Well known for providing life-altering assistance to their owners, service dogs are credited for offering an array of assistance, from guiding a visually or hearing-impaired person through the day to alerting their owner of an impending seizure or diabetic episode.
But now, service dogs are assisting those battling less visible — yet equally debilitating — problems associated with mental health disorders. Uniquely trained to detect problems common to conditions such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression or panic attacks, psychiatric service dogs are leading millions of individuals toward more functional, fulfilling lives.
Older adult veterans with PTSD and individuals with Alzheimer’s or other dementias are among the beneficiaries.
What Is a Service Dog?
We’ve all seen them in public settings: those calm, well-behaved canines trotting along at their owner’s side. But what exactly makes a dog a service animal?
A trained psychiatric service dog can be the difference between being free to interact and enjoy life, or being limited by isolation and fear.
As defined in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service dog is “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” A psychiatric service dog is further defined as one trained to “…detect the onset of psychiatric episodes, and lessen their effects.”
These canines undergo vigorous training to earn their title, mastering everything from impeccable manners to performing unique tasks. The ADA grants properly trained dogs the right to accompany their owners in public places: stores, schools, restaurants and more. Most dogs wear an identifying vest, but that is not required. Appropriate personnel are legally permitted to inquire if a dog is a service dog, but not about the owner’s disability, nor is the owner obligated to disclose any details.
It’s worth noting that other types of dogs provide beneficial assistance to individuals facing challenges, such as therapy or emotional support dogs. However, only service dogs are protected under the ADA; others are not afforded the same privileges and access.
How Psychiatric Service Dogs Help
Howie Gallagher, head trainer at Golden Opportunities for Independence in Walpole, Mass., trains canines to be partnered with owners dealing with PTSD and anxiety disorders. The ways these dogs assist their owners — commonly referred to as handlers — are numerous, Gallagher says.
“They’re trained to track movement, which enables them to spot if their handler is having a nightmare or flashback, as well as signs of anxiety, such as picking at their skin,” he says.
The dogs perform tasks to mitigate the problem and calm the handler.
“To wake someone from a nightmare, the dogs tap them with their paw until they wake. The dogs then turn on the lights [they can be trained to flick a wall switch with their paw or snout] and return to begin deep pressure therapy to calm the person,” Gallagher says. “To stop self-harm behavior, the dogs will nudge their noses between the person’s hands, preventing them from picking at skin. They offer a better outlet for stress, like bringing the person something to hold to fidget with.”
The dogs are also trained to identify an object — such as a firearm — and bark persistently. “They can’t overpower someone, but they can give them a brief moment to think about the severity of their actions,” Gallagher says.
The Challenges of Public Places
Public places commonly pose an obstacle for those living with mental health issues. For many, the actions of their service dog make the difference between staying home and attending a class or stopping for groceries.
“In public, if a stranger is too close to their handler, the dog will back up and create a barrier and some distance,” Gallagher explains. “They also learn a very subtle cue that means ‘act like you need to go out.’ The dog will stand up and bark, ignoring requests to stop. The handler now has an excuse to step outside for a break, without needing to explain.”
Jennifer Mauger, a certified professional dog trainer at L’Chaim Canine in Akron, Ohio, has seen the changes in her clients. One recent client is in his mid-50s and living with an anxiety disorder. “John” (not his real name) has found new freedom with his 1½-year-old poodle mix.
“The dog’s tasks include blocking, nudging/waking him when it’s time to take meds, providing deep pressure therapy and removing John from a store when he’s becoming overwhelmed,” says Mauger. Now, “John runs errands more frequently and is more willing to stay out longer. [The dog] has facilitated social interactions that might not otherwise have taken place,” adds Mauger.
Alzheimer’s and Dementia Assistance
The use of psychiatric service dogs for clients dealing with cognitive or memory disorders is a promising area, initiated by the research of an Israeli team composed of social worker Dafna Golan-Shemesh and professional dog trainer Yariv Ben-Yosef. Successful trials have since been done in the U.S. and abroad.
Natural followers of routine, dogs are perfect for reminding handlers about meals, grooming, or medicine. They can be trained to alert or summon for help with a household emergency, such as a fall or a burner left on, or if their handler attempts to wander.
While it’s an area with potential, the use of service dogs for this purpose is still developing, and placements are typically made only if another responsible adult lives in the home.
“If the owner has memory or cognitive issues, they may inadvertently neglect the dog or expose him to medication or other danger,” says Patti Anderson, therapy animal trainer at Doggone Good Coaching in Plymouth, Minn.
Finding a Reputable Organization
Pairing up with a service dog is a significant investment of money, time and emotion, so finding one through a trusted organization is crucial.
“There are organizations that claim to train service dogs, but lack skill and credentials,” Anderson warns, adding that a thorough investigation is in order. “Ask questions. Find out how long they’ve been in business, how many dogs they’ve trained and how many they’ve successfully placed. Talk to past clients with similar situations,” advises Anderson.
Also: explore the dogs’ origins. Most well-known organizations breed their own puppies or have long-standing relationships with few, select breeders. “By breeding our own dogs, we have a good idea of their health, temperament and work drive,” explains Gallagher.
Programs that rehabilitate rescue dogs also exist, but warrant a closer look. “Such programs should be run by very dog-savvy people, with proven experience choosing and evaluating dogs,” Anderson comments.
Another sign of a trustworthy organization: It will require a physician’s release. “We need to ensure the intended individual is safe to be around a dog,” says Gallagher.
Lastly, do your own sleuthing. Get online and ask around at your veterinarian, physician or related mental health association.
How You Can Help
Most organizations rely on foster families to raise their puppies until they’re old enough to begin training.
“The puppies grow up like a regular dog, learn to live in a home and become familiar with many different experiences,” Gallagher explains.
Some requirements of a foster-puppy raiser:
- Attend basic obedience classes and veterinary appointments, as specified by your organization
- Bring the puppy along on typical daily events: e.g., shopping, dining, going to work, visiting the dentist
- Feed, love and care for the puppy
- Return your puppy to the organization when he’s ready for training, usually around one year of age
Contact organizations near you for more information about fostering.