The work that a service dog may be able to do can be associated with physical, sensory, intellectual, and other types of mental disabilities. Psychiatric Service Dogs are considered service animals and they are a subject of the ADA regulations. They are trained to perform tasks for individuals who are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Depression, Panic, or Stress Disorder in order to help these individuals to deal with some medication side effects or symptoms in cases when help is required.
One of the most popular and helpful tasks that a psychiatric service dog provides is deep pressure stimulation.
This is a tactile stimulation provided as gentle pressure to the body via tugging, stroking, cuddling or wrapping, that relaxes the nervous system. When performed by a service dog, it is usually provided in the form of two main tasks: “Lap” and “Chin”. In the first case, a dog is trained to jump up on a regular basis on his/her handler’s lap and to take a laying position. In the second case, a dog partner is trained to put his/her nose over his/her handler’s foot or arm. The goal is to bring the handler back from an anxiety attack or a dissociative episode as well as to relieve the negative impact of emotional overload for individuals who experience night terrors, flashbacks, or hallucinations.
You can train your service dog to lick your or someone’s face or to nudge on command in order to bring this person to a conscious state. In addition, this stimulation can redirect the handler’s attention to something pleasant and disrupt negative thoughts. A dog partner will not stop providing this behavior until the handler is recovered enough to reward him/her.
A service dog can also be trained to get on top of a bed in order to hug the person in the bed or to be petted by this person. This action could have a very positive effect on the person’s feelings.
A very important task that psychiatric service dogs are able to perform is to bring medication to their handler in order to relieve the impact of certain symptoms. These symptoms may be related to cramps, dizziness, stress, or panic attack, as well as pain in the chest area. In such cases of emergency, a PSD can go on command to a certain location where the medication is placed and retrieve it to his/her handler. A dog can also be trained to go to a second location i.e. to open a commode/bureau and to bring a bag with medication if he/she does not have access to the original location at the time of emergency. Trained PSD are also able to determine the location of a bag/basket/purse with medication in different locations like office, desk, home and to deliver them on command.
In order to remind the handler to take their medication service dogs should be learned to interfere with their handler’s activity at a certain time like bringing his/her food bowl, barking, or nudging. Once this behavior becomes a routine, it will be used as a reminder for the dog handler to stop whatever activity they are providing at the moment and to take their medication.
Once a handler has the medication in their hands, they may need water or other beverage to swallow it. This might be a more difficult task for a PSD, as it may require more than one action/ skill. The dog may need to go to another room, to open the door of a cabinet or a fridge, where the glass of water or other beverage is placed; then the PSD needs to come back to his/her handler and to hand over the beverage; if the animal had to open the door in the first step, he/she may need to return and close it. As this task is more complicated, it may take up to 6 months for the dog to be able to fulfill it.
Persons who have to deal with depression and are likely to have suicidal intentions, as well as persons who are suffering from medication side effects, should be able to call a doctor in the case of an emergency. PSD can be trained to retrieve an emergency phone in these situations. In order for this task to be performed successfully the emergency phone should be set in a place with availability at all times and its position should remain the same.
If the phone is in a place with two entrances, your dog partner should be granted access to both of them, especially in cases when the access to the first one is blocked.
When a handler is experiencing a sudden worsening of symptoms and they are suffering from a mental disorder like PTSD, a PSD can interfere with the handler’s harmful behavior when calling 911 directly. In such cases, service dogs take immediate actions in order to protect the health of their handler. A service dog can be trained to call any preset number when pressing the button with his/her paw.
In some cases, an individual might be unable to move to the front door and to get help, due to fainting, or medication side effects. In such cases, a PSD can be trained to open the front door in order to guide the medical staff to his/her handler.
It is very important to mention that emergencies might occur when the handlers are unable to give verbal commands due to their condition. A service dog can be learned to recognize non-verbal commands, like hand signals, in order to bark at a speaker-phone, to go to a certain housemate for help, or to hand over a note to a certain family member. Doors with a lever handle can be opened by a service dog with proper training, so that he/she can enter another room and notify a housemate about the case of emergency.
Similar to the situation described above a service dog can be trained to notify via note or via barking a certain co-worker when necessary. There might be different ways for a service dog to get help in the workplace, depending on the situation and the tasks that he/she can perform.
When the service dog’s breed is large, the animal can fulfill more difficult and demanding tasks.
This kind of task can be very helpful in cases when an individual is dealing with weakness, dizziness, or when an individual is exposed to a risk of falling. The balance support can prevent serious injuries due to the mentioned conditions. Large breeds can be learned to support their handler when climbing or descending stairs or when trying to get up from the floor. In the first situation, a dog should be trained to take only one step and to stop on each step. In the second situation, a dog can be trained to stiffen his/her body on command for a few seconds in order to provide resistance when the handler puts their hand on him/her and try getting up.
When an individual is feeling dizziness and is about to fall, they need to give their dog partner a certain command before bolstering on their body.
A Psychiatric Service Dog can be trained to recognize smoke alarms when his/her handler is nonresponsive due to feelings of disconnection, anxiety or panic attacks. If the individual is not aware enough to call 911, a service dog can be learned to call a direct line in cases of emergency as mentioned above.
If a dog handler has to deal with speech impairments because of medication side effects, a panic attack, or PTSD, they may want to teach their dog partner to hand over an explanation card or a note to an employer, guard, driver, teacher...etc., when it is necessary. The goal of this card or note is to indicate that a dog handler needs help and or does not need help in that particular moment. Another card, similar to the first one can be used as a verification for the dog as a service dog in cases when the dog handler is unable to provide verbal verification.
Since some medications may cause sedative effects, a service dog may be trained to awaken his/her sleeping handler, if the doorbell rings or a smoke alarm is turned on. In the second case a dog can also be trained to guide his/her handler to the front exit, and to open the door (via pulling strap or by pressing the lever handle) if the handler is still under the medication side effects. A dog can be trained to keep alerting the handler until they reward him/her. In this way, a handler makes it clear that they are in a state of consciousness.
A service dog can be learned to turn on lights or to bring the TV remote when hearing a certain command. An audio or visual stimulation could interrupt distressing or harmful thoughts, feelings or interfere with the sedative effect of medications.
A dog can start a game with a toy in order to interrupt obsessive thoughts or to help the handler resist the medication's sedative side effects.
One of the most important tasks that a Psychiatric Service Dog can be trained to perform is to protect their handler while in public. Large breeds can be learned to stay into position (it could be at the front, behind, on the right, or on the left) or to move in a circle around his/her handler and to be prepared for eventual impact when hearing a certain command. The goal is to interrupt unwanted body contact with the handler in places like elevators or buses.
Whether in school or at the workplace individuals with different mental disorders may have difficulties when dealing with certain conversations or situations with bosses, co-workers, or people who they meet on a daily basis. A dog can be trained to recognize a command (hand command) and to help the handler to avoid or to interrupt such a situation. Tasks that a service dog may perform in these cases can be: licking, jumping, barking, providing any kind of disruptive and attention-seeking behavior that interrupts the situation and the emotional overload.