Psychiatric service dogs are dogs that are trained to assist people with psychiatric disabilities, like major depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia. Not all people with mental illnesses such as these are disabled by their conditions, of course. To qualify for a service dog, you must be disabled by your psychiatric illness.
Psychiatric service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks for disabled people; for instance, they might bring medication to someone suffering an anxiety attack or wake someone with post-traumatic stress disorder from a nightmare. Simply providing comfort is not considered a trained task and does not make a dog a service dog.
If you think you might benefit from a psychiatric service dog, discuss it with your treatment providers, such as your psychiatrist and therapist.
Psychiatric Service Dog Programs
Unless you have extensive experience training dogs, including working dogs, your best bet is to find a psychiatric service dog program and apply for a fully trained service dog. When you get a service dog from a reputable program, you get a dog that is well-trained and that has also been screened for potential health issues that might affect his ability to work. You should also receive training in how to work with your dog and have access to a trainer in the future for advice or assistance when needed.
Most service dog program charge a fee for trained service dogs, which can range from $1,000 to $10,000 or even more, but they often have scholarships that cover part of the cost for low-income applicants and they usually provide assistance with fundraising, so a service dog may be more affordable than you think. A program dog usually ends up being less expensive than training your own dog in the end.
Unfortunately, there is more demand for psychiatric service dogs than there are program-trained dogs available currently. You may have trouble finding a program in your area that trains dogs for the sort of tasks you need a service dog to do for you. Consider traveling to another area of the country if necessary to get a service dog. Most programs have one to two year waiting lists, but keep in mind the fact that it would take that long to train a service dog yourself, too, and if you train your own dog, there is no guarantee the dog will work out in the end.
Psychiatric service dog programs all have their own policies and procedures, but typically they will require you to complete an application, to provide documentation from your doctor verifying that you are in fact disabled and could benefit from a psychiatric service dog, to provide reference letters from people that know you verifying that you will provide a good home and care for a dog, and to attend a face-to-face interview. Most programs provide a period of training, sometimes done in a group format, in which recipients of their service dogs learn to work with their dogs.
Training Your Own Psychiatric Service Dog
If you have experience training dogs and you want to try to train your own service dog, you must start by finding an appropriate dog to train. An animal behaviorist or a professional dog trainer, one with experience training service dogs, can help you select an appropriate dog.
It takes about 18 months to train a service dog. Your dog will first need to be trained in basic obedience. Then he’ll need to learn to obey even in very distracting circumstances. In order to be allowed to take your service dog into public places with you, like grocery stores and restaurants, he’ll need to learn to heel closely, not to sniff people or objects, not to attempt to get to food or to eat food even if it’s dropped on the floor in front of him, and to ignore distractions like people calling him or attempting to pet him. Finally, he’ll need to be trained to perform specific tasks that mitigate your disability. For best results, work closely with a professional trainer during the training process.
Can Your Pet Become a Psychiatric Service Dog?
Your pet dog might be able to become a psychiatric service dog, but it’s unlikely. Most dogs simply do not have the temperament to be good service dogs. You can have your dog evaluated by an experienced professional trainer to see if he might have the right temperament. If he does, he’ll need about 18 months of training in order to become a service dog.