What are service dogs?
*The ADA defines a service dog as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.” This can include a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or any other mental disability.”
“Service dogs are specially trained to perform one or many specific tasks for their assigned individual. Tasks performed by a service dog include but are not limited to:
- Guiding people who are blind
- Alerting people who are deaf or hard of hearing
- Pulling a wheelchair and/or assisting the individual in a wheelchair
- Alerting and protecting a person who is having, or are about to have, a seizure
- Assisting those with balance and stability issues
- Reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications
- Interrupting impulsive or destructive behavior of those with neurological disabilities or other psychiatric issues
- Helping veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome by turning on lights, creating a buffer in public, and interrupting anxiety attacks or nightmares.”
- *This definition is from the Jack Kagan Foundation.
A Psychiatric Service Dog is specially trained to assist individuals with psychiatric disabilities. These dogs are not pets but are working dogs with public access rights. The dogs are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act(ADA), as well as individual state statutes. Public access, as it applies to service dogs, allows the dog to be taken anywhere the general public can go, including all forms of public transportation such as airplanes, places of worship, restaurants, stores, malls, hospitals, and doctor and dentist offices.
Psychiatric service dogs are specifically trained to help individuals deal with the symptoms of their disabilities. Psychiatric conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Anxiety, Severe Depression, Panic Attacks, Phobias, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders respond well to the work of these extraordinary dogs.
How can these dogs possibly help? What do they do? There are many answers to these questions. Dogs trained to deal with PTSD are taught to prevent strangers from coming too close. By positioning themselves in front of their partners, they prevent people from entering their personal space. In the case of war veterans, the dogs are often trained to walk behind, reducing the fear of being outside.
These dogs also provide reality checks for visual and auditory hallucinations. A veteran recently reported that while spending a quiet evening at home, he suddenly felt a strange person standing close to him. He looked down at his Service Dog, asleep at his feet, and realized that no one could be there without the dog reacting.
Psychiatric Service Dogs are often alert to obsessive-compulsive behaviors by “pawing” individuals who may not realize what they are doing. The dog is distracting the client from the compulsive behavior.
The dogs carry prescriptions and medical information in their vests, remind their partners to take medications, give them a reason to get out of bed and leave the house and provide a constant non-judgmental, loving presence. Service Dogs and their partners are always together.
Psychiatric Service Dogs also help with anxiety and panic attacks through tactile stimulation. When a client is highly nervous and upset, they are encouraged to run their hands through the dog’s fur and massage the dog’s entire body. Through these tactile experiences, clients learn to relieve their symptoms. This technique works particularly well in times of stress.
The presence of these dogs also relieves isolation and encourages social interaction. People are fascinated by the work of these dogs and constantly ask questions. The interaction between the dog owner and people who ask questions encourages the client to become more comfortable dealing with strangers.
One of the best things about PTSD clients partnering with Psychiatric Service Dogs is that the dog often distracts them from their fears and worries. Instead, they must focus on the dog, its behavior, safety, and care.
Each dog is taught specific tasks depending on the needs of their partners. These can often include, but are by no means limited to, getting the phone in an emergency, calling 911 on a K-9 Rescue Phone, barking for help, providing balance support, retrieving needed or dropped articles, opening the refrigerator to bring food or drink, alerting others in medical emergencies, finding the car in a crowded parking lot and leading the client to safety.
As the bond between Service Dogs and their partners deepens, they become more in tune with one another, and their ability to provide for one another’s needs increases. One of the best things I have heard from a Service Dog partner is, “This dog makes me laugh. He fills my life with a sense of joy and love that I haven’t been able to feel for a very long time.”