The Advantages of Psychiatric Service Dogs for Mental Health Conditions

Psychiatric service dogs are a subset of service animals trained to perform specific tasks for people with disabilities due to a mental health illness. These conditions can include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and panic disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, among others.

Psychiatric service dogs are different from emotional support dogs, as they provide a specific task rather than overall comfort. Tasks range from providing tactile stimulation for anxiety or bringing a person back to a level of awareness.

Read this article to learn more about psychiatric service dogs, laws covering them, training requirements, and more.

A golden retriever dog is wearing an animal harness to indicate it is a service dog.

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What Is a Psychiatric Service Dog?

Psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) are a type of service animal. They are trained to perform tasks for their human partners who have mental health disorders or disabilities. 

While, traditionally, service dogs were those that helped humans with vision, hearing, and/or mobility impairments, newer subsets of service dogs help with such conditions as psychiatric disorders, diabetes, and allergies. They can assist with conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. 

What Are Service Animals?

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals are “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.”  

The exact number of working PSDs in the United States is unknown, but there seems to be a recognized and growing need, as the number of dogs has increased in service dog training facilities.

Mental Health Benefits

While much research has been done on the benefits of service dogs in general, psychiatric service dogs have not been studied as much. They vary more in breed and size than traditional service dogs, and it is not possible to generalize regarding one type of service dog or another.

Tasks for a Psychiatric Service Dog

Tasks that psychiatric service dogs can perform vary based on the condition their human partner has. Examples include:

  • Body contact to reduce anxiety 
  • Tactile stimulation to reduce anxiety 
  • Blocking people from their owner/handler
  • Waking owner/handler experiencing nightmares or night terrors
  • Nudging or pawing to bring back a state of awareness

Benefits to humans have been shown in studies of psychiatric service dogs. These include improvement in PTSD symptoms, reduced anxiety, better sleep, and less reliance on medication. In fact, research has shown that the number of tasks a PSD performs is associated with a significant decrease in both psychiatric and nonpsychiatric medication use by handlers with major depression and PTSD.

PSDs and Invisible Illnesses

Mental health conditions like PTSD, depression, and anxiety are invisible illnesses just like diabetes or allergies. As such, seeing a seemingly outwardly healthy person with a service dog might confuse people at first. However, that does not mean the person does not need the service dog in certain situations. It is important to be respectful and not approach or pet the dog without permission from the handler.

Service Dogs vs. PSDs vs. ESAs

Psychiatric service dogs are a type of service dog, but they are different from emotional support animals (ESAs). ESAs are not “service animals” under the Department of Justice (DOJ) guidelines, as they do not perform work or specific tasks. Instead, ESAs provide general comfort, emotional support, and companionship.

Psychiatric Service Dogs
  • Subset of service animals that have training in performing one or more tasks to help a person’s disability

  • Protected under ADA, Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Department of Transportation (DOT)

  • Must be dogs

  • Examples of tasks: 

    • Remind to take medication
    • Check room for safety or turn on lights for those with PTSD
    • Provide tactile stimulation through touch, nudge, lick, or pressure for someone with anxiety

Emotional Support Animals
  • Any animal, as long as it provides emotional support, alleviating one or more symptoms or effects due to a person’s disability

  • Protected under HUD, but not ADA or DOT

  • Any domesticated species that is manageable in public (Note that domestic U.S. airlines are not legally requires to transport unusual animals, including reptiles, ferrets, rodents, and spiders. Foreign airlines are only required to transport dogs.)

What Breeds Are Used?

There is no specific dog breed required to be trained as a psychiatric service dog. They can be of any breed or size suitable for the tasks they are being trained to perform.

One study that surveyed Australian owners of PSDs found that the breeds varied widely and included both purebred and crossbred dogs. Ages ranged from younger than 1 year to 10 years, and the sex of the dogs was evenly distributed between males and females. The most common reason owners chose their dog was based on temperament, followed by size and weight.

How to Qualify for a Psychiatric Service Dog

The ADA defines someone with a disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such impairment.”

As such, to qualify for a psychiatric service dog, the owner must have a mental disability that limits their life activities. This will vary in symptoms and severity from person to person, even those with the same diagnosis.

Necessary Documentation

Under the ADA, service dogs are not required to go through a professional training program or be certified through a specific entity. They also do not need to wear a vest or identification that shows they are a service dog.  

Questions Establishments May Ask

People working in a business or government facility are allowed to ask only two questions when determining if an animal is a service dog, which are:

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

State and local laws are allowed to require that service dogs be licensed and vaccinated. They are also allowed to have voluntary service dog registration programs. However, they may not require service dogs to be certified or registered and cannot ban a service dog due to being a specific breed.

Training a Psychiatric Service Dog

Service dogs, including psychiatric service dogs, are not required to be professionally trained, so anybody with a disability has the right to train their service animal themselves. However, service dogs in training are not covered under the ADA, so they may not be allowed in certain public places unless covered by state and local laws.

Finding a Trainer

Locating a psychiatric service dog trainer on the Internet is possible, but people need to be aware that not all websites and programs are qualified or legitimate. It is important to do the proper research to find the best trainer or supportive training program for the owner’s needs.

No matter who trains the service dog, they do not need to pass a test or be certified at the federal level. There is no central registry, as the ADA covers service animals by law. Service dogs need be trained to perform the task that would mitigate the person’s disability and trained to properly behave in public places. Training a service dog is an intensive process and rarely takes less than one year.

Where You Can Take Your Psychiatric Service Dog

Since PSDs are service dogs, they are protected under the ADA. This means they can go anywhere service dogs are allowed, including places that do not otherwise allow other animals or pets.

Under the ADA, service dogs can enter:

  • Shops
  • Restaurants
  • Schools
  • Hospitals
  • Hotels

The ADA also covers specific housing types, including public and private university housing, government-run public housing, and emergency shelters.

Regarding other housing and air travel, the DOT and the HUD both have regulations in place to protect service dogs and their human partners. However, if a dog is not housebroken or is out of control and unable to be brought back under control by its handler, a businesses and state and local governments can ask for a service animal to be removed from the premises.

Recent Changes for Air Travel

In late 2020, the DOT Air Carrier Access Act was modified to no longer consider emotional support animals as service animals. However, they also now require psychiatric service dogs to be viewed and treated the same as other service animals. More information can be found at the U.S. DOT page on service animals.

A Word From Verywell

Mental health illnesses can cause disability and the inability to perform some daily tasks, just like physical illnesses. For some people, a psychiatric service dog may provide additional support for your daily life outside of your other treatments and medications. If you are wondering how a PSD may help you, speak with your healthcare provider or mental health professional. They can provide you with resources and be able to discuss options with you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What documentation do you need for a psychiatric service dog?

    Psychiatric service dogs must be trained to perform a specific task related to your disability. You are not required to have documentation and there is no centralized registry of service dogs, which includes psychiatric service dogs. However, when traveling by plane, some airlines may require forms to attest to the dog's health, behavior, and training.

  • Can you train a psychiatric service dog yourself?

    Yes, it is possible to train a psychiatric service dog by yourself or with the support of a program and professional trainer. However, it is important to know that it can be difficult and requires a lot of time.

  • What mental health conditions do psychiatric service dogs help with?

    They can help with a range of conditions, especially PTSD, anxiety, and panic disorders, depression, and bipolar disorder.

  • Is a service dog the same thing as a psychiatric service dog?

    Psychiatric service dogs are a type of service dog. Service dogs in general have many different roles depending on the disability for which they provide support. Service dogs may also help with hearing, vision, and mobility impairments.

  • Do you have legal rights with a psychiatric service dog?

    Yes, psychiatric service dogs are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. They are also protected by regulations under the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Lloyd J, Johnston L, Lewis J. Psychiatric assistance dog use for people living with mental health disorders. Front Vet Sci. 6:166. doi:10.3389/fvets.2019.00166

  3. US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. ADA Requirements: Service Animals.

  4. Purdue University Organization for Human-Animal Interaction Research. Service dogs and PTSD.

  5. Emotional Pet Support. Which kinds of animals can be ESAs?.

  6. ADA National Network. Service animals and emotional support animals.

  7. New Hampshire Governor’s Commission on Disability. Service animal frequently asked questions.

  8. US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. Service animals.

  9. US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA.

  10. US Department of Transportation. U.S. Department of Transportation announces final rule on traveling by air with service animals.

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By Alison Yarp, MD, MPH
Alison Yarp, MD, MPH, is a medical professional with experience in both clinical and non-clinical medicine, especially in the areas of mental health and public health. Her research and professional interests include injury and violence prevention, mental health advocacy, and emergency preparedness.