Psychiatric Service Dogs

Everyone knows about guide dogs for the blind.  Most people know about “Hearing Ear” dogs for the hearing-impaired.  A few people know about assistance dogs for the physically disabled.  Even fewer know about service dogs that assist diabetics by detecting high or low blood sugar, or Seizure Detection Dogs that can sense changes in brainwaves before a seizure occurs and alert the person so that s/he can get to a safe place and/or take preventive medicine.

Almost nobody knows about Psychiatric Service Dogs.  There has been a bit of a flurry in the press about PTSD dogs for returning veterans,  While the Veteran’s Administration has been vocal about acknowledging the benefit of PTSD Dogs in mitigating the disabling and sometimes disastrous sequelae of combat-induced PTSD, they have nevertheless refused to pay for the dogs, preferring instead to underwrite expensive medicines that often do nothing but sedate the sufferer, without providing any definitive remedy.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which is an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, has recently clarified its position on the legitimacy of Psychiatric Service Dogs: 

Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.

I have been using a PSD since 2002.  When I first acquired Ivan, I didn’t know if he was going to work out or not.  Psychiatric Service Dogs are not like Guide Dogs for the Blind, in that their training is not so much task related as it is intuitive perception of its human partner’s mood.  Not every Guide Dog makes the grade, for one reason or another; and many fewer PSDs have the focus and the attentiveness to tune in to its partner’s state of being and respond appropriately when needed.

My PSD partner, 2002-2007

My PSD partner, 2002-2007

Ivan almost didn’t make the grade.  He was a wild and cantankerous puppy, but he had an intensity of focus that made me stick with him.  We got involved in some dog sports that gave him an outlet for his energy, and by the time he was a year old he was cuing in on my moods and literally dragging me back from episodes of dissociation resulting from severe PTSD.  When I retreated to my bed overwhelmed by depression, he climbed up and stood over me, licking my face and looking into my eyes with such a concerned expression that I couldn’t help but laugh.  He somehow knew when it was time for me to take my meds, and if I was zoned out he would tug at my sleeve.

The ADA is very specific about the requirement that a PSD must be trained to do some specific task.  I take issue with this, in that mental illness is not something nuts and bolts like physical disabilities are.  You can train a dog to open the fridge and take the laundry out of the dryer (which, by the way, Ivan loved to do for fun, and he could put it in the basket too), but how do you train a dog to respond to an incipient attack of mania by signaling the partner to take a pill?  Training a dog for a specific response requires exposing the dog to the situation over and over.  You can teach a dog to pull a wheelchair, but the wheelchair has to be present at all training sessions.  Guide dogs for the blind go through extensive training in many situations, over and over.  So how can one respond to the ADA’s insistance that the dog be trained for a specific task?

To further muddy the waters, the ADA position statement distinguishes between Emotional Support Animals and Service Animals by the same requirement that Service Animals must be specifically and specially trained to perform a task, whereas Emotional Support Animals are there to comfort and support:  “Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”  I think that is a very fine line, when it comes to distinguishing an ESA from a PSD.

Bottom line, though, PSDs share the same access rights as any other service animal: exactly the same as a Guide Dog for the Blind.  It is a federal offense for any business establishment, public or private, to deny access to a PSD.

I never had one single bit of access trouble with my Ivan.  He was a German Shepherd, a breed universally associated with service animals.  We flew all over the country.  He took up a lot of room at my feet on airplanes, which sometimes inconvenienced other travelers, but for the most part everyone was good natured about it.  We stayed in hotels, and he came with me to restaurants, where he lay down under the table and none of the other patrons even knew he was there.  He went to movies and the theatre and museums.  He accompanied me to a ship museum in Baltimore and amazed the sailors by running up and down the ladders between decks!  He loved playgrounds and would run up the ladders and slide down the slides.  He loved everyone, and everyone loved him.  He died at age 5 from kidney cancer, in 2007.  I will miss him forever.

I couldn’t bear the thought of trying to replace Ivan, so I did without a dog until two years ago, when I bought a Lhasa Apso, Noga, for a pet.  I never expected anything from her except being cute and fuzzy and comforting.  But to my great surprise, she started tuning into my moods, and doing specific behaviors related to how I was feeling.  For instance, I often start into a hypomanic attack in the late evening, when I should be taking my meds and going to bed.  If I don’t, she jumps at my legs and bops me with her feet, over and over, and if that doesn’t work she jumps into my lap and flings herself on top of my computer (which is what I am always doing if I am in that state at that time).  If I am depressed she comes and licks me till I laugh.

Noga the Wonder DogNow, as you can see, Noga does not look like what people generally think of as a “service dog.”  She is cute and fuzzy.  She weighs twelve pounds.  I don’t have a picture of her with all her Service Dog gear on, but even with her vest that has PTSD DOG, FULL ACCESS on it in big letters, people still give me the “oh yeah, right” look.  I have been denied access to hotels in the middle of the night when my flight was cancelled.  Oh, and I forgot to tell you, she is registered with a national Service Dog Registry and has the appropriate documentation for that.

The ADA provides specific instructions for businesses that have any doubt that the animal is a service animal.  They are permitted to ask if the owner has a disability, and what specific task(s) the animal performs to mitigate that disability.  They MAY NOT ask anything about the nature of the disability.  All they may do is inquire IF the owner has a disability.

Unfortunately, I have been repeatedly hassled by business owners about Noga, and one hotel desk clerk demanded to know exactly what my disability is, in front of several other customers waiting to check in!  I made a huge scene and threatened to call the police, which I would have done because I was hypomanic as hell after having been turned away by two other hotels.

When I had Ivan I actually carried a prescription from my psychiatrist, which I had stashed among the other papers in his vest (rabies certificate and such).  The very few PSD organizations found around the Internet discourage that, though, because they feel it might cause a precedent for businesses to hassle PSD handlers, since the ADA is very specific that no special documentation is necessary.

If a prospective PSD handler were to ask my advice on what kind of dog to look for as a potential partner, my advice would be something like this:

1.  Steer clear of organizations that purport to sell trained PSDs.  They ask a pile of money and there is no guarantee that any particular dog will partner with you.  The best PSD is an owner-trained one.  Go for a breed that is usually identified with Service Dogs: German Shepherd, Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever.  But be VERY careful about breeders:  do your research and ONLY purchase a puppy from a reputable breeder of WORKING DOGS, not show dogs, and definitely NO “hobby breeders.”  The money you spend on a quality puppy will save you thousands in vet bills and heartache.

2. Go to obedience school.  Both of you.  If you get a puppy, make sure you go to Puppy Kindergarten Training (PKT).  I advise people to train their dogs all the way through CGC, Canine Good Citizen, which is a program administered by the AKC.  CGC training assures that your dog will be safe in any public situation, including with other dogs, children, elderly people, wheelchairs, everything.  Not only will you come out of it with a “safe dog,” but the bonding experience of training with your dog is invaluable.

3.  Do fun stuff.  Find out what your dog thinks is fun. Ivan would retrieve a ball or a stick until he died (luckily I got tired first)!  Some dogs love to swim.  Noga is a hike-o-maniac, despite her fluffy exterior.  Not only will you bond with your dog this way, but you’ll have fun too, and maybe get outside more.

4. Give your dog time off.  Nobody can stand being on duty 24/7.  Many dogs get upset about “standing down” from duty, but they need it.  Use a crate if need be, to give your canine partner an hour here and there, when you’re feeling steady.  Mine just knows when I don’t need her and goes off and lies down somewhere else.  But she’s always got an ear pricked for me.  She knows my brain waves better than I do.

5.  Join an online PSD community.  Unfortunately, the main one fell apart some time ago, and there seems to be only one left here.  It is not PSD specific, but does have a PSD message board/forum where you can meet other PSD partners and ask your questions.

In summary, Psychiatric Service Dogs are a valuable resource that can help us cope with our disability more effectively, helping us to lead happier and more productive lives.  Mine have saved my life many times, and I suspect that if more people had them, the morbidity and mortality from psychiatric illness would decrease dramatically.  Anyone who is interested in more information about any aspect of PSD partnering is welcome to contact me.

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  1. That is really interesting. Count me as one who had never heard of Psychiatric Service Dogs. They are amazing animals though … and earn well the name of man’s best friend.
    We have 2 dogs (King Charles Cavaliers).
    One could definitely be a ESA, she has a beautiful temperament and is very clever .. the other just barks at shadows, eats his own poo and throws up on the carpet.

    • I do hope he throws up on the carpet after eating something OTHER than his own poo; and if he does do, that he doesn’t turn around and eat it right back down again!

      • My hopes are the same as yours! All I can say with confidence is that he does clean up after himself.
        I really can’t stand him. Whenever I look at him he always looks guilty and often hides, he behaves so awkwardly at times, he is selfish, and I believe often looks confused or depressed. To be honesty, he does remind me of me and maybe it is this reflection that makes me so annoyed and frustrated with him.

        NB. The reminder is only in personality … not the aforementioned bad habits 😉

        • Maybe he could use some psychotherapy. Perhaps, as a puppy, he had to suck hind tit and it gave him a terrible inferiority complex.

  2. Lisa

     /  January 9, 2013

    Thanks for being so honest about your experience. I’m looking for a PSD and was so relieved to hear of your advice against organizations that train the dog/partner for you. The organization that I approached was asking for 36k to train a PSD. Fortunately a trainer nearby is willing to help me. Your article is very reassuring. Thank You!

  3. Surfing around your site I Just found this post. I have a Lhasa Apso service dog named Sammy. He was professionally trained and approved by the Registry. He’s an awesome dog and alerts my significant other when he has breathing problems due to chronic Asthma. I noticed Sammy was very tuned emotionally to Robert and knew when to “alert” him ( climbs in his lap, licks him and makes him pay attention to him) to use an inhaler. Made perfect sense for him to be “of service” as well as a loving pet, and Robert’s MD agreed! We have a cuddly, loving Shih Tzu too. Another emotional support for Robert. Thanks for posting so much information on PSDs. More people should know about them!

    • That’s great! May I ask what he was professionally trained for? And how? And by whom? I am very interested to learn about how to train a dog for specific conditions that are not, say, “open the fridge and get me a beer,” or “turn off the light” or “dial 911.” Those are behaviours that can be easily trained by a professional trainer. So I’m very interested to know what your trainer trained.

  4. Laura, thanks for asking the question! Sammy already was emotionally attached to Robert, so the training was geared toward his paying attention and obeying commands to focus him. The professional trainer was one from Petsmart. It was an eight week, one hour a week training that consisted of Sammy walking with Robert in the busy store with no distractions from other people or dogs. Included were climb the stairs, sit/stay/attention commands, stay by Roberts side and look at him every step of the way. At home we continued the training, including Robert practicing with him (coughing, grabbing inhaler, laying down on the bed). Sammy was alert without a command and went to his aid, jumping up on him, licking him and distracting him to pay attention to him. With breathing problems there’s the added anxiety which was lessened by paying attention to Sammy. To be registered, I sent a doctor’s signed letter to the county and received the tag for his harness. It has a number and SD Dept. of Animal Services with phone number on it. It was approved for Asthma which apparently is on the list. I think Sammy was the perfect dog because as a Lhasa (Shih Tzu on papers) he’s already a guard dog and watchful. He’s larger and more muscular than a Shih Tzu. Plus this dog picked Robert as his master at the pet store. Sammy was sort of a rescue as he was in a cage for the first 4 1/2 months of his life. He was an untrained, unruly, very spunky little guy who sat quietly on Robert’s lap and licked him. The employees in the store were stunned watching this. Everyone happy that he found a forever home!

    • Wow, cool! My dog Noga was also a rescue at 8 months, also with no training whatsoever (I despaired of everything when she peed in my open briefcase).She was so used to living in a crate that she used her crate for a potty, so no crate training for house training. It was totally Take Outside Every Two Hours Or Pay The Price (me, cleaning up, that is). Under the ADA no specific identification is required, but it does help and most of us cave in to that since its just easier than arguing with uninformed store clerks, hotel managers, etc etc etc. Wish my county had some kind of ID tag program but they don’t even know what a Service Dog is here, so it’s the vest for Noga…but hers is pink and cute, so it’s kinda fun…

  5. Unfortunate that your country doesn’t have an ID tag program and cards to give people who ask too many questions. Sammy has a blue service dog jacket and he knows instinctively what do when it’s on. Your experience with Noga was a challenge, but with a good ending. I like the pink vest! And she’s a cute girl! Same with Sammy, the wild one. It took a good four months before he settled down. We were unsure if he was going to make it past the crazy behavior. He’s six now and we had him professionally trained at age two. Dogs are the best! Better than most people!

  6. jennifer805

     /  November 15, 2014

    Wow this is so great! I have been diagnosed with bipolar and generalized anxiety disorder. I never dreamed I would qualified for a service dog.

  7. Love love love your heartfelt article. I have been researching PSD’s for a year now. I am getting to the points of frustration, Depression and how the heck will I pay for all of this? The Plan…
    Rescue a Black Lab from a reputable and purebred org. With the dog, go through all the training you mention. Very important. I would then like to bring in a nice and down to earth psd trainer. I totally will be there right along side of dog and trainer.
    I am on SSDI and need payment assistance for the psd and training
    Not looking for a free ride. I just need some financial assistance.
    My Psych, Therapist and group facilotator are all for it
    They’ll write letters, Rx and so on
    O am 56 have bi polar disorder, anxiety/panic, PTSD and have been hearing voices, seeing things, and rather out of control since I was 2. Hospitalized many times. I go crazy manic and have horrible feelings of doom. I take my meds, barely sleep and am really suffering from a mivraine.

    • Meant migraine. Going on day 4
      I’m desparate. Help
      Please, any feedback and suggestions are welcome.
      Happy Holidays to all

      • Jenny, I am so sorry you are suffering and in such need. I’m not sure how I can help you, but I will try. First the migraine: is there a free or sliding scale acupuncture clinic where you live? Acupuncture can not only relieve, but in fact cure migraines!

        I think your plan is a good one. Just make sure your lab is not from a puppy mill. I made that mistake once….bad outcome. Remember that labs need a LOT of exercise so you will need to have space somewhere nearby to throw that ball! I used to use a tennis racket to whack the ball far enough to be satisfying for my German Shepherd (which I would recommend over a lab, because they are more emotionally tuned in). Please bear in mind that there is no such thing as a PSD trainer. Of course you have to train very solid obedience, but you can do that at Petsmart etc. very cheaply. The PSD part comes with your relationship with the dog. The dog has to be tuned in to you, and you need to always, always, “listen” to what your dog is telling you. Your dog will learn how to let you know if you are getting out of control, and if you get the proper breed, your dog will be very protective and make sure you feel safe. That’s why I recommend a herding breed (German Shepherd especially) instead of a hunting breed (lab, who very well may not care a bit for you if you are not swimming with him or throwing a ball). Again, if someone claims to be a PSD trainer, they are probably more interested in your money than in you and your dog. For more information and some incredibly wonderful advice and videos, you should join the Golden Paw Yahoo group, which is for people with all kinds of service dogs, including PSDs. Remember, not all dogs have the special sensitivity that makes a good PSD. Sometimes people end up getting another dog, and either keeping or re-homing the one that didn’t work out. I currently have a Lhasa Apso who is sensitive, but also very self-serving and is not really turning out to be the dog I need; so I am thinking of getting another German Shepherd to test for both intuition and the ability to do specific interventions, like helping me if I am having a PTSD episode. My current dog is frightened by my PTSD symptoms. My last dog would come to me and come as close to holding me as a dog can! He tragically died of cancer at age five. I haven’t had the heart to replace him. I was really hoping this little dog I have now would be able to do the job, especially since she’s lap dog size and easy to take on airplanes….best of luck with your dog and training journey. I hope you find your ideal companion on the first try ♡

  8. Thank you for visiting, that one was hard on me, I have been cleaning house. Thank you again
    As always Sheldon

    • Hi Sheldon, yes, that one took a lot of blood and guts to write. Good job!

      I’m nominating you for the Warrior Child Award from the Mental Health Writers’ Guild. Unlike other awards, you don’t have to DO anything. It’s not like those chain-letter-like awards where you have to do a lot of busy work. I hate those! All you have to do is know that I respect where you’re coming from, and I think you are doing amazing work. If you would like to display the award logo in your sidebar, here is the address. Just copy the logo into your “media” collection, and put it in your sidebar widgets. If you have any trouble getting it to display let me know. While you’re there, you might want to join the MHWG. We are a diverse collection of writers who live with mental illness.

  9. Laura I just want to thank you for the nomination, I just posted the award, as soon as I come down from cloud 9 I will join the organization. Thank you again I am humble by all of this and grateful to be recognized. It has taken all my life to get to be where I am, I am so that the words aren’t coming fast enough, thank you so much
    As always Sheldon

    • Awww, Sheldon, I am so touched and happy that you love your Warrior Award…you have certainly earned it! I’m glad you’re going to join Mental Health Writers. Be well, my friend!

  10. Its been a very long day. My daughter has been very sick and running a high fever. I didn’t go to sleep last nite till 1am trying to find my voice,I had posted a lot between last nite and today, then from out of a dream came the straw people. I’ve one eye closing while the other one is dancing. Thank you again, I will talk to you soon

    • I just got a bulletin from the CDC saying that there’s a measles epidemic going on in the us. Europe too, in fact Europe was the culprit for this outbreak. If your child has high fever you need to go to your clinic and find out whether she has flu and needs antiviral medicine, or whether she might have measles, in which case she must stay home for a certain time.

      Hope she’s better real soon–here’s a heart just for her ❤

  11. This is a terrific post — thank you for sharing your story. I’m terribly sorry about Ivan; 5 years is too short a life and I’m sure you miss him. I hope people start behaving better about Noga. It sounds like she’s a perfect match for you.

    • Thanks, Laura. As it turns out, Noga had a behavioral issue that eventually lead to a parting of the ways….I have a new dog now who’s working out great except that she has a fatal kidney disease😕

  12. thanks so much for posting this. i’ve been researching all day and came across your article and loved it.

    • Hi Abigail, I’m so glad you found my post useful! My current dog, Atina, is cuddled up to me as I write this. She’s a Belgian Malinois, 70 pounds of sweet, loving, mischievous comfort.

      • aww, that is so sweet. i’m looking right now for a dog to train myself! i grew up with rotties so i’m hoping to find one.

        • Rotties make great service dogs. If you need any help with, well, any aspect of training, along with a great support community and tons of trading how-to videos, you might want to join the Yahoo group “Golden Paw.” Diane, who runs the group, is a wellspring of information. Good luck finding your K9 partner!

  13. Love this post! I’ve been wanting to get a service dog for my bipolar disorder, but I have a very senior 20.5 year old cat and don’t want to upset her. I will get one someday. I love dogs and can totally see how they would pull me out of a depression.

    • Totally! My dog is a total clown. And she gets very worried when I dissociate, and often can interrupt the episode and bring me back. She also forces me to go outside, in every kind of weather, which can be challenging when it’s cold and windy and raining like it is now. At this very moment I am thinking about our “last roundup” at 8pm, when I take her out for the last time until 7:30 tomorrow morning. Now that her kidneys are stable (please G-d) she can make it through the night (unlike her mom, who takes lithium which makes me have to get up three-four times a night).

      Oh, your ancient kitty would not be happy about a dog, I’m sure!

  14. Reblogged this on Daisy in the Willows and commented:

  15. Reblogged. A great service that is needed in teh UK.

  16. What an amazing post ! Wow !!!

  17. Adam

     /  January 2, 2017

    I need to talk to someone about service dogs

  18. Irma Nelums

     /  June 4, 2017

    Hi, read your story. I am starting process in getting a dog and have no clue of where to look, or what I need to acquire one, any help would be appreciated.

    • The best advice I ever got when I was starting out and for many years during my SD journey came from the Golden Paws Yahoo group. They are a top level Service Dog group, and they can help you with every step along the way. The group owner keeps a wonderful archive of helpful training videos. The entire group site is searchable. Go for it!

      I hope your Service Dog experience is as wonderful and rewarding as mine has been 🐶❤

  19. Nick Pullman

     /  June 9, 2017

    Thank you for writing this. Perhaps German Sheperds are more tuned in in general, but my yellow lab knew my moods better than any human. And the lengths she would go to try to help me out of debilitating bouts of depression and mixed episodes still brings tears to my eyes. I’ve never been so connected to another creature in my life–it was uncanny. Her biggest joy in life was to snuggle, especially when I was down. She would moan and push the full weight of her body against me when I would cry or breakdown, and that was such comfort in those dangerous episodes. She saved my life many times. So I wouldn’t turn down a German Sheperd, but labs are also capable of intense human connection.

    • How wonderful that your Lab was your ministering angel 💓

      This post was about my service dog, who happened to be a German Shepherd. I have also had a Lhasa Apso, and my current SD is a Belgian Malinois. Any dog with the right temperament and training can be a Service Dog!

  20. Diagnosed with CPTSD, I find great comfort in my 65 lb. Bailey, a white Portuguese Water dog, but I am lucky to be able to venture out without him at my side. Last week, at the movies, which we frequent during the middle of the week and during the day and long after the movie made it’s debut, we happened upon a woman with a service dog. A vest with the words “Do Not Approach or Pet” wrapped around his body. How wonderful that those in need are allowed entry to enjoy a film.

  21. I also took the liberty of sharing this article on FB, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

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