog is trained to clear the vomit from her airway and bring her a bottle of water.

Combination Of  Work

Sometimes a handler experiences being distracted continuously can go back to traumatic memories. This can cause many symptoms, including panic attacks, nightmares, fear, and distress. Additionally, flashbacks can happen, which may cause the handler to believe the event is happening again.

Have you ever driven somewhere in a vehicle and suddenly don’t remember the steps that got you there. Disassociating frequently happens when overwhelmed or remembering something traumatic. During such an episode, the handler may not even hear a word being said to them.

The psychiatric service dog will do whatever is needed. It is trained to help in a large variety of situations, including to seek help.


For children, teens, and adults on the autism spectrum, a psychiatric service dog can help them navigate many stressful situations, overcome numerous obstacles daily, and even help them connect with others. The service dog can be an ice breaker in a social situation, reduce isolation and loneliness, and provide comfort during stressful times.

Discover a healthier life

Psychiatric service dogs often act as a safeguard to help their handler manage any situation. These attentive dogs can be trained to sense changes in a person’s body when they are starting to have a panic attack, flashback, hallucination, or other mental conditions.

Disrupt emotional overload.

There are many situations when a handler will need to excuse themselves from a room because of personal psychiatric needs. With a discrete instruction to the dog, the handler can command his/her dog to paw at the leg, making it appear the dog needs to eat, drink or go out. The handler can then exit the situation with the excuse that his dog needs attention.

Find Person or Place

There are various mental illnesses that cause a person to become disoriented and overwhelmed in a large crowd of unfamiliar surroundings. A psychiatric service dog is trained to take you home on command or locate a specific person or place. These extraordinary dogs can be trained to prevent someone from leaving or running away. They can even be trained to track them if they do unsafely leave home.

Get help.

There are many important tasks a psychiatric service dog can do, and this one is vital. Getting help when needed is an essential task. A trained service dog can find or bring a telephone as well as alert a loved one or seek help.

These astonishing dogs can be trained to respond to Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and first responders to help their handlers get the help they need. This is important if there is an episode where the owner perceives the EMS team as aggressors.

Guide the handler

A psychiatric service dog needs to be able to lead and guide their handler to a safe or specific location. This is especially helpful if the handler suffers from a dissociative disorder.

Help create a safe personal space.

A psychiatric service dog can recognize the signs of an onset of a situation that needs management. They can then act to help their handler by leading him/her out of a building or into a quiet location, blocking people from crowding or doing whatever provides immediate comfort and lessens a sensory overload.

Help with depression

Helping their handler with depression and providing help when troubled are more tasks a psychiatric service dog does. They provide comfort and support every day. Additionally, the handler receives a bonus of a sense of purpose and responsibility as their service dog must be fed, walked, brushed, and exercised each day.

Hyper vigilance

For people with psychiatric disabilities, hypervigilance sometimes becomes challenging to manage. A psychiatric service dog can provide more confidence and help the handler manage the surroundings and everything and everyone around them.

Identify hallucinations

Imagine this, a person with a disability experiences a hallucination where he sees a person who should not be in the room with him. The handler needs to be able to determine if his hallucination can safely be ignored, or is it an intruder? His psychiatric service dog is specially trained to move toward a location and greet any person as instructed. The dog moves in the direction as instructed, but cannot find a person to greet, so he returns to his handler without welcoming anyone. The handler is now aware that he is safe, and the person he sees is a hallucination. He is then able to call his doctor for help instead of calling the police for an invasion.


The dog can paw at the leg or arm of their handler and disrupt what could be a debilitating and destructive behavior. The psychiatric service dog can interrupt action that can be harmful such as skin picking or hair pulling. This can be done by constant contact with the handler or by bringing the handler his/her brush. This cues the owner to groom the dog and helps the handler refocus on their dog and work through the problem or seek help.

Manage social settings

A psychiatric service dog can promote social interactions and decrease anxiety connected with social gatherings. When the handler endures tension due to being in close proximity of others or experiences claustrophobia in a crowded room, the dog can be trained to stand in between their handler and others to provide more personal space to their handler. The service dog is not dominant or protective but merely follows instructions from their handler to assist with providing a space barrier. These caring dogs can also help handlers who feel overwhelmed in public places by creating a physical barrier to provide the handler with more personal space.

Present tactile stimulation

There are many ways a psychiatric service dog may provide physical stimulation to their handler. Some of the tasks to help provide needed tactile stimulation include:

  • Bringing owner his/her brush
  • Laying close
  • Keeping constant contact
  • Licking the handler’s hand or face

React/Alert to specific sounds

There are various sounds that a psychiatric service dog can be trained to respond to and provide the needed assistance. Some of these brilliant dogs can help their handler react appropriately to a smoke alarm or security alarm by leading them to a safe location and getting help.

Remind a person to take medication.

Whether at a specific time each day or when a need arises, a psychiatric service dog can remind their handler to take medication.

A psychiatric service dog can be specifically trained to be persistent and not stop until a response or resolve is made.


A psychiatric service dog can provide security and stability when he/she senses anxiety, a panic attack, and assist in a variety of methods with post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. Some of the tasks he/she can do for their handler include turning the lights on, entering the room first, going around the corner first, performing a thorough room search, and retrieving medications. A dog’s ability to enter the room first and turn on lights can help the psychologically disabled handler feel safer and manage the hypervigilance about security better.

Wake up/Help Sleep

A psychiatric service dog can wake up his/her handler from a nightmare or sleep, terror. The intuitive and talented dog can also sense what is going on and provide appropriate therapy, whether deep pressure, licking a hand or face, or whatever is needed to assist. If a handler needs help falling asleep, staying asleep, or improving sleep quality, the service dog can make a difference. While the handler is sleeping, the dog can also provide a disrupting behavior to a symptom such as clawing skin during sleep.

Whether at a specific time each day or from a nightmare or sleep terror, the dog can wake up his/her handler. The psychiatric service dog can sense what is going on and provide the appropriate therapy, whether deep pressure, licking face, or seeking help.

A psychiatric service dog’s most exceptional assistance is the support they provide to their handler. The dog’s mere presence can often offer stress relief. A well-trained dog can help lower blood pressure and give a sense of peace.

Many people with disabilities live with multiple symptoms. Often, they are afraid to go out and experience the world because there is so much uncertainty about what will be a trigger or when a symptom will occur. These symptoms still happen at home but are more manageable than when in a public place. These dogs provide a much-needed service and better quality of life for many people.

What are the legal rights and benefits of a psychiatric service dog and a handler?

Psychiatric service dogs are improving lives for the better every day. If you already have a service dog or are planning to get one, it is crucial to understand your rights. A disabled person is permitted by federal law to be accompanied by a service dog even when pets are not allowed.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was amended by the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA), 42 U.S.C. 12101, and prohibits discrimination based on a “disability” in several critical areas. These areas include:

  • Employment
  • Places of public accommodation
  • State and local government services
  • Telecommunications
  • Transportation

A psychiatric service dog has federally protected rights which include:

Living Arrangements

  • Being able to reside with their handlers in “no pets permitted” housing. All landlords and property managers are required to make reasonable accommodations for service dogs and their handlers. The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 mandates that property managers and landlords to make reasonable accommodations to permit a handler to have a service dog and not be charged a pet deposit or pet fee. This means they must accept your service dog despite breed exclusions, weight limits, and even if they only accept cats.
  • Transportation
  • Flying in the cabin of a plane with no additional fee and are not required to sit in a special section. The airlines can impose some limitations and exceptions at their discretion, including written confirmation and where the service dog can sit or needing to crate the dog due to size.
  • Additionally, a disabled handler may take a service dog onto buses, taxis, trains, etc.

Anywhere, Anytime, Without Fees

  • Typically, a handler with a disability may take a service dog into any place even when dogs are not allowed. This includes, but is not limited to: beaches, churches, grocery stores, hospitals, hotels, malls, parks, restaurants, and more.
  • A handler with a disability may not be charged additional fees, deposits, or a pet fee for their service dog even when it is typically required. This applies to everything from a beach to a golf course to a hotel to an apartment.
  • Public places may not position or seat the service dog and handler intentionally away from other patrons to create separation.

The ADA stipulates that individuals with disabilities are entitled to broad public access for their service dogs. Unless there is a legitimate safety concern, service dogs can accompany their handlers to any place open to the public.

The handler is responsible for keeping the service dog under control, on a leash in public, well-groomed, and is responsible for any messes or damage created.

How does a person acquire a psychiatric service dog?

Psychiatric service dogs are not well known to the public like other service dogs who work serving handlers who are blind, deaf, or in a wheelchair. Many people do not understand the responsibility and work a psychiatric service dog does and their legitimacy.

A psychiatric service dog can be any size and is trained to assist in medical crises and to provide security and treatment to their handlers. This includes the management and prevention of numerous symptoms.

For a person with a disability, to qualify for a Psychiatric Service Dog, they must have a written letter by a licensed mental health professional. This includes a therapist, psychologist, social worker, or psychiatrist. The letter must state the person is psychiatrically disabled and cannot perform at least one major life task without assistance.

Here, in the United States, the ADA defines a disability as being a mental or physical impairment that significantly limits one or more of such an individual’s major life activities. This allows handlers of psychiatric service dogs the same protection and rights afforded to other types of service animals.

A psychiatric service dog can be trained by their current owner, the person who will become the dog’s handler (owner-trainer), in combination with a professional dog trainer, or trained exclusively by a service dog provider organization. Some organizations train psychiatric service dogs for specific tasks and conduct placement interviews to create optimal situations.

Handlers of psychiatric service dogs have varying mental health diagnoses. Their dog performs various tasks to support them in life each day. Whether the dog is providing constant contact or room searches and everything in between, a better understanding of this population and the handler-dog relationship is still needed. Many professionals and handlers alike realize that having a skilled dog to care for, improves self-care, and pushes them to do more as they manage their symptoms.

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