At W.A.G.S. 4 Kids we take Mental Health very seriously. As serious as physical health, mental health affects 1 in 5 U.S. adults each year; 1 in 6 U.S. youth age 6 - 17. Since COVID hit - 50% of American adults have reported experiencing negative mental health symptoms. When do mental health symptoms become a serious mental health challenge and when does the need for emotional support transition into a need for a psychiatric service dog? The line can be fine and the area can be gray. So, what are the differences?
Let’s first clarify the difference between a therapy dog, an emotional support dog and a psychiatric service dog (PSD).
- A Therapy Dog is someone’s pet that has been tested for its social temperament, trained to be well behaved and registered with a therapy dog organization. A therapy dog provides comfort to people in nursing homes, hospitals, schools or other institutions. Most therapy dog owners are volunteers. Therapy dogs are NOT Service Dogs and do not have public access, housing or air rights.
- Emotional Support Animals (ESA) provide comfort to their owners simply by being present. They have not been specifically trained for any particular task. Although they are grouped with service dogs when it comes to housing laws, emotional support dogs do NOT have public access rights.
- According to ADA laws, to be a Service Dog, their handler must have a disability and the dog must be specifically trained to perform tasks to alleviate such disability. Having a mental illness is an impairment, but being unable to function on a minimal level because of mental illness is a disability. Psychiatric service dogs are trained to do something to help with the person’s disability. In other words, the dog allows the handler to overcome or improve his/her ability to function. A PSD might for instance counterbalance a handler because he/she is dizzy because of medication, interrupt panic attacks or OCD behaviors, turn lights on, etc.
According to ADA, to qualify as a Service Dog, the dog
- Must be specifically trained to perform a custom list of tasks; natural "pet" behaviors do not qualify;
- Must mitigate the person’s disability - do for them that which they cannot do for themselves;
- Must be serve one specific handler.
What conditions could be helped by a Psychiatric Service Dog?
- Bipolar disorders
- Borderline Personality Disorder
- Social phobias & agoraphobia
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorders (OCD)
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
“The ADA defines a person with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.” To qualify for a service dog, you must be diagnosed with a disability. Depression, PTSD, or anxiety are only considered a disability if they limit what you can do. For instance, some people cannot go to the store on their own. Others can’t leave their homes, can’t work, or go to public places when it’s crowded. If you have depression or anxiety but are still able to go through your day without limitations, you do not qualify for a service dog under the ADA.
To qualify as a service dog, the dog must do and perform tasks that allow you to go places and face situations that you would not otherwise be able to without a service dog.
What are Psychiatric Service Dogs trained to do?
Trained tasks for psychiatric service dogs include:
- Wake up his/her person
- Provide tactile stimulation
- Facilitate social interactions and reduce fears associated with being around people
- Serve as a buffer to help the person cope with being in a crowd
- Help the person calm down when agitated
- Wake up a person having nightmares
- Grounding a person dealing with fears and anxiety and helping him/her get back to the here & now
- Help create a safe personal space
- Get medication and water when the person cannot
- Get help
- Provide balance assistance
- Remind a person to take medication and nag until it’s done
- Disrupt emotional overload.
What does science say?
A 2009 survey of the effectiveness of Psychiatric Service Dogs in the treatment of PTSD in veterans by Dr. Gillett and R. Weldrick, BA, at McMaster University revealed that 82% of those partnered with a service dog reported a reduction in their symptoms and 40% took less medication. View Study
Help and companionship
Psychiatric service dogs can provide a reason for a person to get out of bed and can encourage a person to be more active and get out for a walk and be more social. They can also help the handler maintain a routine. In addition to helping with clinical symptoms, studies have shown that for most people suffering from PTSD or anxiety disorder, a PSD may also soothe feelings of loneliness and sadness, calm racing thoughts and irritability, and reduce aggression and agitation.
In addition to their skills in helping with psychiatric conditions, our dogs are taught all the behaviors required to pass the Public Access Test and meet or exceed the minimum standards of training established by the International Association of Assistance Dogs Partners (IAADP). You’ll be able to safely and reliably take your service dog to work, to school, to the mall, restaurant, etc.