What Are Psychiatric Service Dogs?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on February 25, 2024
4 min read

Psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) are dogs that are specially trained to work with people who have certain kinds of mental illnesses or learning disabilities. These dogs can help their owners perform tasks that they otherwise might not be able to do or help them to live a more independent lifestyle.

PSDs are trained animals that aren’t to be confused with other types of service animals.

‌Emotional support animals. Emotional support animals (ESAs) are pets or animals that can provide you with emotional support during difficult times. Unlike PSDs, ESAs don’t need any special training. They can be any kind of domestic animal, not just a dog. However, dogs and cats are the most common choices when it comes to emotional support animals.

ESAs aren’t trained to do specific tasks in the way that service dogs are. They can simply offer you comfort and help you relax during stressful situations.

Service animals. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) says that service animals are dogs that are trained to work with people who have disabilities. Each dog is individually trained to help people with tasks that they might not otherwise be able to do. Service dogs can help guide people with vision, mobility, or physical difficulties.

Psychiatric service dogs. PSDs are trained to work with people who have certain mental health issues rather than physical disabilities. These dogs have the same rights as service dogs do, meaning they can go with you into places where pets usually aren’t allowed. PSDs also can travel with you on planes without any additional cost.

Psychiatric service dogs can be any breed of dog or any size, as long as the dog is able to accompany the owner to public places. Psychiatric service dog training can be done by you, as the owner, but usually, these dogs are individually trained by organizations. 

Psychiatric service dog training focuses on helping people with certain mental illnesses, such as:

The ADA states that anyone with a diagnosed disability can get a service dog. The disability may be physical or mental, and it must impact your life to the point where major activities are limited. Mental illnesses – like anxiety, depression, or PTSD – can be a disability if they put limitations on your life. Some examples might be if you can’t work or leave your home due to the illness.

To qualify for a PSD, your mental illness has to prevent you from living your life independently. If you have a mental illness, but it doesn’t limit your daily life, you wouldn’t be able to get a psychiatric service dog. You also must be able to show that you can give the dog commands, care for it, and give it a stable and loving home.

PSDs for Anxiety. Anxiety is the most common mental illness around the world, and a psychiatric service dog can help you manage it.

A psychiatric service dog for anxiety can:

  • Pick up on signs and symptoms of anxiety attacks before they start
  • Distract you during an anxiety attack so that you can calm down 
  • Apply physical pressure with its body to help calm you down
  • Warn others to give you space
  • Get your medication during an anxiety attack
  • Give you a sense of safety with their presence
  • Alert others for help if they sense that you’re in danger

Psychiatric service dogs are highly trained to perform tasks that help their owners.

‌Physical tasks. Your PSD can perform physical tasks like waking you up in the morning, or even at night if they sense that you’re having bad dreams or nightmares. They may also be able to get you water or medication if you’re unable to get them for yourself. Your psychiatric service dog may even remind you to take your medication at a specific time.

Emotional support. These dogs are also trained to support you emotionally. In social situations, your dog can help you create personal space so that social situations aren’t so overwhelming. PSDs help calm you down during emotional situations so that you can carry on. Your dog can also alert others to help you if they sense that you’re under extreme distress.

While psychiatric service dogs can be any breed, it’s important that these dogs are well-behaved and good-tempered. They shouldn’t be too aggressive or easily stressed, since they will help guide you when you are around others. These dogs should like to be touched, as they will often be around you.

Along with this, a PSD must be able to adapt to new environments and situations. These dogs are trained to keep calm in loud areas, crowded places, and environments with lots of stimuli. The calmer they are, the more they can help you.