If you need a service dog — specifically a psychiatric service dog (PSD) — you may be wondering how you can get one. (Or you’ve ever seen a dog in a restaurant or hotel, you may have wondered what the dog is doing in a place pets aren’t normally permitted.) PSDs are extremely helpful and intelligent and are trained to make life for their handlers much easier. Let’s look closer at these incredible pups.
What is a PSD?
Unlike other service dogs (or assistance, support, or helper dogs), who are trained to perform major everyday tasks for people with physical disabilities, psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) are individually trained to help people with emotional or psychiatric disabilities including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, and severe depression.
PSDs are trained to assist in medical crises and provide treatment and security to their owners, including managing anxiety and panic attacks and preventing their handlers from reacting unfavorably in stressful situations. For example, a PSD is trained to provide "deep pressure therapy" to minimize an anxiety or panic attack by applying weight and pressure to her handler’s body in a calming way or to wake her handler up if he’s experiencing a night terror.
What's the difference between service dogs and therapy dogs?
The differences between therapy dogs and service dogs, like PSDs, can be a little blurry, so let’s look at some of the distinctions:
Service dogs primarily work for their owners while therapy dogs provide service to people who are not their handlers – they help people in places like hospitals, schools, and nursing homes.
Service dogs, like seeing eyeing dogs, act like guides and perform jobs for their owners to help them accomplish everyday tasks and keep them safe. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), therapy dogs are dogs that provide comfort just by being with a person. Since they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task, they do not qualify as service animals.
Service dogs are working dogs and are not considered pets.
Are there special laws that apply to PSDs?
Under federal law PSDs can:
Accompany their owners into businesses pets normally cannot enter
Live with their owners in traditional "no pet" housing
Fly in the cabin of an airplane with no additional fee
These laws do not apply to everyday pets or therapy dogs.
What kind of dog can be a PSD?
Any breed or size dog can be a PSD. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), there are a few requirements for a dog to be a service dog:
His owner must have a life-limiting disability
He must be trained to recognize and respond to his owner’s disability through work or tasks
He must not cause a disruption in public and must not exhibit aggressive barking or behavior
He must be housebroken
He must be mastered in basic obedience training like "sit" and "stay" and must come when called off-leash
Can you train your own dog to be a PSD?
If you’re interested in training your own dog to be a PSD dog, first talk to your doctor about your disability and discuss which tasks and jobs your dog can specifically do to assist you daily. It’s also important to have your dog temperament-tested because if he is unhealthy or aggressive, he cannot become one and you will need to get another dog to be your service dog.
Properly training your dog to be a service dog takes about six months to a year, but a full-time professional trainer can usually do it in less time. PSD dogs are trained both privately with the handler he will assist and publicly to ensure he is comfortable and obedient around people.
Training your own dog takes a lot of time and patience, and it’s much easier to get one from an organization. However, if you are training him yourself, please remember you are fully responsible for your dog – before, during, and after training – and you need to abide by state laws and regulations, since some of them protect businesses from not being required to allow your dog while he’s in training into their facility.
How do you qualify for a PSD?
Although each organization has different eligibility criteria, there are a few requirements that all applicants need. In order to qualify for a PSD, you need to be legally disabled under the ADA (and be able to provide proper medical documentation) and you need to be able to handle and command the dog independently on your own. Most places also require your attendance in training sessions with the service dog (which can be multiple weeks of training) both while they’re in the program and after they’ve graduated.
How much does a PSD cost?
Throughout my research, I’ve found the average price for a service dog – with temperament testing, vet care, food, and training – is between $20,000-$30,000. However, some organizations like The Foundation for Service Dog Support often reduce costs based on each individual and her service to the community.
But remember, a PSD is still a dog that needs and deserves regular care and upkeep. Last year, two veterinary students from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine found that the average first year cost of having a dog — regardless of breed or size — is $3,085. With costs like basic supplies, food, medications, vet bills, and grooming, they found the average lifetime cost of having and raising a dog is $23,410.
Where can you get a PSD?
Here are a few popular programs that specialize in training PSD dogs and the specific requirements they have for applicants:
Service Dogs for American (SDA) requires the applicant be at least 12 years old, participate in an interview with one of their SDA representatives, and be able to provide financial proof that he can afford a service dog. (Their dogs cost $20,000 with another $2,500 in estimated annual fees.)
Paws With A Cause requires the individual to be at least 14 years old, be able to meet the emotional, physical, and financial needs of the PSD dog, and have no other dog in the home. The applicant also needs to live in an area serviced by one of their field representatives.
Canine Companions for Independence requires the applicant be at least 18 years old, have a friend or family member be a training assistant, and participate in both a telephone and in-person interview.
For more training programs and organizations, check out this list of service dog trainers broken down by state.
Dogs are wonderful animals — they’re loyal, intelligent, and good for our health. But researching and writing this article made me even prouder to have a dog and be a dog advocate because they are truly special and provide such a positive addition to society. It is extraordinary to know dogs can be trained by their owners or professionals to be more than "man’s best friend" or companion, but to truly save lives.