I am confident that we all will agree how amazing creatures dogs are-loyal, intelligent, loving, trainable... We love being around them as their presence bring us a feeling of happiness and a lot of positive emotions. There is a type of dogs, that are not only our beloved pets, but also do various tasks for us, based on our needs. It is important to note, that the tasks these dogs perform can be both physical and/or mental related.
Taking care of our mental health is as essential for our general well-being as taking care of our physical health is, and we should not underestimate it. If you are new here, you may not know what service dogs are and how they can help people cope with various disabilities, especially when it comes to mental illnesses. If you want to learn more about these topics, you are at the right place!
Service Animals can be dogs only (some states in the US recognize miniature horses as well), individually trained to perform tasks, directly related to a person’s disability- whether physical or mental. Service dogs are allowed to accompany their owner to public places, as they are deemed as medical equipment and not pets. Hence, the “no” pet policy of covered entities does not apply to them. Professionally or owner/self trained service dogs in the US are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and may not be denied access unless they are bad-mannered, cause damages, behave disruptively, are not under control or if the entity will have to fundamentally alter the nature of the services, goods or programs it offers.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) mental disabilities can be characterized by combination of abnormal perceptions, emotions, thoughts, behavior as well as relationships with other people. Examples of mental disabilities are: bipolar disorder, depression, dementia, psychosis, schizophrenia and also developmental disorders such as autism. People suffering from a mental disability go through special treatment and need social support as well, to be able to actively engage in their daily activities. Mental disorders can immensely affect a person’s self-esteem, confidence, social interactions as well as their ability to do simple things as a part of their daily routine.
You all may have heard or seen guide dogs, dogs pulling wheelchairs and performing various physical tasks. However, there is a type of service dogs-the so-called Psychiatric Service Dogs, trained to perform tasks, directly related to a mental disability. These dogs still provide comfort and emotional support, but due to the specifics of their work-they perform concrete tasks, they are recognized as service animals and enjoy the same privileges.
The two terms are still being confused, so we would like to clarify what the differences are. Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) provide comfort and companionship and bring positive feelings to their owners due to their presence. They go through basic obedience training so that they can be well-mannered while in public. However, they do not perform specific tasks, directly related to a mental disability. Hence, they are not recognized as service animals and may be denied access to public places. The “no pet” policy of covered entities applies to them. Despite that, ESAs in the US are protected under the Fair Housing Act that requires landlords to provide them with reasonable accommodation.
As mentioned above, Psychiatric Service Dogs (PSDs) are a type of service animals, and they are allowed in covered entities as well as in the aircraft passenger cabin. However, when it comes to traveling with a PSD on board, you should always check the service dog regulations of the particular airline and make sure that you and your service dog meet all requirements to be accepted in the passenger cabin.
The tasks that PSDs can perform are so many and vary based on the needs of their owner. One of the most important tasks PSDs can do is:
DPT is a tactile stimulation, usually provided by PSDs by either jumping on their owner’s lap or putting their chin on the owner’s lap/arm. The gentle pressure to the body activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), the body relaxes and circulation improves. Hormones like serotonin, endorphin, and dopamine, are being produced and bring a feeling of relaxation and happiness. DPT improves sleep, memory, and social skills, and reduce the anxiety. Hence, people with various mental conditions may benefit from a DPT.
PSDs can be trained to interfere with behaviors such as self-harming, isolating, crying, feeling depressed...etc. Once the dog senses any changes in the emotional state or behavior of their owner, they provide tactile stimulation or otherwise distract them. They calm the owner down, offer them comfort, companionship and alleviate the symptoms of the condition.
The term “grounding” is usually used to describe a behavior that brings a person back to reality after they have had an episode. This task is crucial while in public. Through performing a trained behavior, such as pawing, nudging, licking...etc., the dog can help his/her owner recover easier after an episode.
Once the Psychiatric Service Dog recognizes an oncoming episode, they can guide their owner to a safe place to lie down or sit, while the episode is over. This is another important task, that can be life-saving, especially while in public.
PSDs can be trained to retrieve items, such as medication, a phone, beverage, a blanket...or anything that may be helpful to the owner when they experience an episode.
Logically connected to the retrieve tasks are tasks where the dog brings to the owner dropped objects in case they are unable to reach them (i.e. because they feel fatigue or dizzy). Also, PSDs can be trained to remove items from the floor if they obstruct the owner’s access to a certain area in their home.
You can train your service dog to open or close the door, i.e. to let medical health providers or your family members get in. Also service dogs can be trained to open/close cabinets or drawers and bring certain items to you.
If you are on a strong medication, you may benefit from a task where the dog comes to you and performs tactile stimulation to wake you up.
You can train your dog to keep passersby at a distance, i.e. through circling around you, when your anxiety arises.
If you feel like you are about to fall down, your service dog can be trained to use his/her body to protect you from falling on the ground and get injured.
Even only the thought of having a loyal friend, that will be by your side brings a feeling of calmness and joy. Your service dog will be your most loyal friend and support, and you will always be able to rely on him/her.
You can get a trained service dog from a non-profit organization. It will cost you almost nothing (you may need to pay an application fee only), but you are likely to have to wait a lot prior to getting a dog, since there are usually long waiting lists. Also, you will have to meet the organization’s requirements to be able to get a service dog.
You can train your dog through a professional trainer / organization. In this case you can make sure that professionals will take care of properly training your dog. However, this option is likely to be expensive, and you will need to consider the training schedule and the organization’s requirements.
You can also train your own service dog, based on your particular needs. Through owner/self training you can adapt the process to your lifestyle and your dog’s personality. You will create a strong bond with your dog due to the valuable time you spend together and come to know him/her better. Of course, if you decide to go that way, you will have to invest time, energy, be patient and consistent.
Psychiatric Service Dogs can perform various tasks to assist people with mental disabilities regain their confidence, enhance their social skills and actively engage in their life.