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4 Questions to Ask Before Getting a Psychiatric Service Dog

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You may have heard of psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) from stories about veterans with PTSD using these canine helpmates to integrate back into society after experiencing severe trauma. Or perhaps you’ve even met someone who uses a PSD and are wondering if this might be a good intervention for you. As you’re considering this important decision, there are some questions you can ask yourself and your mental healthcare providers to get yourself started out on the right foot.

1. Am I Able to Work With a Service Dog Right Now?

Look at the traits of successful service dog users outlined by Psychiatric Service Dog Partners, a very useful all-volunteer peer support community. Highlight the items that you’re not 100% sure about to discuss with your therapist or another doctor familiar with your disability. Ironically, people with disabilities who would benefit most from a service dog sometimes face barriers to this very solution because of their disabilities. For example, you may need support getting out of the house to exercise and socialize your dog. Service dogs are also a very expensive commitment. If financial problems, symptoms, or lack of support are major barriers but you would still benefit from a PSD, your therapist can help you figure out how to problem-solve, or determine whether it’s better to wait a bit longer in your recovery process before getting a service dog.

2. Would I Benefit From the Work or Tasks a PSD Can Perform for Me?

One key difference between Psychiatric Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) is that PSDs are highly trained to monitor and focus on their handler in every situation so that they can perform trained behaviors that help with your disability. Trained service dog work or tasks are necessary for public access (the ability to go into places that aren’t pet-friendly). But how can a service dog uniquely help you? Work with your therapist to come up with some areas where you are still struggling. Consider how a support person could act to help you in these areas. For example, if a support person could remind you to practice coping skills when they observe warning signs in your behavior, there’s potentially a way for a PSD to do the same thing!

One format for coming up with tasks is:

“I need my dog to […fill in the blank…] when […fill in the blank…] happens, so that I can […fill in the blank…].”
Here is an example of service dog work I came up with using this model: “I need my dog to nudge my hands when they are shaking so I can use my dialectical behavior therapy skills.”

It’s very important that your service dog’s training is customized for your psychiatric disability. Some of your plans may need tweaking, and there have been rare occasions where a service dog has worsened someone’s symptoms rather than helping, such as by triggering episodes because of handler anticipation. You definitely do not want a medical alert that accidentally reinforces symptoms rather than decreasing them! That’s where your therapist can help the most: by finding work and tasks that are healthy and safe for both you and your dog.

3. How Can I Cope With the Downsides of Extra Attention From Having a Service Dog?

Being accompanied by a PSD will sometimes bring with it negative attention. If you would like to read more about this and see an example of a negative public interaction, Psychiatric Service Dog Partners has many resources about public access with a service dog. Having a PSD is a lifestyle change, and you may need to develop or learn some new coping skills for dealing with unpleasant, invasive conversations, or even people trying to prevent you from accessing public places with your PSD.

It’s important to discuss this with your therapist because everyone will have different challenges in this area. Are you most worried about the reactions from friends and family? Is going into public your biggest fear? How will it affect you if strangers try to touch your dog and invade your personal space? How will you feel about many strangers asking you about your dog and often about your disability? You can “cope ahead” by rehearsing some of these scenarios with your therapist and determine how to set healthy boundaries with the public and with important people in your life.

4. Can My Doctor Provide Me With the Necessary Documentation for a Psychiatric Service Dog?

I would personally recommend discussing this question last, because some providers will be skeptical about why you are asking for documentation. If you show you have done your research and are thoroughly committed to improving your recovery with a PSD, they will be much more likely to help!

You may need your provider’s support for writing letters legally required to keep your dog in no-pets housing or bring them to work. You may also need their support to fill out more detailed paperwork if you are applying to get a dog trained by a professional service dog program. Not all mental health providers are informed about service dog laws, so you’ll want to read up on what’s required before having this discussion. This will help both of you be more confident in interacting with the public and negotiating things like housing and employment accommodations.

Finally, consider joining a peer support group to guide you on your way. With these questions in mind, you’ll have a much better chance of becoming a PSD user. This can be a rewarding, fulfilling, and life-changing journey if you have the support you need to succeed.

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Originally published: February 8, 2021
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