Service dogs are dogs that have been specially trained to help individuals with disabilities with daily tasks. Service dogs don’t just help people with physical disabilities, such as blindness. Psychiatric service animals are trained to help people with mental health conditions, such as anxiety, function at their fullest in every day life.
Read on to learn more about service dogs for anxiety disorders.
What’s a Service Dog?
The ADA, which was last updated in 2010, defines service animals as “individually trained to perform work or tasks for a person with a disability.”2 Both dogs and miniature horses are approved by the ADA as service animals, but no other species is eligible.
Psychiatric service dogs are specially trained to help people suffering from mental health conditions, like anxiety disorders. They are service animals and carry out tasks on behalf of their owners.
Service Dog vs. Emotional Support Animal.
The ADA states that emotional support, therapy, comfort and companion animals aren’t considered service animals1. This is because they’re not trained to perform specific tasks for their handlers, despite providing emotional support.
Because emotional support animals are not protected by the ADA, they might not be allowed in all public places. You should check local laws in any state or county where you live to confirm.
How They Help With Anxiety Attacks
If your animal is trained to perform specific tasks during an anxiety attack, such as fetching help or providing tactile cues to calm you down, then it’s considered a service animal according to the ADA.1
If even the simple presence of your animal provides comfort and calmness during times of stress, then that would qualify them as emotional support animals.
Service dogs are trained to perform tasks or provide other assistance to their owners so they can safely and fully participate in everyday life. As defined by the ADA, these tasks must be directly related to the disabled person’s condition.1
Psychiatric service dogs, for example, may be trained to detect the onset of psychiatric episodes, such as someone with anxiety having a panic attack.3 The dogs may also help their owners avoid triggers or minimize symptoms of these episodes via tactile cues or redirecting their handlers.
Some examples of tasks that a service dog may perform for someone with an anxiety disorder include:3
- Reminding their handler to take their medication
- Performing room searches or safety checks
- Waking their handler up from a traumatic nightmare
- Turning on lights for someone with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Getting through doorways, retrieving mail, or any task at all can be challenging for someone with social anxiety disorder or agoraphobia
- Interrupting self harm or obsessive compulsive behaviors
- Keeping disoriented or panicking handlers from danger
- Providing tactile sensory input for reducing anxiety
Until now, most research on service dogs treating anxiety has been done among veterans suffering from PTSD, which is one type of anxiety disorder.
One study found that in a group of veterans with PTSD, use of psychiatric service dogs alongside an intensive trauma resilience training for three weeks reduced PTSD symptoms and improved overall quality of life.4
Another study examined exactly how service dogs could provide these benefits. In interviews with participants with PTSD who had used service dogs, it was determined that service dogs help in the following ways:
- Disrupt nightmares
- Improve sleep quality and duration
- Reduce hypervigilance by alerting and creating boundaries
- Help turn attention away from invasive or trauma-related thought patterns
- Improve emotional connection with others
- Increase community participation
- Increase physical activity
- Reduce need for medication
- Reduce suicidal impulses
Help Is Available
If you’re struggling with anxiety or suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.
This price covers the selection or breeding of the dog, vet bills, food and extensive, rigorous training by certified service dog experts. You may have to pay even more for specific skills.
There are many volunteer-run service dog breeding and training organizations that offer financial aid, offering their service dogs for free. You might also be able to train your current pet, raise your own pup, or adopt a puppy from a local animal rescue, all for free or at a very low cost.
Certain protected groups may also have access to special funding for service dogs.
The Puppies Aiding Wounded Servicemembers for Veterans Therapy Act, or PAWS Act, signed into law by President Biden in August 2021 and going into effect in early 2022, will further reduce the cost of service dogs for veterans.
No need to buy a service dog from one of these organizations, either; you could train an existing pet, breed your own dog, or adopt a dog from an animal shelter for a low price.
How to Train a Service Dog
There are plenty of such programs out there, though, and working with an expert can ensure your dog is highly trained and effective. However, you also have the option to train your dog yourself.
Training your own service dog can be a very time-consuming undertaking. Without prior dog training experience, it may also be frustrating and challenging. But many people find it extremely rewarding. The American Kennel Club recommends starting service dog training with:
- House training, including eliminating waste on demand
- Socialization in many environments, including staying attentive to a task in various settings
- Teaching the dog to ignore distractions and focus on their handler
Once a dog has mastered these foundational skills, they must then be trained to perform specific tasks to aid their owners who are disabled. This final step in training is essential, because that’s what makes a dog a service animal.
When training dogs to perform tasks, there are some techniques that dog trainers use. Seven of these techniques were found in a study of vets with PTSD who trained their own service dogs.
- Positive reinforcement (e.g., physical praise or petting)
- Negative punishment (e.g., ignoring the dog)
- Positive punishment (e.g., verbal corrections)
- Dominance (e.g., alpha roll)
- Bond-based (e.g., co-sleeping)
In this study, bond-based and positive reinforcement techniques had the greatest positive effects on behavior change, whereas positive punishment was associated with negative outcomes.
The ADA does not mandate that service animals obtain any documentation of their status. Some states, counties, colleges and universities offer voluntary training programs, but it’s optional. Additionally, there are many organizations that sell and provide service animal training or certification.
Although you might choose to pay and have one completed, be aware that they aren’t recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice or the ADA.1 They aren’t a required requirement under the ADA for you to use a service animal and enjoy its protections and rights.
How to Buy a Service Dog
Any breed of dog can be a service dog, but certain dogs may make for better service dogs than others.
Also, you need to think about what type of tasks your dog will be able to perform for you. For example, if your dog will be opening doors or turning on lights, they should be big enough to jump up and do these things.
Qualities to Look for in a Service Dog
Qualities to look for in a highly trainable service dog include:
- Focused and attentive to their handler
- Be calm in all settings
- Be alert but not reactive
- Highly trainable for specific tasks
- Have a desire to please
- Desensitized to distractions
- Not easily diverted from tasks
- Demonstrate information retention and learning
- Be easily socialized in many different settings
One option is to purchase your service dog directly from an organization that specializes in breeding and training service dogs. These organizations are highly specialized and offer expert training, with sometimes only the top 30% of dogs passing the training program.6 There might be long wait lists or high costs associated with this route. Look into scholarships at any organization you’re considering.
A few examples of organizations that do this include NEADS World Class Service Dogs or Canine Companions for Independence.6 Several organizations, including NEADS, also selectively recruit dogs from animal shelters to participate in a training program.
Be aware that you can buy any dog, whether it’s from an animal shelter, a breeder, or even breeding yourself. Training the dog to perform specific tasks for you is what will qualify them as a service dog, not buying them from a specific organization.
The ADA defines service animals as animals who are trained to perform tasks for a person with a disability. Psychiatric service dogs can help an individual with anxiety disorder perform tasks related to their disability. Most of the research on the benefits of service dogs for anxiety centers around veterans with PTSD. Service dogs may be able to help improve quality of life and ease symptoms of PTSD. There’s still plenty of research needed to look at service dogs in the context of other types of anxiety disorders.
A Word From ESADoggy
There aren’t all disabilities that are obvious, and thankfully, the ADA covers psychiatric service dogs for people with mental health conditions. If you suffer from a mental health condition, such as an anxiety disorder, and find it difficult to complete day-to-day tasks, then you might be able to benefit from a service dog. Your service dog may be trained to do these tasks for you, helping you engage in daily life more fully while managing your anxiety.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Can you get a service dog for free?
Many service dog breeding and training organizations offer financial aid and provide service dogs for free. You could also train your existing pet, breed your own puppy, or adopt one from an animal rescue for free or low cost.
What breeds are best for service dogs?
The ADA makes no restrictions regarding breeds of dogs that are allowed to be service animals. However, trainers and experts have pointed out that certain breeds are easier to train than others. The American Kennel Club lists German Shepherds, Labradors and Golden Retrievers as common service dog breeds.
Why can’t you pet service dogs?
Service animals are work animals. They are vital to their owner’s participation in everyday life, and they may be requited because of their disability. To pet a service dog might distract them from their job and cause harm to their owner.
How can you identify a service dog?
Some service dogs wear special harnesses to identify them as service animals. However, that’s not a requirement. In order to identify or verify an animal as a service dog, the ADA allows business owners to ask just two questions: 1) Is the dog a service animal due to a disability? 2) What type of work or task did the dog learnt to perform?1 It is not okay to ask an owner for documentation, to explain their disability, or to demonstrate a task.,