Can Service Dogs Help Depression?

Service dogs are dogs that are trained to help people with disabilities perform tasks. Most people associate service dogs with physical disabilities, but service dogs can also help people with mental health issues, including depression.

Read on to learn more about psychiatric service dogs for depression.


Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal is defined as an animal that is “personally trained to work or perform tasks for a disabled person.” The tasks assisted by the service dog must also be directly related to the disability.

Currently, only dogs and miniature horses are approved by the ADA. No other species can be a service animal.

According to the ADA, service dogs do not require any specific training, certification or registration. There are also no restrictions on dog breeds.

Prevalence of Service Dogs

In North America, psychiatric use is the fourth most common reason people use service dogs. In addition, the use of service dogs for mental health is also on the rise. Between 2000 and 2002, psychiatric use accounted for 17% of service dog demand. From 2010 to 2012, this percentage increased to nearly 32 percent.

Physical and invisible disabilities

Not all disabilities are visible. Many invisible disabilities, such as those with depression, can benefit from a psychiatric service dog.

The ADA defines disability as:

  • A physical or mental disorder that severely limits one or more major life activities
  • a person with a history or record of this injury
  • People who are considered by others to have this disorder

For example, you can’t just look at someone and know they have depression. However, their depression may severely interfere with their daily activities, making them eligible for service animals.

Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals

A service dog and an emotional support animal are not the same thing. The ADA provides protections and rights only to animals that qualify as service animals.

A service dog is a working animal that is trained to perform specific tasks directly related to the disability of its handler. For psychiatric service dogs, this may include reminding the handler to take medication or preventing self-harm.

Emotional support animals are those that provide comfort, calm, therapy, or companionship only through their presence, but are not trained to work or perform tasks.


The primary benefit and goal of a psychiatric service dog is to enable handlers to better manage their disability and remain involved in everyday life. They do this by assisting with daily tasks and helping their handlers reduce symptoms or avoid psychotic episodes.

Examples of potential tasks performed

For someone with depression, examples of tasks your service dog might perform include:

  • interrupt self-harm
  • Give medication reminders
  • Awaken their trainers from traumatic nightmares
  • Provides tips for performing daily tasks
  • Helping handlers with activities of daily living, such as turning on lights, picking up clothes, etc.
  • Keep disoriented or panicked handlers out of danger
  • Provide deep pressure stimulation or sustained physical contact

There is substantial evidence of the benefits of service dogs for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder that often co-occurs with depression.

One study examined changes in the PTSD checklist, a symptom self-report measure of the US Department of Veterans Affairs, in PTSD veterans who used service dogs versus those who did not. The service dog group showed benefits, including reduced depression, improved quality of life, and improved social functioning.

However, there is currently not much research looking specifically at the benefits of service dogs for depression. More research is needed to truly understand the impact of service dogs in helping people dealing with depression.


Cost is a major barrier to obtaining a service dog. Private insurance, Medicare and Medicaid do not cover the cost of service dogs. According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), purchasing a well-trained service dog from a professional organization can cost up to $25,000.

While this fee may seem prohibitive, keep in mind that there are many nonprofits, charities, grants, and funds that offer service dogs for free or at a subsidized cost. You should seek financial assistance from any service dog organization you are considering.

The initial upfront cost of buying and training a service dog isn’t the only cost consideration. You must also be able to support your dog by paying for veterinary fees, local vaccines and permits, food, bedding, toys, and more.

veteran’s paw

For veterans, the Puppy Assisted Veterans Therapy for Injured Military Veterans Act, or PAWS Act, signed into law by President Joe Biden in August 2021, significantly reduces the cost of service dogs.

How to Train a Service Dog


Training a dog to be a service animal takes a lot of education, time, and rigorous effort. However, as required by the ADA, there is no approved training program for a dog to become a service dog.

Many disabled people are interested in service dog training and learn how to train their own dog. But if you are inexperienced, it is better to follow the training of experts.

The AKC recommends that service dog training begin with basic skills, including:

  • Internal training, including on-demand waste elimination
  • Socializing in different settings, including focusing on one task
  • Teaching dogs to ignore distractions and focus on their handlers

Once dogs have mastered the basic skills, they must also be trained to perform specific tasks to help with their handler’s disability. The last step in training is the most important because it qualifies the dog as a service animal.


The ADA also does not require any special certification to treat a dog as a service animal.

Many colleges, universities, state and local regulations offer voluntary enrollment programs, but this is always optional.

There are also organizations that sell service animal certifications, but it’s important to know that these certifications are not recognized by the Department of Justice and do not affect your protections or rights under the ADA.

How to Buy a Service Dog

There are no rules in the ADA about how to obtain a service dog or who is allowed to provide a service dog. To get a service dog, you can:

  • Buy dogs from organizations that specialize in breeding, selecting, and training service dogs
  • Buy your own dog and train it yourself or with a hired trainer

Buy from an organization

There are many organizations across the country, both for-profit and not-for-profit, that specialize in breeding and training service dogs. These organizations provide expert service dog selection and training. Many have a 50%–70% failure rate, which means they will only go through the best dogs to become working service dogs.

Examples of organizations include NEADS World Class Service Dogs or Canine Companions for Independence.

Investing in specialist training can also come with some challenges, such as long waiting lists and expensive training fees. Always ask about financial aid from any organization you are considering.

Buy Your Own Service Dog

There is no limit to what type of dog can be a service dog. You can train your existing pet as a service dog, or get one from a breeder or animal rescue shelter.

When choosing a dog, consider the tasks you want your service dog to perform for you, as this will affect the size of the dog you choose. German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, and Golden Retrievers are common service dog breeds, but temperament is also important.

Qualities to Look for in a Service Dog

Qualities to look for in a highly trained service dog include:

  • Focus and focus on their handlers
  • keep calm in all settings
  • alert but unresponsive
  • Highly trainable for specific tasks
  • desire to please
  • insensitive to distractions
  • Not easily diverted from tasks
  • Demonstrate information retention and learning
  • Easily socialize in many different environments


Service animals assist their owners with tasks directly related to their disability, with the aim of increasing participation in everyday life. Some people with depression that severely affects participation in daily activities use a psychiatric service dog to help them cope.

Obtaining a service dog involves many steps, including finding the right dog, financial considerations, training, contacting and caring for the dog. More research is needed to truly understand the benefits of service dogs for depression.

VigorTip words

Not everyone with depression needs a service dog. However, if your depression prevents you from participating in daily activities that a service dog can assist, then you may want to consider a psychiatric service dog. These service dogs can perform many different tasks and help you cope.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you get a service dog for free?

    Many service dog breeding and training agencies offer financial assistance and provide service dogs free of charge. You can also train your existing pets, breed your own puppy, or adopt one from Animal Rescue for free or low cost.

  • What breeds are best for service dogs?

    The ADA has no restrictions on the breeds of dogs that can be used as service animals. However, trainers and experts have determined that certain breeds are easier to train than others. German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers are common service dog breeds, according to the American Kennel Club.

  • Why can’t you have a service dog?

    Service dogs are working animals. They are essential for their handlers to participate in daily life and are necessary due to their handler’s disability. Petting service dogs can distract from their work and hurt their owners.

  • How to Identify a Service Dog?

    Many service dogs wear special harnesses that identify them as service animals. However, this is not required. In order to identify or confirm an animal as a service dog, the ADA only allows business owners to ask two questions: 1) Does the dog need a service animal because of a disability? 2) What job or task was the dog trained to perform?

    It is not acceptable for owners to provide documentation, explain their disability, or demonstrate tasks.