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What are psychiatric service dogs?

Like guide dogs for the blind, psychiatric service dogs are working dogs. They have special training that allows them to carry out tasks that their owners, who have mental health difficulties, might not otherwise easily be able to do. These can include disabilities like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and more.

Once a dog is categorized as a psychiatric service dog, the owner and their dog have certain rights under U.S. federal law — specifically, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

Typically, along with other service dogs (such as guide dogs and epilepsy dogs), psychiatric service dogs have the right to enter buildings and other premises where dogs and other pets are generally not allowed. They can also travel by plane with their owners for free.

👉 Psychiatric service dogs are recognized in the U.S. but not in many other countries. As such, the contents of this article are intended to reflect the position in the U.S. and nowhere else.

Psychiatric service dogs vs. emotional support animals

Psychiatric service dogs are trained to perform certain tasks for their humans, such as –

  • Bringing them their clothes or medications
  • Finding help in certain situations
  • Turning on or off the lights
  • Waking their owner up if they are having a nightmare

An emotional support animal, on the other hand, lends assistance to its human by being, as the name indicates, an emotional support. Typically, emotional support animals aren’t given the specialist training that a service dog would get.

Another difference between psychiatric service dogs and emotional support animals is that the former role can only be done by dogs. This is because, usually, dogs are the only animal that can complete the required training.

Emotional support animals can include a broader range of animals, such as cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, goats, or even snakes.

How to qualify for a psychiatric service dog

There are a few qualifications applicants must meet to be considered for a psychiatric service dog. 

Types of mental health issues that qualify

There’s a comprehensive list of mental disorders that are considered disabilities that can qualify for a psychiatric service dog. These include 

  • Anxiety
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depression
  • Mania
  • Schizophrenia
  • Panic attacks
  • Social phobias, such as agoraphobia

Other qualifications

If you have a qualifying mental disorder, the next question is: Does your mental disability impact your daily life so much that the number of major activities you can participate in is limited?

For instance, if your PTSD makes you too anxious to leave the house, go shopping, or interact with others, that might be a qualifying major limitation.

How to apply for a psychiatric service dog

There are two phases to applying for your own psychiatric service dog. 

First, you must get a certification from your healthcare provider or mental health professional that you have a specified qualifying psychiatric condition and need a psychiatric service dog to carry out tasks for you as a result.

Once you’ve received this, you’ll be eligible for a psychiatric service dog. At that point, the second step would be to find one that’s been appropriately trained.

Several organizations can help you source a psychiatric service dog, and some of these may be charities or not-for-profit (NFP) organizations. 

There are two things to bear in mind here: 

  • Firstly, psychiatric service dogs are in short supply
  • Buying one privately (without help from a charity or NFP) can cost upwards of $30,000

If you find an organization that thinks it can help you source a psychiatric service dog, then do your due diligence. It’s an unfortunate truth, but there are many scams out there targeting those looking for services dogs because of their steep price tag.

Get at least two references and make sure you can spend time with someone else who has already sourced a psychiatric service dog from that organization. By doing so, you can ask the owner pertinent questions about their service dog and see the dog in action.

In other words, it may not be as easy to source a psychiatric service dog yourself as it is to get the certificate entitling you to one.

Insurance considerations

As with any dog, we recommend that you insure your psychiatric service dog against illnesses and injuries (we all know how expensive vet visits can be).

Your dog should also be insured against loss or damage to third parties (for instance, if the animal knocks down someone in the street or causes a traffic accident).

Furthermore, your insurance should cover loss and damage to property. This might be included in your household insurance, but you should check if the coverage is suitable — you may need to notify your insurers that your dog isn’t a pet but a service animal.

If you’re a renter, you should have insurance covering you against damage to the rental property that your landlord will probably expect you to pay for. Discussing insurance with your landlord is important because the landlord might have blanket insurance if they have multiple properties, and you might be able to negotiate a discount.

Common psychiatric service dog tasks

There are all sorts of useful tasks a psychiatric service dog can do as a service animal. These activities will be tailored to the owner’s mental health condition.

A psychiatric service dog’s tasks might include the following:

  • Waking their owner up
  • Soothing their owner or fetching help during panic attacks
  • Calming their owner down during the manic phase of the latter’s bipolar disorder and cheering them up — possibly via tactile stimulation — when they’re depressed
  • Turning on the lights when their owner is experiencing an anxiety attack
  • Finding clothes for their owner
  • Being a buffer between their owner and a crowded public space
  • Comforting their owner when they’re anxious or agitated
  • Waking up their owner when they’re having nightmares

Psychiatric service dogs are still a relatively new phenomenon, and it may take time for them to be universally recognized for what they are — a valuable help to those suffering from debilitating mental health conditions.