A psychiatric Service Dog is simply a service dog for a person with a psychiatric impairment, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These dogs are individually trained in obedience, performing tasks, and working in distracting public environments to mitigate their handler's psychiatric disability. Their function is not to provide emotional support, but to perform tasks which enable their partner to function in ordinary ways the non-disabled take for granted.
To qualify for a psychiatric service dog, you'll need a prescription from a licensed mental health professional (therapist) that you need a dog to assist you a major life task.
- With only a few exceptions, a disabled handler may take a service dog into any place a person without a dog would normally be allowed to go - even when pets are NOT allowed. This includes, but is not limited to: restaurants, grocery stores, malls, theatres, buses, taxis, trains, airplanes, motels, government buildings, medical offices, hospitals, parks, beaches, amusement parks, churches, etc.
- A Psychiatric Service Dog may fly in the cabin of a USA-based commercial airline with their disabled handler, and the handler may NOT be charged a pet or other fee.
- Landlords and property managers must make reasonable accommodations for tenants or prospective tenants with service dogs, even if the apartment, house, college dorm, or other residence does not allow pets. A tenant with a service dog may NOT be charged a pet-fee of any kind, even if pet fees are normally required.
- Public entities may NOT charge the disabled handler a fee because of their service dog.
- Public entities may NOT position or seat the handler and service dog away from other patrons to intentionally separate them.
A task is a trained behavior that minimizes the negative characteristics of a person's disability by doing something the disabled person cannot do for him or her self, but must be able to do in order to live. Even if you would benefit from a trained behavior, if you can more or less easily do it for yourself, then it wouldn't qualify as a task for your specific disability. A wheelchair might occasionally be a help to a person experiencing stiffness from arthritis, but if they are capable of walking on their own, then a wheelchair isn't really needed. Similarly, a dog trained to remind a handler to take medication, though helpful, would not truly be needed if the person was able to remind him or herself to take their medication in ordinary ways, such as using an alarm.
The following is a list of possible tasks for a psychiatric service dog:
- Guide a disoriented handler. Example: A person wanders away from familiar surroundings during a dissociative episode. When she becomes aware again, she realizes she is lost and still disoriented from the episode. She cannot think clearly about how to retrace her steps. Her dog is trained to backtrack, following their own scent trail back to where they were when the episode started. Alternatively, the dog might be trained to guide the handler to specific trained locations by command, such as "home."
- Find a person or place. Example: A person becomes separated from his family in a crowd. As the crowd closes in around him, he experiences a panic attack and difficulty breathing. He cannot call out to his family. He gives his dog a signal to locate his family who will help him, or to locate an exit where he can escape the crowd and get fresh air.
- Room search. Example: A person with severe hypervigilance due to PTSD finds she is unable to enter her own home. Her symptom causes her to believe there is an intruder in her home who will attack her if she enters. Her dog is trained to perform a systematic search of any room or building and bark on finding someone. When her dog finishes the search pattern and returns, she knows it really is safe to enter and that the presumed intruder was just a symptom. The same task can be used at her office, at hotel rooms, at friends' homes or any other area that is supposed to be vacant.
- Signal for certain sounds. Example: A person heavily sedated, in a flashback, or in a psychotic episode fails to respond to a smoke alarm. His dog is trained to persistently and very firmly signal him until he responds. Alternately, the dog may be trained to take hold of his handler's arm or sleeve in his mouth and lead him outside.
- Interrupt and redirect. Example: A person with OCD subconsciously picks at the skin on her arm. She has done this with such persistence that she has scaring. Her dog is trained to recognize picking skin as a cue to bring her a dog brush. Because she is not picking intentionally, the interruption of the dog will stop her from picking. Handing her the brush is a reminder to her that grooming the dog is a non-harmful alternative behavior for her OCD symptom.
- Balance assistance. Example: A person overwhelmed with anxiety has taken a strong prescribed tranquilizer. While the tranquilizer reduces his anxiety, allowing him to breathe more efficiently and to think a little more clearly, it has also impaired his ability to walk without assistance. His dog is trained to walk close at his side so he can rest his hand on the dog's harness to help him keep his balance as he moves to a safe place to finish recovering from his attack.
- Bring help. Example: A person with PTSD becomes stuck in a flashback that an intruder is searching for her. She managed to call 911 for assistance when she first perceived the problem but is now hiding in her closet to avoid detection by the perceived intruder. When EMS arrives, they call out for her, but she does not answer because she believes they are going to hurt her. The 911 operator informs the responders that there is a service dog present and what command to give him to lead them to his owner. With the dog's assistance in locating her, EMS is able to reach her and assist her to the hospital.
- Bring medication in an emergency. Example: A person with an anxiety disability experiences severe gastric distress when overstressed. The resulting nausea causes him to become disoriented and dizzy. He falls to the ground and cannot rise. His dog is trained to retrieve his anti-nausea medication and bring it to him.
- Clearing the airway. Example: A person with nausea due to a change in medication has been vomiting uncontrollably and has become dehydrated. She has collapsed on the floor, unable to move or to think clearly. She is at risk of choking on her vomit or becoming even further dehydrated. Her dog is trained to clear the vomit from her airway and to bring her a bottle of water.
- Identify hallucinations. Example: A person who experiences hallucinations sees a person who should not be in the room with him. Is this a hallucination he can safely ignore, or is it an intruder? His dog is trained to go and greet any person his handler points at, on command. The man points at the intruder and instructs the dog to "go say hi." The dog moves in the direction indicated, but can find no person to greet, so he returns to his handler. The handler now knows the person he sees is a hallucination and calls his doctor for help instead of calling the police for an intruder.