Can a Service Dog Help With Depression?

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Service dogs are dogs trained to help people with disabilities perform tasks. Most people think of service dogs in relation to physical disabilities, but service dogs also help people with mental health conditions, including depression.

Read on to learn more about psychiatric service dogs for depression.

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Qualifications

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals are defined as an animal that is "individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability." The tasks that the service dog assists with must also be directly related to the disability.

Currently, only dogs and miniature horses are approved by the ADA. No other species can qualify as a service animal.

Under the ADA, there is no requirement for service dogs to undergo any specific training, certifications, or registration. There are also no limitations on dog breed.

Prevalence of Service Dogs

In North America, psychiatric uses are the fourth most common reason someone uses a service dog. Also, the use of service dogs for mental health conditions is on the rise. Between 2000 and 2002, psychiatric uses accounted for 17% of service dog needs. Between 2010 and 2012, this increased to almost 32%.

Physical vs. Invisible Disability

Not all disabilities are visible. Many people with disabilities that can't be seen, such as depression, can benefit from psychiatric service dogs.

The ADA defines disability as:

  • A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities
  • A person who has a history or record of such an impairment
  • A person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment

For example, you cannot look at someone and know that they have depression. However, their depression may significantly impair their daily activities and thereby qualify them for a service animal.

Service Dog vs. Emotional Support Animal

Service dogs and emotional support animals are not the same thing. The ADA only provides protection and rights for those animals that qualify as service animals.

A service dog is a working animal that is trained to perform specific tasks relating directly to their handler's disability. For a psychiatric service dog, this might include reminding handlers to take their medication or preventing self-harm.

Emotional support animals are those that provide comfort, calming, therapy, or companionship simply by their presence, but are not trained to work or perform tasks.

Benefits

The primary benefit and goal of psychiatric service dogs is to enable the handler to better manage their disability and remain engaged in daily life. They do this by assisting with daily tasks and helping their handler reduce symptoms or avoid psychiatric episodes.

Examples of Potential Tasks Performed

For people with depression, examples of tasks your service dog might perform include:

  • Interrupting self-harm behaviors
  • Giving medication reminders
  • Waking their handler up from a traumatic nightmare
  • Providing cues to perform daily routines
  • Turning on lights, fetching clothes, and otherwise helping the handler perform their activities of daily living
  • Keeping disoriented or panicking handlers from danger
  • Providing deep pressure stimulation or constant body contact

There is a large body of evidence on the benefits of service dogs for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder that often co-occurs alongside depression.

One study looked at changes in the PTSD Checklist, a symptom self-report measure from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, among veterans with PTSD who used service dogs vs. veterans with PTSD who did not use service dogs. The service dog group showed benefits, including lowered depression, higher quality of life, and improved social functioning.

However, there is currently not much research examining the benefits of service dogs specifically for depression. More research is needed to truly understand the impact of service dogs in helping handlers with depression.

Cost

Cost is a major barrier to getting a service dog. Private insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid do not cover the cost of service dogs. According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), it can cost up to $25,000 to buy a trained service dog from specialized organizations.

While this cost might seem prohibitive, keep in mind that there are many nonprofit organizations, charities, grants, and funds that can provide service dogs either for free or at a subsidized cost. You should look into financial aid with any service dog organization you are considering.

The initial upfront cost of buying and training a service dog is not the only cost consideration. You must also be able to support your dog by paying for their veterinary bills, local vaccines and licenses, food, bedding, toys, and more.

PAWS for Veterans

For veterans, the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers for Veterans Therapy Act, or PAWS Act, signed into law by President Joe Biden in August 2021 significantly reduces the cost of service dogs.

How to Train a Service Dog

Training

Training a dog to become a service animal takes a lot of education, time, and rigorous effort. However, there is no accredited training program that is required under the ADA for a dog to become a service dog.

Many people with disabilities take an interest in service dog training and learn how to train their own dogs. But if you are inexperienced, then it may be best to defer to the experts for training.

The AKC advises that service dog training start with foundational skills, including:

  • House training, including eliminating waste on demand
  • Socialization in different environments, including staying attentive to a task
  • Teaching the dog to ignore distractions and focus on their handler

Once a dog has mastered foundational skills, they must also be trained to perform specific tasks to assist with their handler's disability. This final step in training is the most important, because it is what qualifies a dog as a service animal.

Certification

The ADA also does not require any special certifications for a dog to be considered a service animal.

Many colleges, universities, states, and local ordinances offer voluntary registration programs, but this is always optional.

There are also organizations that sell service animal certifications, but it's important to know that these are not recognized by the Department of Justice and don't affect your protections or rights under the ADA.

How to Buy a Service Dog

There is no specification in the ADA about how to obtain a service dog, or who is allowed to provide service dogs. In order to obtain a service dog, you can:

  • Buy a dog from an organization that specializes in breeding, selecting, and training service dogs
  • Buy your own dog and train it either yourself or with a hired trainer

Buying From an Organization

There are many organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit, across the country that specialize in breeding and training service dogs. These organizations offer expert service dog selection and training. Many have a 50%–70% fail rate, meaning they only pass the very best dogs to be working service dogs.

Examples of organizations include NEADS World Class Service Dogs or Canine Companions for Independence.

Investing in expert training may also come with some challenges, such as long waiting lists and expensive training fees. Always ask about financial aid with any organization you consider.

Buying Your Own Service Dog

There is no limitation on what type of dog can be a service dog. You could train your existing pet to be a service dog, or get one from a breeder or an animal rescue shelter.

Consider the tasks you want your service dog to perform for you when choosing a dog, as this will impact the size of dog you choose. German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, and Golden Retrievers are common service dog breeds, but temperament is also important.

Qualities to Look for in a Service Dog

Qualities to look for in a highly trainable service dog include:

  • Focused and attentive to their handler
  • Calm in all settings
  • Alert but not reactive
  • Highly trainable for specific tasks
  • Having a desire to please
  • Desensitized to distractions
  • Not easily diverted from tasks
  • Demonstrate information retention and learning
  • Easily socialized in many different settings

Summary

Service animals help their owners perform tasks directly relating to their disability, with the goal of improving participation in daily life. Some people who have depression that significantly impairs their engagement in daily activities use a psychiatric service dog to help them cope.

There are many steps involved in getting a service dog, including finding the right dog, financial considerations, training, bonding, and caring for the dog. More research is needed to truly understand the benefit of service dogs for depression.

A Word From Verywell

Not everyone with depression will require a service dog. However, if your depression is preventing you from engaging in daily activities that a service dog could assist with, then you may want to consider a psychiatric service dog. These service dogs can perform many different tasks and help you cope.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you get a service dog for free?

    Many service-dog breeding and training organizations offer financial aid and provide service dogs for free. You could also train your existing pet, breed your own puppy, or adopt one from an animal rescue for free or low cost.

  • What breeds are best for service dogs?

    The ADA has no restrictions on breeds of dogs that can be service animals. However, trainers and experts have identified certain breeds as being more easily trained than others. The American Kennel Club states that German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, and Golden Retrievers are common service dog breeds.

  • Why can’t you pet service dogs?

    Service dogs are working animals. They are essential to their handler's engagement in daily life and are necessary because of their handler's disability. Petting a service dog could distract them from their work and harm their owner.

  • How can you identify a service dog?

    Many service dogs wear special harnesses identifying them as service animals. However, this is not a requirement. In order to identify or confirm an animal as a service dog, the ADA permits business owners to ask only two questions: 1) Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? 2) What work or task has the dog been trained to perform? 

    It is not acceptable to ask an owner to provide documentation, explain their disability, or demonstrate tasks.

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9 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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