Psychiatric Service Dogs And Emotional Support Animals

January 26, 2018 | We Care | Tips from Anne Martinez

You’ve probably heard of or seen service dogs for the blind, but did you know there are also service dogs who help people with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health impairments? Psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) are trained to perform tasks that help a person who has a psychiatric illness

They can perform all kinds of helpful tasks, such as interrupting panic attacks, waking their handler from night terrors, or blocking strangers from getting uncomfortably close. 

PSD’s are specially trained to perform specific tasks for their owners. One common task is deep pressure therapy (DPT).  When a handler is experiencing an anxiety or panic attack, the PSD can provide deep pressure therapy by lying across the handler’s body like a warm, heavy blanket. This has a calming effect and can dramatically ease symptoms.  

PSD’s can accompany their handlers to most public places, just like other service dogs. The handler’s right to be accompanied by their service dog is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). That includes places like grocery stores, libraries, and on public transportation (though special rules apply for flying). 

Not just any dog can be a PSD. Both the handler and the dog must meet specific requirements. First, the handler must have a disability that limits one or more major life activities. The ADA specifically includes mental health impairments as disabilities. A mental health diagnosis doesn’t automatically rise to the level of a disability, though. Chronic anxiety, for example, while always uncomfortable, doesn’t always reach the level of impairing daily functioning. If it prevents someone from participating in life, however, it may be considered a disability.  

To be considered a service dog, the dog must meet requirements too. It must be specifically trained to perform actions that help mitigate its handler’s disability. Simply providing comfort by its presence, as helpful as that is, doesn’t count. 

“Simply providing comfort by its presence, as helpful as that is, doesn’t count.”

Emotional support animals (ESA’s) are different from PSD’s. An ESA’s job is, just as the name implies, to provide emotional support and comfort through its presence. It isn’t necessarily specifically trained to do anything. ESA’s are not protected under the ADA and can’t accompany their owners to public places that aren’t open to pets. They can, however, be allowed to live with their handler in no-pets housing. 

PSD’s aren’t a magical cure for mental illness, but they can lead to drastic improvements in quality of life for certain people. The combination of specifically trained tasks and natural dog affection helps people return to participation in the daily world – yet another invaluable service our furry companions can provide. 

MichaelDarby1965 via Pixabay

If you enjoyed this post, you should read What Is Leash Reactivity? here.

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