Service dogs are dogs that are specially trained to help people with disabilities perform tasks. Service dogs don’t just help people with physical disabilities, such as blindness. Psychiatric service animals are trained to help people with mental health issues such as anxiety disorders fully participate in their daily lives.
Read on to learn more about service dogs for anxiety.
What is a service dog?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), last updated in 2010, defines a service animal as an animal that is “individually trained to work or perform tasks for persons with disabilities.” Dogs and miniature horses are both approved as service animals by the ADA, but no other species are approved.
Psychiatric service dogs are specially trained to help those with mental health issues such as anxiety. They are working animals, performing tasks on behalf of their owners.
Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals
ADA mandates emotional support, therapy, comfort and companion animals no Qualifies as a service animal. This is because despite the emotional support provided, they were not trained to perform specific tasks for their handlers.
Since emotional support animals are not ADA protected, you may not be allowed in all public spaces with them. You should check the local laws of any state or county where you live to confirm.
How They Help An Anxiety Attack
According to the ADA, your animal is considered a service animal if it is trained to perform specific tasks during an anxiety attack, such as asking for help or providing tactile input to calm you down.
If your animal’s simple presence provides comfort and anxiety, it’s considered an emotional support animal.
Service dogs are trained to perform tasks or otherwise assist their owners so they can participate safely and fully in everyday life. According to the ADA, these tasks must be directly related to the disability.
For example, psychiatric service dogs may be trained to detect episodes of mental illness, such as panic attacks in people with anxiety disorders. Dogs can also help their owners avoid triggers, or reduce symptoms of these events through tactile input or redirecting their handlers.
Some examples of tasks a service dog might perform for someone with anxiety disorders include:
- remind their handlers to take their medication
- Conduct a room search or security check
- Awaken their trainers from traumatic nightmares
- Turning on the Lights for People with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Opening doors, retrieving mail, or other tasks for people with social anxiety disorder or agoraphobia
- Interrupting self-harm or compulsive behavior
- Keep disoriented or panicked handlers out of danger
- Provides tactile input to reduce anxiety
To date, most research on service dog anxiety has been conducted in veterans with PTSD, an anxiety disorder.
In a group of veterans with PTSD, the use of a psychiatric service dog along with three weeks of intensive trauma-resilience training reduced PTSD symptoms and improved overall quality of life, one study found.
Another study investigated exactly how service dogs provide these benefits. In interviews with PTSD participants who used service dogs, service dogs were found to help:
- interrupt the nightmare
- Improve sleep quality and duration
- Reduce hypervigilance by warning and creating boundaries
- Helps divert attention away from intrusive or trauma-related thought patterns
- Improve emotional connection with others
- Increase community engagement
- increase physical activity
- reduce the need for drugs
- reduce suicidal urges
If you are struggling with anxiety or suicidal thoughts, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.
For more mental health resources, see our national helpline database.
Purchasing a service dog from some professional organizations can cost up to $25,000. This cost includes selection or breeding, veterinary fees, food, and extensive, rigorous training by a service dog specialist. You may have to pay more for specific skills.
However, many service dog breeding and training organizations, such as NEADS and the American Humane Society, offer financial assistance and offer service dogs at free or subsidized rates through grants and funding.
Certain protected groups also receive special funding for service dogs.
The Dog Assistance for Veterans Treating the Wounded Act, or PAWS Act, signed into law by President Biden in August 2021 and effective in early 2022, will further reduce the cost of service dogs for veterans.
There’s also no requirement to buy a service dog from one of these organizations; you can inexpensively train an existing pet, raise your own dog, or adopt a dog from an animal rescue.
How to Train a Service Dog
The ADA does not require service animals to undergo a professional service dog training program. However, there are many such programs available, and working with an expert can ensure that your dog is trained highly effectively. However, you can also choose to train your dog yourself.
Training your own service dog can be a very time-consuming job. It can also be frustrating and challenging without previous dog training experience. However, many people find it very beneficial. The American Kennel Club recommends that service dog training begin with:
- Internal training, including on-demand waste elimination
- Socialize in many settings, including focusing on one task in a variety of settings
- Teaching dogs to ignore distractions and focus on their handlers
Once dogs have mastered these basic skills, then they must also be trained to perform specific tasks to assist their owner’s disability. The last step in training is essential as it qualifies the dog as a service animal.
Dog trainers employ certain techniques when training dogs to perform tasks. In a study of PTSD veterans who trained their own service dogs, techniques included:
- Positive reinforcement (eg, physical praise or touching)
- Negative penalties (eg, ignoring dogs)
- Positive punishment (e.g. verbal correction)
- Dominance (eg, alpha roll)
- bond-based (eg, co-sleeping)
In this study, training results based on bond and positive reinforcement techniques were the most positive, while positive punishment was associated with negative outcomes.
The ADA also does not require service dogs to accept any written certification. Some states, counties, colleges and universities offer voluntary enrollment programs, but this is optional. There are also many organizations that sell and provide service animal registration or certification.
While you may choose to pay and complete the certification, please note that these certifications are not recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice or the ADA. They are not a necessary requirement for you to use a service animal and obtain protections and rights under the ADA.
How to Buy a Service Dog
Any breed of dog can be a service dog, but some dogs may be better service dogs than others.
You should also consider the types of tasks your dog will perform for you. For example, if your dog is going to open a door or turn on a light, they should be big enough to jump up and do these.
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
- remain calm in all situations
- Be vigilant but not passive
- 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
One option is to purchase service dogs directly from an organization that specializes in breeding and training service dogs. These organizations are highly specialized and offer expert training, sometimes only the top 30% of dogs pass the training program. However, there can be long waiting lists or expensive fees. Be sure to check financial aid for any organization you are considering.
Some examples of organizations include NEADS World Class Service Dogs or Independent Dog Companions. Some organizations, including NEADS, also selectively source dogs from animal rescue shelters for training programs.
Remember, you can buy any dog, whether it’s from an animal shelter, a breeder, or even your own. Training dogs to perform specific tasks for you will qualify them as service dogs, rather than buying them from a specific organization.
The ADA defines a service animal as an animal trained to perform tasks for a person with a disability. Psychiatric service dogs can help people with anxiety disorders perform tasks related to their disability. Most of the research on the benefits of service dogs for anxiety disorders revolves around veterans with PTSD. Service dogs can help improve quality of life and PTSD symptoms. More research is needed to examine service dogs for other types of anxiety disorders.
Not all disabilities are visible, and thankfully the ADA includes psychiatric service animals for people with mental health issues. If you have mental health issues, such as anxiety, and have difficulty performing everyday tasks, you may benefit from a service dog. Your service dog can be trained to perform these tasks for you and help you participate more fully in everyday life while managing your anxiety.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you get a service dog for free?
Many service dog breeding and training organizations offer financial assistance and provide service dogs for free. 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. The American Kennel Club states that German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers are common service dog breeds.
Why can’t you have a service dog?
Service dogs are working animals. They are essential to the daily life of their owners and are needed due to their 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 due to a disability? 2) What job or task is the dog trained to do? It is not acceptable for owners to provide documentation, explain their disability, or demonstrate tasks.