February 2

How to Train a Psychiatric Service Dog

Psychiatric Service Dog

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psychiatric service dog

Psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) are assistance animals who are entitled to federally protected rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Because of the important and essential service that they provide their owners, they’re permitted access to public places like stores and restaurants, and are also permitted onboard airline cabins and in living accommodations that normally don’t allow pets. 

However, in order to be recognized as a psychiatric service dog, an animal must be appropriately trained to perform the functions unique to their position.  

 

How to Train a Psychiatric Service Dog

There are three options available when it comes to training your psychiatric service dog. 

Self Training. The ADA and the DOT permit owners to self-train their service animals. Using guidelines such as those provided by the General Public Access Test can ensure good manners and behavior in your PSD whenever you’re in a public place. However, many who require the services of a PSD understandably may not have the time, energy, or desire to research training methods and best practices specific to PSDs in order to best teach their new assistance animal. Fortunately, there are other options available.  

Adopting from a Service Dog Organization. There are many organizations through which individuals can request a service dog. An animal from one of these service dog organizations will have already received extensive training and will be ready to assist you as soon as you bring your PSD home. However, the average cost of an animal from such an organization can range from $15,000-$30,000.

Working with a Professional Dog Trainer (Most Popular Option). A dog trainer brings years of experience and knowledge about animal behavior to the table and can more quickly train your dog to perform any needed tasks as a PSD in addition to training them to meet the General Public Access Test guidelines. This type of formal and structured training is ideal, considering that the Department of Transportation (DOT) permits airlines the right to ask PSD owners to submit a certification form before departure that includes proof that their PSD has been trained to assist with a disability and is capable of good behavior on a flight. Working with a professional dog trainer is the easiest option available when it comes to submitting this certification form with confidence. It’s also the best option in training your PSD the right way, as a professional trainer can assist you with developing appropriate signals to give your psychiatric service dog when you need a specific task performed.

how to train psychiatric service dog

 

Training Requirements for a Psychiatric Service Dog 

Because they’re considered service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act, psychiatric service dogs are entitled to several federally protected rights. This allows them public access to places where pets or emotional support animals are normally not allowed. These rights also extend to travel privileges in airline cabins without owners having to pay extra fees as well as fair accommodation in housing–even if the property has a ‘no pets’ policy. 

However, in order for an assistance animal to be considered a psychiatric service dog, the animal must be suitably trained. 

This is because the Department of Transportation allows airlines to require forms attesting to a service animal’s behavior and training before the service dog is cleared to board a flight. The DOT also allows airlines to refuse transportation to service animals that exhibit aggressive behavior.

Proper PSD training therefore serves two purposes: it ensures your service animal displays good manners at all times while in public places, and it also ensures that your service animal is able to perform a specific task or type of work that is directly related to your mental or emotional disability (a requirement for all PSDs). 

That said, there are two components of an effective training regimen for psychiatric service dogs:

  • The General Public Access Test, which instills good manners in service dogs, ensuring that they behave appropriately in public settings  
  • Specialized Task/Work Training, which satisfies the requirement of all PSDs to be able to perform a specific action that’s directly related to their handler’s disability 

Let’s explore each of these components in more depth. 

 

The General Public Access Test 

general public access test

As a service animal with federally protected rights, your psychiatric service dog will be permitted access to public places where pets or emotional support animals are normally not allowed.

Your PSD must therefore be able to behave appropriately in all public settings, which includes showing good manners around other people and animals. 

The General Public Access Test, typically administered or signed off on by a professional dog trainer, is based on typical scenarios you and your service dog will encounter in every-day life. Successful completion of the test shows that your psychiatric service dog has been appropriately trained to be on their best behavior regardless of the many different situations they may face in a public setting.  

Some of the tasks your PSD will be required to perform during the General Public Access Test include:

  • Performing basic obedience skills such as sit, stay, down, and heel
  • Exiting a vehicle in a safe and controlled manner (e.g. waiting for your signal before exiting)
  • Entering a building in a safe and controlled manner (e.g. no straining against their leash) 
  • Remaining under control as another dog passes by
  • Showing no fear of or aggression toward loud noises

Upon successful completion of the General Public Access Test, your dog trainer will sign off on your test documentation. A copy of this documentation is what you will submit to airlines that require it when traveling with your PSD. 

 

Psychiatric Service Dog Tasks

Good manners and appropriate behavior when in public are essential traits of a well-trained psychiatric service dog. 

However, there’s one additional aspect of PSD training that’s unique to these particular service dogs, and that’s the ability to perform a specific task or type of work that is directly related to your mental or emotional disability. This is a requirement of all PSDs and is what allows them federally protected rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as the Air Carrier Access Act and Fair Housing Act. 

In accordance with guidelines established by the ADA, a public accommodation can legally ask PSD owners the following questions:

  1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

You’ll especially hear these questions when you’re traveling with your PSD via airplane. That said, no one has the right to ask you to identify your specific disability or ask that your pet demonstrate their skill.

However, all PSDs must still be trained to take a specific action (a task or type of work) on cue, and this action must be related to their handler’s disability.

There are a wide range of services that a psychiatric service dog can provide to their owner. The U.S. Department of Justice provides the following examples: “…a person with diabetes may have a dog that is trained to alert him when his blood sugar reaches high or low levels. A person with depression may have a dog that is trained to remind her to take her medication. Or, a person who has epilepsy may have a dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure and then help the person remain safe during the seizure.”

Below are some of the most common types of tasks or types of work that psychiatric service dogs can perform for their handlers, along with their assistance classification and the symptoms/experiences they can help mitigate. 

Keep in mind that according to the Department of Justice, your psychiatric service dog is only required to perform one specific type of action. Some people, however, will train their PSD to perform other tasks as well if needed. 

 

 

Tactile Stimulation, Deep Pressure Therapy, Pressure and Warmth Stimulation  

Assistance Classification: Work, Task

Tactile stimulation and pressure therapy can help ground a person and offer a therapeutic distraction from anxiety, depression, or a pending panic attack. PSDs can also be trained to place pressure on their handler’s chest or lap to encourage emotional regulation, bring calm to a situation, or simply offer warmth.

Commonly used for: Anxiety, Apathy, Chills (pressure and warmth stimulation), Disengagement, Depression, Distractibility, Distress, Fear, Feelings of Isolation, Fight or Flight Response, Flashbacks, Intrusive Thoughts/Images, Panic Attacks, Nausea, Suicidal Ideation 

psychiatric service dog types of tasks

Grounding    

Assistance Classification: Work, Task

When a person feels trapped by the thoughts in their mind, whether they stem from anxiety, flashbacks, or other types of distress, grounding techniques can be helpful in bringing a person’s focus to their physical body or surroundings. A psychiatric service dog can ground their handler through interaction, tactile stimulation, pressure therapy, or through another therapeutic means that assists their handler.    

Commonly used for: Anxiety, Catatonic Behavior, Delusions, Depression, Disorganized Speech or Behavior, Dissociation, Flashbacks, Distress, Emotional Escalation, Flashbacks, Hypervigilance, Night Terrors, Psychosis, Self Mutilation, Sound Sensitivity, Sensory Overload, Sleep Disturbance, Startle Response, Suicidal Ideation

Medical Alert or Reminder

Assistance Classification: Work

A psychiatric service dog can be trained to alert their handler to the beginning stages of a medical episode, such as a change in breathing patterns, an increase in heart rate, emotional escalation, or oncoming muscle tension. 

In addition, a psychiatric service dog can remind their handler when it’s time for medication, when it’s time for bed, or when the handler needs to perform other daily routines throughout the day. 

Commonly used for (Alerts): Medical episodes such as changes in breathing pattern or an increase in heart rate, Hallucinations (alerting to real people or noises), Hyperfocus, Hyperlocomotion, Irritability, Restlessness 

Commonly used for (Reminders): Disorganization, Insomnia, Memory Loss 

Assistive Actions 

Assistance Classification: Work, Task 

There are times when a handler may need their psychiatric service dog to perform certain every-day actions that provide assistance, such as retrieving medication if the individual is too nauseous or lethargic to do so themselves, keeping the handler in bed if needed, turning on the lights and waking up the handler during a night terror, providing identification documents to others for assistance, or closing a door to block out loud and disturbing noises.  

Commonly used for: Dissociative Fugue, Forgotten Personal Identity, Hypersomnia, Lethargy, Memory Loss, Nausea, Night Terrors, Sound Sensitivity, Sleep Disturbance 

psychiatric service dog tasks

Guidance

Assistance Classification: Work, Task

In certain scenarios, such as when a person is overcome with feelings of fear or overwhelm, they may rely on their psychiatric service dog to safely guide them home or to another safe location. This is also an essential source of support when a handler is disoriented or confused. 

Commonly used for: Anxiety, Confusion, Difficulty Navigating, Disorientation, Dissociative Fugue, Fear, Feelings of Overwhelm, Fight or Flight Response, Psychomotor Retardation

Balance Support    

Assistance Classification: Work, Task

Certain medications commonly used for mental health illnesses can come with side effects such as dizziness. This resulting dizziness can make it challenging for a person to walk without ample support. In these situations, a psychiatric service dog can brace their owner and/or provide balance assistance. 

Commonly used for: Dizziness caused by psychiatric medications  

Interaction 

Assistance Classification: Work, Task

A psychiatric service dog’s companionship can provide therapeutic benefit for those living with feelings of depression, isolation, or tearfulness. Through tactile stimulation, deep pressure therapy, or other means, a PSD can interact with its handler in order to bring comfort and calm. A psychiatric service dog can also initiate desired or needed interpersonal interactions for their owner’s benefit. In other situations, such as in the case of insomnia, a PSD may provide interaction until their handler initiates sleep preparations or another necessary routine. 

Commonly used for: Anxiety, Apathy, Depersonalization, Depression, Disengagement, Feelings of Isolation, Insomnia, Sadness/Tearfulness, Social Withdrawal 

PSD tasks

Threat Assessment 

Assistance Classification: Work, Task

Approaching certain spaces, whether familiar or new, can sometimes be triggering for those who live with anxiety-related illnesses or stress disorders. In these scenarios, a handler can rely on their psychiatric service dog for assistance. The PSD can non-aggressively search the space for any threats and put their handler at ease.  

Commonly used for: Anxiety, Distress, Fear, Hypervigilance 

Interruption  

Assistance Classification: Work, Task

Sometimes, a psychiatric service dog’s role may be to interrupt their owner from performing a certain action. This is commonly seen in situations when a PSD must interrupt a person’s repetitive or compulsive behavior or when they may need to ground a handler by interrupting a dissociative episode through tactile stimulation or deep pressure therapy. In the case of self mutilation, a PSD may interrupt the act by alerting or by providing tactile stimulation.   

Commonly used for: Dissociation, Dissociative Flashback, Repetitive/Compulsive Behavior, Self Mutilation

Barrier  

Assistance Classification: Work, Task

In crowded and/or claustrophobic situations, a psychiatric service dog can act as a buffer to provide their handler with needed space. The PSD can increase their owner’s personal bubble by standing between their handler and other people so that their owner is at ease and comfortable.  

Commonly used for: Anxiety, Distress, Fear, Feelings of Overwhelm, Startle Response  

  

This is by no means a comprehensive list of all possible tasks and work types that a PSD can be trained to perform. Instead, the above examples are only meant to serve as a guide regarding the type of actions a psychiatric service dog can perform for their handler. 

Working together with your dog trainer, you can determine what tasks would best suit your unique situation and then begin training your service animal for that specific function. 

 

Need Help Training a Psychiatric Service Dog?

how to train a psychiatric service dog

When it comes to training a psychiatric service dog, the best course of action is to partner with a professional dog trainer.

This option conveniently takes out all the guesswork when it comes to providing your PSD with training that’s suitable and sufficient enough for them to be officially recognized as a psychiatric service dog. It’s also a stress-free option that saves you time and energy, which makes it the most popular option people pursue when it comes to training a PSD.

Considering that the Department of Transportation allows airlines to require forms attesting to a service animal’s behavior and training before the service dog is cleared to board a flight, working one-on-one with a professional dog trainer gives you the peace of mind you need to travel with your PSD without fear of coming across any issues or restrictions. 

Here at CertaPet, we are currently coordinating with dog trainers who specialize in the service animal space and who will soon work in tandem with our network of licensed mental health professionals to make the process of getting and training a psychiatric service dog affordable, convenient, and hassle-free. We’ll have more information available soon about our Psychiatric Service Dog Training options. In the mean time, you can take our FREE pre-screening below to see if you qualify for a PSD!

 

 

About the author 

Lily Velez

Lily Velez is the Blog Manager for CertaPet, a revolutionary online telehealth platform that improves access to mental health care, with a focus on providing services to individuals who are seeking animal assisted interventions as part of their treatment plan. An expert in the intersection between mental health and the healing bond of animals, she's passionate about educating readers on the benefits of psychiatric service dogs and emotional support animals.

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