Service dogs helps people with all kinds of disabilities, including psychiatric disabilities like post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. I have post-traumatic stress disorder and received a service dog, a yellow lab named Isaac, a little over a year ago. Not everyone with a psychiatric condition qualifies for a service dog, however. To qualify for a psychiatric service dog, you must be disabled by your condition and there must be tasks a dog can be trained to do to mitigate your disability.
Are You Disabled?
To qualify for a service dog, you must be disabled according to the definition given in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which says a disability is a condition that significantly limits your ability to perform basic life activities, like seeing, hearing, walking, thinking and communicating. PTSD causes me to have significant difficulty thinking and communicating at times. Note that you might qualify for Society Security disability and still not be disabled according to the ADA. On the other hand, you might be able to work and therefore not qualify for Social Security disability but still be disabled under the ADA definition and therefore still qualify for a psychiatric service dog. Talk to your doctor or therapist if you aren’t sure if you are disabled according to the ADA definition.
Can a Dog Be Trained to Do Tasks to Mitigate Your Disability?
Think about what things you are unable to do for yourself because of your psychiatric condition. Some of the things I was unable to do because of my PTSD included remembering to take my anxiety medication when I have an anxiety attack (normally I am able to take my medication on my own but during an anxiety attack, I can’t think clearly and just forget to take it unless someone reminds me) and walking into a dark room. Your doctor or therapist can help you make a list of things you can’t do on your own.
Once you have a list of things you cannot do for yourself, think about how someone else (human, dog, robot, whatever) could do them for you or help you do them. For instance, my service dog is trained to bring my medication to me when I start to have an anxiety attack (he knows to do that when he sees signs that I am getting increasingly anxious, like crying, rocking back and forth, clenching my fists, and breathing harder than normal) and to turn on lights. If you’re not sure if a dog could be trained to do the things you need done, talk to a dog trainer about that.
Keep in mind the fact that a service dog must be trained to do specific tasks to mitigate your disability. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, providing emotional support or comfort isn’t considered a trained task. For instance, when I feel anxious, petting Isaac makes me feel calmer. That’s not a trained task, though. If he wasn’t trained to do specific tasks to mitigate my disability, like bringing me medication and turning on lights, he would not be a service dog.
Other Things to Consider
In order to qualify for a psychiatric service dog, you need to be able to care for a dog, of course. Can you afford the cost of dog food, toys, veterinary care and other supplies? Does your psychiatric condition make it difficult to handle daily tasks like feeding, walking and grooming a dog? If you need to be hospitalized for a short time, who would take care of your service dog?
If anxiety is part of your condition, how will you feel going out in public with a service dog? People often stare at people with service dogs and sometimes ask personal questions or make rude comments. How will you handle any access disputes? If an employee tells you that you can’t bring your dog into a restaurant or store, will you be able to remain calm? You can discuss these issues with your therapist.