According to the World Health Organization, mental health disorders impact one in four people. They are one of the leading causes of poor health and disability worldwide. Problems with mental health can affect all areas of functioning, including one’s relationships, work performance, finances, and self-esteem. 

Mental illness is multifaceted, and there isn’t a cure. That said, treatment and recovery are possible. Many people can live meaningful and fulfilling lives despite their conditions. 

It’s no secret that dogs are synonymous with being man’s best friend. As it turns out, research reinforces the notion that dogs can dramatically improve mental health. Furthermore, psychiatric service dogs can provide emotional guidance, companionship, and specific mental health tasks. 

What is a Psychiatric Service Dog?

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals provide specific tasks and support for disabled individuals. These animals are different from household pets. To meet the essential criteria, the animal must be a dog, and it must be trained to perform particular tasks. If the dog satisfies these specific requirements, it may accompany its owner in settings where animals are typically prohibited.

Psychiatric service dogs provide a variety of helpful tasks split into the following categories: 

  • Assistance in a medical crisis
  • Treatment-related assistance
  • Assistance coping with emotional overload
  • Security enhancement tasks

What Tasks Can a Psychiatric Service Dog Perform

Service dogs can learn to assist their owners during acute emergencies and sudden symptoms flare-ups. 

Bringing Medication To Alleviate Symptoms

Dogs can retrieve pouches with medication from specific locations like a vanity or shelf via a single command. They can also open doors and retrieve baskets or satchels containing medication if access to the first location is blocked. 

Bringing Beverages So Owners Can Swallow Medication

Owners can train dogs to retrieve a beverage so they can swallow the medication. This is a complex skill that requires the dog to go to the kitchen, pull open the refrigerator or cupboard, retrieve the beverage, carry it, and go back to shut the door if needed.

Bringing An Emergency Phone

This skill allows owners to contact support people (doctors, loved ones, therapists) if experiencing medication side effects or severe mental health symptoms. 

Answering The Door Or Summon Help

Dogs can learn to tug a strap placed on the front door’s lever handle to open it in the event the owner cannot do it on their own. The dog can also escort the guest to the owner. Furthermore, dogs can carry written messages to designated people when in an office or retail setting.

Call 911 Or Another Hotline

People with physical and mental disabilities may struggle with suicidal ideation. Dogs can support their owners if a crisis emerges, as they can be trained to call 911 or any other pre-programmed phone number on a special K-9 rescue phone.

Provide Balance

With dizziness and motor coordination problems listed as common side effects of many psychiatric medications, dogs can help owners from falling. They can also provide balance support if the person does fall. This task is reserved for large dogs, as they must be at an appropriate size for the work. 

Respond To Smoke Alarms

Dogs can help alert their owners if a smoke alarm goes off. Sometimes, people with mental illnesses like PTSD experience dissociative symptoms. Dissociation can trigger a sedative effect, which will impact one’s promptness to respond to emergencies.

Backpacking Medical-Related Supplies

Dogs can assist owners by carrying necessary items like beverages, cell phones, and instructions for emergency personnel. This task can be incredibly helpful for people when they are out in public. That said, the ADA does not consider this as a ‘legal task.’ Instead, it is simply a bonus aid to the owner.

Treatment-Related Assistance

Psychiatric service dogs can also help people cope with the daily nuances of living with disabilities. 

Medication Reminders

Dogs can be trained to alert owners to take their daily medication on time. They may alert in a variety of ways including begging for dinner, nudging or barking, or taking their walk at an expected time. The habitual basis of this behavior reinforces their consistency. 

Speech Impairment Tasks

Some medications have side effects that include loss of speech. Dogs can carry (and be trained) to show cards to people to indicate what is going on when this occurs. 

Dry Mouth

As mentioned, owners can train dogs to retrieve beverages during times of need. This skill can be especially useful for individuals taking medication where dry mouth is a side effect. 

Waking Sedated Owners 

Sedation is a significant side effect of many medications. However, dogs can be trained to inform their owners when spouses, children, or other household members need support. They can also be trained to alert their owner when the doorbell rings or smoke alarm goes off. Typically, the dog nuzzles or engages in licking the owner’s face until they awaken. 

What Does a Psychiatric Service Dog Do to Help Cope With Emotional Overload

Dogs can support their owners to swifty adapt and recover from emotional overload. They can be trained to detach and carry on specific tasks to reduce their owner’s feelings of panic and helplessness. 

Providing Tactile Stimulation

Dogs can use a variety of distracting, tactile techniques to reduce the emotional overload owners may experience in heightened situations. These on-command techniques can include licking the face, nudging the body, and snuggling or hugging the owner. 

Changing The Scenery

Known as the ‘breaking the spell’ strategy, dogs can support owners in moving into another room or engaging in different tasks (turning on a light, turning on the TV, retrieving medication, playing a game of fetch) during moments of emotional overload. This can ‘break up’ heightened symptoms associated with panic attacks, hallucinations, nightmares, and suicidal thoughts.

Reducing Emotional Overload At Work

Dogs can support their owners in the workplace in a variety of ways. For example, they might sit or cuddle up during times of distress. They can also provide a viable reason for escaping triggering situations (specific conversations or people). Dogs achieve this by engaging in an attention-seeking behavior like licking the partner’s hand after being cued- which gives the owner an excuse to leave the situation.

Finding Exits

Dogs can support owners in locating the nearest exit. This strategy can be extremely helpful for people who struggle with panic disorder or PTSD.

Providing Deep Pressure

A dog’s weight can offer a calming effect on its owner. The dog merely lies pressed against the abdomen and chest. Of course, the dog must be the right size, and it must also be trained to get off the person on command.  

Crowd Control

Dogs can help owners maintain distance from other people, which can be a crucial need for individuals who experience claustrophobia. The dog circles its partner to essentially keep people away.  

Security Enhancement Tasks

Many people with mental illness struggle to feel safe in the world. They reflexively anticipate danger and distress, and this cycle can make ordinary tasks feel debilitating. Dogs can provide support in offering a sense of security.

Coping With Fear of Intruders

Some people feel panicked and hypervigilant that intruders or attackers are in the home. Dogs can provide support through a “who’s there?” reality check. Owners ask their dog, “who’s there?” in an excited voice, and the dog listens and alerts if needed. If nobody is there, the dog’s interest wanes, and he will move onto something else. 

Calling For Help

Dogs can bring portable ‘emergency’ phones to their owners. They can be trained to call 911 or a trusted emergency contact through a programmed setting on K-9 rescue phones.  

Lighting Up The Room

Dogs can turn on lamps or overhead lights (via touchpads or floor pedal devices) to help reduce the fear of darkness, strange noises, and potential intruders. 

Keeping Strangers Away

A dog’s ability to remain calm and collected when the owner faces distress offers a valuable reality check. Dogs can also be useful security systems, and research shows they may be more effective than burglar alarms and other external security measures. Of course, the size and breed of the dog play a role in the ability to act as a deterrent. Dogs can learn how to cover their partners, scan the scene for danger, appear as if they are going to ‘charge forward,’ and bark for help or bark enthusiastically.  

Increase Safety In Public

Dogs can hold valuable items like a wallet, ID, or cell phone in a backpack. This skill can be useful for owners who struggle with symptoms of dissociation, disorientation, or flashbacks. During these vulnerable times, owners may be more susceptible to being a crime victim. Dogs can also support owners at the ATM machine, as they can help block the screen from a stranger’s view.

Understanding Service Dog Requirements

80 million Americans own dogs, and service dogs are becoming more and more popular. With that in mind, service dogs are trained to work- this work extends beyond the love and comfort a household pet provides.

There are no sex, breed, or age restrictions on service dogs. Instead, the requirements focus more on temperament and behavior.  For example, the dogs must be well-behaved in all settings. Any signs of aggressive behavior are prohibited. They must exude calmness and obedience both in private and public locations. 

People with disabilities can train service dogs on their own. They do not need to utilize a specific or formal dog training program. Likewise, there is no obligation to “register” the dog. However, some cities have particular registration and licensing requirements. If these requirements are in your area, you must abide by them. Furthermore, although it’s not required, registration does create a sense of legitimacy.

How A Psychiatric Service Dog Can Help You

Dogs offer companionship, comfort, and unconditional love to their owners. They become members of the family. Moreover, dogs can also support people struggling with acute psychiatric distress. With the right training, a service dog can substantially increase one’s sense of stability and well-being. 

Nicol Arzt

Nicol Arzt LMFT

Nicole Arzt is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in substance use disorders, depression and anxiety, and complex trauma. A professional content writer, she is passionate about teaching through the written word and providing dynamic mental health advocacy. Nicole lives in Southern California with her husband and son.