What Is a Psychiatric Service Dog?

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  • Written By: Amanda R. Bell
  • Edited By: E. E. Hubbard
  • Last Modified Date: 21 February 2020
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A psychiatric service dog is specially trained to aid its owner in daily tasks that may be especially challenging for him or her. Nearly any breed of dog can be trained as a service dog, although some are naturally more suited to this lifestyle than others. These animals are purchased either by a service dog organization or by the person who intends to utilize the dog to aid in treating his or her mental health problems, and then trained in obedience, working in public and disability-specific skills.

Although service dogs are perhaps best known for their work with those living with physical limitations, such as vision, hearing, or mobility problems, they can also provide significant help for those dealing with psychiatric issues. Unlike emotional companions who only provide their owners with moral support, psychiatric service dogs are specifically trained to help their owners deal with their unique issues. These dogs are often used to remind people to take medication, stop people from engaging in self-destructive or repetitive behaviors, and provide physical and emotional support as needed. Due to the sheer amount of unique behaviors that a person with a mental health issue may exhibit, psychiatric service dogs are typically trained with a specific owner in mind so the dog is capable of fully caring for the owner’s needs.


In most cases, nearly any purebred or mixed dog can become a psychiatric service dog. Golden retrievers and Labradors are some of the most commonly used, although other types of retrievers and German Shepherds are also popular. While larger dogs are typically used as psychiatric and other service dogs, smaller dogs can also be successfully trained and may work better for patients with different needs, especially those who do not want extra attention when out in public. While these are the most common breeds, any mixed breed or other purebred dog can make an excellent psychiatric service dog given the proper temperament and health.

There are two main ways that a dog can be chosen for psychiatric service: by an organization or a potential owner. An organization specializing in this type of service dog may purchase or adopt the animal from a breeder or animal shelter for training, and then donate or sell the animal to an owner so that the dog can begin its service work. In some cases, a person who needs a psychiatric service dog may pick the animal and then hire a trainer to get the animal ready.

A psychiatric service dog undergoes rigorous training before it begins working with its new owner. The first stage of the training process is basic obedience, which is often undergone by regular pets. This teaches the dog commands, leash skills, and proper behavior. Although this is often undergone by household pets, a psychiatric service dog is expected to excel at basic obedience training, and is required to earn a canine good citizen award, which is offered by kennel clubs in various countries following the completion of a test.

Once a dog is adept at following basic commands, it begins working with a specialized trainer to learn how to work in public and the specific skills it will need to help its future owner. This stage of training can take anywhere from six months to a year, depending on the animal and how high the needs of the owner may be. If a dog does not yet have an owner, the trainer will typically teach it basic psychiatric service dog commands and behaviors, and then teach skills that are more specific once an owner is chosen.



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The book, "Healing Companions: Ordinary Dogs and Their Extraordinary Power To Transform Lives," includes compelling stories of veterans and others and how their psychiatric service dogs have helped them survive their debilitating symptoms of PTSD, TBI and MST.

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