Service dogs are dogs specifically trained to help individuals with disabilities perform tasks. Service dogs do not help people with physical disabilities, such as blindness. Psychological service animals are trained to help people with mental health conditions, such as anxiety, to fully participate in daily life.
Read on to learn more about service dogs for anxiety disorders.
What is a service dog?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), recently updated in 2010, defines service animals as animals that are “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.” Miniature dogs and horses are approved by the ADA to be service animals, but no other species have approval.
Psychiatric service dogs are specially trained to help individuals with mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders. They are working animals and perform tasks on behalf of their owners.
Service dog vs emotional support animal
The ADA specifies that emotional support, therapy, rest, and companion animals do just that Not Qualified as service animals. This is because they are not trained to perform specific tasks for their therapist, despite being offered emotional support.
Because emotional support animals are not protected by the ADA, you may not be allowed to travel with them in all public places. You should check the local legislation in any state or county in which you reside to confirm.
How do they help with anxiety attacks?
According to the ADA, if your animal has been trained to perform specific tasks during an anxiety attack, such as bringing in help or providing tactile inputs to calm you, it is considered a service animal.
If the simple presence of your animal provides comfort and calms anxiety, then it is considered an emotional support animal.
Service dogs are trained to perform tasks or provide assistance to their owners so that they can safely and fully participate in daily life. According to the ADA, these tasks must be directly related to the disability.
Psychiatric service dogs, for example, can be trained to detect the onset of a psychiatric attack, such as when a person is anxious about a panic attack. Dogs may also help their owner avoid triggers, or reduce symptoms of these episodes through tactile input or redirecting their handlers.
The tasks he performs
Some examples of tasks a service dog might perform for a person with an anxiety disorder include:
Remind the therapist to take their medication
Carry out room inspections or safety checks
Awaken their therapist from a shocking nightmare
Turning on the lights for someone with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Opening doors, retrieving mail, or other tasks for someone with social anxiety disorder or agoraphobia
Interrupting self-harm or obsessive-compulsive behaviors
Keeping confused or panicked customers out of danger
Providing tactile sensory input to reduce anxiety
Most of the research conducted to date on service dogs for anxiety has been among veterans with PTSD, a type of anxiety disorder.
One study found that in a group of veterans with PTSD, the use of psychiatric service dogs along with intensive resistance training for three weeks reduced PTSD symptoms and improved overall quality of life.
Another study looked at exactly how service dogs were able to provide those benefits. In interviews with participants with PTSD who used service dogs, service dogs were found to help:
Improve sleep quality and duration
Reduce hypervigilance by alerting and establishing boundaries
Help shift attention away from invasive or traumatic thought patterns
Improving emotional connection with others
Increase community participation
Increase physical activity
Reduce the need for medication
Reduce suicidal impulses
It can cost up to $25,000 to purchase a service dog from some specialized organization. This cost covers selection or breeding, vet bills, food, and extensive and rigorous training from service dog experts. You may have to pay more for certain skills.
However, many service dog breeding and training organizations, such as the NEADS and the American Humane Society, offer financial aid and provide service dogs at free rates or subsidized through grants and funding.
Some protected groups may also have access to private funding for service dogs.
The Wounded Puppies Assistance for Veterans Affairs Act, or PAWS, which President Biden signed into law in August 2021 and took effect in early 2022, will reduce the cost of service dogs for veterans.
There is also no requirement to purchase a service dog from one of these organizations; You can train an existing pet, raise your own dog, or adopt a dog from an animal rescue for a low cost.
How to train a service dog
The ADA does not require that service animals undergo a professional service dog training program. There are many such programs available, however, and working with an expert can ensure that your dog receives high and effective training. However, you also have the option of training your dog on your own.
Training your service dog can be a very time consuming task. Without previous dog training experience, it can also be frustrating and challenging. However, many people find it very rewarding. The American Kennel Club advises that service dog training begin with:
Home training, including eliminating waste on demand
Socializing in many environments, including staying attentive to a task in different places
Teach your dog to ignore distractions and focus on their handler
Once a dog has mastered these basic skills, it must also be trained to perform specific tasks to help disable its owner. This last step in training is essential, as it is what qualifies a dog as a service animal.
Dog trainers use certain techniques when training a dog to perform tasks. In a study of veterans with PTSD who trained their service dogs, techniques included:
Positive reinforcement (for example, physical praise or petting)
Negative punishment (eg, ignoring the dog)
Positive punishment (eg, verbal corrections)
Dominance (eg, alpha roll)
On the basis of bonds (eg, co-sleeping)
In this study, link-based and positivity-based reinforcement techniques had more positive training outcomes, while positive punishment was associated with negative outcomes.
The ADA also does not require that service dogs receive any documented certification. Some states, counties, colleges, and universities offer voluntary enrollment programs, but this is optional. There are also many organizations that sell and provide animal registration or certification services.
While you can choose to pay for and complete a certification, know that these certifications are not recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice or the ADA. It is not a necessary requirement under the ADA to be able to use a service animal and obtain protections and rights.
How to buy a service dog
Any breed of dog can be service dogs, but some dogs may be better service dogs than others.
You should also consider what kind of tasks your dog will do for you. For example, if your dog is going to open doors or turn on lights, they should be big enough to jump in and do so.
Traits to look for in a service dog
Traits to look for in a highly trainable service dog include:
Focused and thoughtful
Be calm in all circumstances
Be alert but not react
Highly trainable for specific tasks
You have a desire to please
Insensitive to dispersants
Not easy to convert from tasks
Demonstrate information retention and learning
Be social easily in many different places
One option is to purchase your service dog directly from an organization that specializes in breeding and training service dogs. These organizations are highly specialized and offer specialized training, sometimes passing only the top 30% of dogs in the training program. However, there may be long waiting lists or expensive fees. Be sure to check out financial aid at any organization you are considering.
Some examples of organizations include NEADS World Class Service Dogs or Companion Dogs for Independence. Some organizations, including NEADS, selectively source dogs from animal rescue shelters to undergo a training program.
Keep in mind that you can buy any dog, whether it’s from an animal shelter, a fancier, or even from raising yourself. Training your dog to perform tasks specific to you is what qualifies him to be a service dog, not buying him from a particular organization.
The ADA defines service animals as animals that have been trained to perform tasks for a person with a disability. Psychological service dogs can help an individual with an anxiety disorder perform tasks related to their disability. Most of the research on the benefits of service dogs for anxiety revolves around veterans with PTSD. Service dogs can help improve quality of life and symptoms of PTSD. More research is needed to screen service dogs for other types of anxiety disorders.
Word from Verywell
Not all disabilities are visible, and thank God the ADA includes psychiatric service animals for people with mental health conditions. If you have a mental health condition, such as an anxiety disorder, and have difficulty performing daily tasks, you may benefit from a service dog. Your service dog can be trained to perform these tasks for you and help you participate fully in everyday life while managing your anxiety.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you get a service dog for free?
Many dog breeding and training organizations offer financial aid and provide service dogs free of charge. You can also train your existing pet, raise your own puppy, or adopt an animal from animal rescue for free or at low cost.
What are the best breeds for service dogs?
The ADA has no restrictions on which dog breeds can be service animals. However, trainers and experts have determined that some breeds are easier to train than others. The American Kennel Club states that German Shepherds, Labradors, and Golden Retrievers are popular service dog breeds.
Why can’t you serve pet dogs?
Service dogs are working animals. They are necessary for the participation of their owner in everyday life and are required due to their disability. Petting a service dog can distract him from his work and harm his owner.
How do you identify a service dog?
Many service dogs wear special harnesses that identify them as service animals. However, this is not a requirement. To identify or confirm an animal as a service dog, the ADA allows business owners to ask only two questions: 1) Is the dog a required service animal because of a disability? 2) What work or task has the dog been trained to do? It is not acceptable to ask the owner to provide documents, explain his disability, or show assignments.