If you have established that you are suffering from a mental health disability, I am sure many thoughts are racing through your mind. When I was diagnosed with chronic anxiety, the first two questions I had were, “why me?” and “what can I do about it?” Mental health struggles can appear for many reasons. It is not unusual for genetic predispositions or experienced traumas to induce these challenges. Whether you develop symptoms slowly over time or are suddenly caught off guard by them, your life can be significantly altered. If you find yourself needing assistance to deter or manage the physical and psychological manifestations of your disability, a Psychiatric Service Dog (PSD) may be an excellent fit for you!
PSDs and Emotional Support Animals can offer an alternative or supplemental coping mechanism to prescription medicines. To determine which type of animal would be best suited to your needs, you can learn more about both options here.
What to do next...
Some training requirements must take place in order for your furry companion to qualify and be effective as a Psychiatric Service Dog. These requirements include both obedience and task-related mastery. That statement might sound big and intimidating, but these things are entirely attainable. According to the ADA and the Department of Transportation guidelines, owners are permitted to self-train their service animals. You do not need to pay for professional training services, though you can if that’s preferable or necessary for your situation. I did not have the financial budget to hire out, so I began researching on my own. I found many online resources (including American Service Pets) that created confidence in my ability to teach my dog Duke the skills necessary to help me. With a little bit of knowledge and encouragement, you can gain that confidence too!
First Things First
As a general rule of progression, controlled obedience should come before you begin specific psychiatric task training. Using guidelines, such as those provided by the General Public Access Test (PAT), can promote success in establishing good manners and proper public behavior in your PSD. If your dog can accomplish basic commands such as sit, stay, and shake, then you are well on your way to reaching the obedience goals. You’ll want to be certain that your dog immediately responds when asked to come to you (either by a verbal cue or hand signal) and can calmly enter or exit a vehicle or building. They should also be able to focus regardless of environmental stimuli. In other words, they should not startle or become aggressive around other people, animals, or loud noises. Regular practice, consistent commands, and positive reinforcement will be your most useful tools. Please don’t let basic obedience training overwhelm you. With some patience and gentle guidance, most dogs can be well behaved in a few months. The benefits you can gain will far outweigh the efforts you’ll need to invest.
Now that step one is taken care of, I will give you some examples of the most common tasks a Psychiatric Service Dog can perform for its owner. This list is not comprehensive, though it should give a good gauge of the services a PSD can provide to those suffering from mental health disabilities! It is best to train by using verbal cues that are quickly recognizable by your animal, such as “help.” Simple hand signals are also advantageous in situations where you may be unable to speak.
Notifications or Reminders
Notification refers to a dog’s task of recognizing the signs of an oncoming mental health episode and alerting its handler to this reality. A notification can be something as simple as your dog laying its head on your lap, vigorously licking your hand, or repeatedly nudging your arm.
Reminders are just what they sound like: a reminder to do something necessary in managing your disability. These can include things like taking regular medication, going to bed in a timely manner at night, or leaving your home for recurring scheduled appointments. Your dog can achieve this task by barking, nudging, or pawing at you until successfully accomplishing the goal.
Notifications and reminders can be catered to whatever your specific disability requires.
These tasks pertain to your dog performing actions that aid you while dealing with the effects of your disability. For instance, turning on lights and proceeding to wake you during a night terror would qualify as assistive activities. Other examples include:
- Bringing you water or medicine amid a panic attack.
- Checking rooms ahead of you to dispel any fears of perceived threats.
- Finding an exit on cue to guide you out of a triggering public situation.
Certain mental health medications can have side effects such as dizziness or disorientation. Psychiatric Service Dogs can be trained to steady you physically if you experience these troubling reactions. Larger dogs can offer counter-balance by leaning against (or bracing) you on command as you move towards a seated position. Providing this support can protect you against a life-threatening fall.
Deep Pressure Therapy
Have you ever heard of a weighted blanket? They are blankets filled with heavy pellets that are often recommended to help with sleep disturbances, ADHD, and anxiety episodes. These blankets are amazing, and I know because I use one myself! They do have a flaw, however. What do you do when you aren’t at home, or your blanket isn’t within reach? Think of deep pressure therapy (DPT) with your PSD like an always available, soft, furry, warm, weighted blanket.
Your dog can provide DPT by helping to calm your restless body during a mental health episode. They accomplish this by putting weight on designated parts of your body (legs, feet, or chest are most effective). You will want to make sure that your pup is taught to do this in a way that promotes comfort. For instance, a large dog laying their entire body on your chest is generally less desirable than completing a “down” command to drape their upper body across your legs. Your dog should also respond to an “all done” or “off” command when you need them to move.
Interruption or Distraction
Some people suffer from mental health disruptions that can cause panic attacks, compulsive or repetitious behavior, dissociative episodes, or an inclination towards self-harm. If that’s the case, your service dog can learn to quickly interrupt or distract you from these actions with specified tasks.
There are times when my anxiety is severe and will cause me to incessantly bounce my legs, bite my nails, or pace. My mind is racing, and I often don’t realize what is going on around me. I have trained Duke to gently jump up at me (as many times as necessary) when he sees these indications of anxiety happening. That sudden stimulus grounds me and notifies me of my need to begin a deep breathing exercise.
My experience provides one example, but there are many ways your dog can interrupt or distract your actions. The possibilities are endless and simply depend on your needs and your dog’s strengths.
Barrier or Protective Guarding
Mental health disabilities can make venturing into public settings difficult for some. This difficulty might manifest in social anxiety, claustrophobia with crowds, or paranoia around strangers. By acting as a buffer, your Psychiatric Service Dog can assist in creating personal space and distancing others.
Using a command, such as “stay close,” you can train your dog to place their body between you and those immediately next to you while in line, on an elevator, riding public transportation, etc. The dog provides a safety barrier that can be reassuring. You might also use a hand signal to prompt your pup to walk around you in circles. This form of physical guarding is hard for people to ignore and will often cause them to back up. An adorable dog “asking” politely for cooperation is much less offensive and can protect you from any potentially upsetting interactions.
Phew! That was a lot of information.
Please do not be overwhelmed. Having a Psychiatric Service Dog can be a tremendous blessing to anyone who desires it. Training does not have to be complicated, but it will take some time and dedication to achieve the results you’re aiming for. There are flexible methods, reliable online resources, and compassionate support communities at your fingertips. I am forever thankful for my own PSD journey with Duke. I would encourage other people (like you) who seek the same path to go for it. Just take one step at a time and remember that American Service Pets are there to help!