Service dogs are dogs that are trained to perform tasks that mitigate disabilities for people with serious disabilities. Psychiatric service dogs perform tasks to assist people with psychiatric disabilities, including depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia. I have post-traumatic stress disorder and my service dog Isaac does a number of tasks to help me. The specific tasks a psychiatric service dogs does depend on the needs of the person the dog assists.
Psychiatric service dogs often remind people to take their medications. One person I know tends to forget to take his daily medications and so his service reminds him to take his pills every day at sunrise and sunset. I usually remember my own medication, but sometimes when I am having an anxiety attack, I am unable to think clearly and then I forget to take the medicine that will relieve my anxiety. Isaac brings my medicine to me when I begin to have an anxiety attack, which reminds me to take it.
Interrupting Compulsive Behaviors
Psychiatric service dogs can be trained to interrupt compulsive behaviors, like hair pulling (trichotillomania) or picking at the skin (dermatillomania). When I’m feeling very anxious, I tend to pick at my skin, especially picking at scabs. My service dog is trained to nudge my hand away when I start to pick at my skin. He will continue nudging my hand, more and more insistently, until I stop.
Determining if Something is a Hallucination or Real
People with conditions like schizophrenia may have hallucinations. Psychiatric service dogs can be trained to help people determine if something is a hallucination or if it’s real. For instance, dogs can be trained to greet people on command. If someone thinks he sees someone come into the room, he can give his service dog the command to greet the person. If it’s really a hallucination, the dog won’t greet that. Instead, the dog will look a bit confused, and the dog’s owner will know he was hallucinating.
Psychiatric service dogs can perform many other tasks, depending on the needs of the person with a disability. For instance, my service dog turns on lights for me, because my PTSD causes me to be afraid to walk into a dark room. My service dog is also trained to move in a circle around me to create a bit of a boundary around me if I’m in a crowded place and people are too close to me. I know someone that sometimes has anxiety attacks in public places, like stores, and when that happens, her service dog leads her to the exit so she can calm down outside where it’s not so crowded. These are just a few of the other tasks psychiatric service dogs might be trained to perform.
Dogs provide emotional support to many people with conditions like depression and anxiety disorders. Simply petting a dog or spending time with a dog can be relaxing and take someone’s mind off his troubles. However, this is not a task that a dog must be trained to do, so psychiatric service dogs must do other things to help people with disabilities. Simply providing emotional support isn’t enough.
Encourage Physical Activity
Dogs also encourage their owners to get more physical activity because dogs need to go for regular walks. For years my doctors and therapists had been encouraging me to get more exercise but I didn’t actually do that until I got my service dog. Isaac loves to go for long walks and now I take him for two or three 20 to 30 minute walks every day. However, taking walks isn’t a task dogs have to be trained to do, so psychiatric service dogs have to do other things to help people with disabilities.