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Service dogs are dogs specifically trained to help individuals with disabilities perform tasks. Service dogs do not just help people with physical disabilities, such as blindness. Psychiatric service animals are trained to help people with mental health conditions, such as anxiety, to participate fully in everyday life.
Read on to learn more about service dogs for anxiety disorders.
What Is a Service Dog?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), last updated in 2010, defines service animals as animals that are "individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability." Both dogs and miniature horses are approved by the ADA to be service animals, but no other species has approval.
Psychiatric service dogs are trained specifically to assist those individuals with mental health conditions like anxiety disorders. They are working animals and perform tasks on behalf of their owners.
Service Dog vs. Emotional Support Animal
The ADA specifies that emotional support, therapy, comfort, and companion animals do not qualify as service animals. This is because they are not trained to perform specific tasks for their handler, despite providing emotional support.
Because emotional support animals are not protected under the ADA, you may not be allowed to travel with them into all public places. You should check the local legislation of whatever state or county you reside in to confirm.
How They Help With Anxiety Attacks
According to the ADA, if your animal is trained to perform specific tasks during an anxiety attack, such as fetching help or providing tactile input to calm you, then it is considered a service animal.
If the simple presence of your animal provides comfort and calming of anxiety, then it would be considered an emotional support animal.
Service dogs are trained to perform tasks or otherwise provide assistance to their owners so that they can safely and fully participate in everyday life. According to the ADA, these tasks must be directly related to the disability.
Psychiatric service dogs, for example, may be trained to detect the onset of psychiatric episodes, such as someone with anxiety having a panic attack. The dogs may also help their owner avoid triggers, or lessen the symptoms of these episodes through tactile input or redirecting their handlers.
Some examples of tasks that a service dog may perform for someone with an anxiety disorder include:
- Reminding their handler to take their medication
- Performing room searches or safety checks
- Waking their handler up from a traumatic nightmare
- Turning on lights for someone with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Opening doors, retrieving mail, or other tasks for someone with social anxiety disorder or agoraphobia
- Interrupting self harm or obsessive compulsive behaviors
- Keeping disoriented or panicking handlers from danger
- Providing tactile sensory input for reducing anxiety
Most research to date on service dogs for anxiety has been among veterans with PTSD, which is one type of anxiety disorder.
One study found that in a group of veterans with PTSD, use of psychiatric service dogs alongside an intensive trauma resilience training for three weeks reduced PTSD symptoms and improved overall quality of life.
Another study looked into how exactly service dogs were able to provide those benefits. In interviews with participants with PTSD who used service dogs, it was found that service dogs helped:
- Disrupt nightmares
- Improve sleep quality and duration
- Reduce hypervigilance by alerting and creating boundaries
- Help turn attention away from invasive or trauma-related thought patterns
- Improve emotional connection with others
- Increase community participation
- Increase physical activity
- Reduce need for medication
- Reduce suicidal impulses
Help Is Available
If you are struggling with anxiety or suicidal thoughts, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.
For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.
It can cost up to $25,000 to purchase a service dog from some specialized organizations. This cost covers the selection or breeding, veterinary bills, food, and extensive, rigorous training from service dog experts. You may have to pay even more for specific skills.
However, many service dog breeding and training organizations, such as NEADS and the American Humane Society, offer financial aid and provide service dogs for free or subsidized rates through grants and funding.
Certain protected groups may also have access to special funding for service dogs.
The Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers for Veterans Therapy Act, or PAWS Act, signed into law by President Biden in August 2021 and going into effect in early 2022, will further reduce the cost of service dogs for veterans.
There is also no requirement to buy a service dog from one of these organizations; you could train an existing pet, breed your own dog, or adopt a dog from an animal rescue for a low cost.
How to Train a Service Dog
The ADA does not require that service animals undergo a professional service dog training program. There are many such programs available, though, and working with an expert can ensure that your dog is highly and effectively trained. However, you also have the option to train your dog yourself.
Training your own service dog can be a very time-intensive undertaking. Without prior dog training experience, it may also be frustrating and challenging. However, many people find it very rewarding. The American Kennel Club advises that service dog training begin with:
- House training, including eliminating waste on demand
- Socialization in many environments, including staying attentive to a task in various settings
- Teaching the dog to ignore distractions and focus on their handler
Once a dog has mastered these foundational skills, then they must also be trained to perform specific tasks to assist with their owner's disability. This final step in training is essential, because it is what qualifies a dog as a service animal.
Dog trainers employ certain techniques when training a dog to perform tasks. In a study on veterans with PTSD who trained their own service dogs, techniques included:
- Positive reinforcement (e.g., physical praise or petting)
- Negative punishment (e.g., ignoring the dog)
- Positive punishment (e.g., verbal corrections)
- Dominance (e.g., alpha roll)
- Bond-based (e.g., co-sleeping)
In this study, bond-based and positive reinforcement techniques had the most positive training outcomes, whereas positive punishment was associated with negative outcomes.
The ADA also does not require that service dogs receive any documented certification. Some states, counties, colleges, and universities offer voluntary registration programs, but this is optional. There are also many organizations that sell and provide service animal registration or certifications.
While you may opt to pay for and complete a certification, know that these are not recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice or the ADA. They are not a necessary requirement under the ADA in order for you to use a service animal and receive protections and rights.
How to Buy a Service Dog
Any breed of dog can be a service dog, but certain dogs may make for better service dogs than others.
You should also consider the type of tasks your dog will be performing for you. For example, if your dog will be opening doors or turning on lights, they should be big enough to jump up and do this.
Qualities to Look for in a Service Dog
Qualities to look for in a highly trainable service dog include:
- Focused and attentive to their handler
- Be calm in all settings
- Be alert but not reactive
- Highly trainable for specific tasks
- Have a desire to please
- Desensitized to distractions
- Not easily diverted from tasks
- Demonstrate information retention and learning
- Be easily socialized in many different settings
One option is to buy your service dog directly from an organization that specializes in breeding and training service dogs. These organizations are highly specialized and offer expert training, with sometimes only the top 30% of dogs passing the training program. However, there may be long waiting lists or expensive fees. Be sure to check about financial aid at any organization you consider.
Some examples of organizations include NEADS World Class Service Dogs or Canine Companions for Independence. Some organizations, including NEADS, also selectively source dogs from animal rescue shelters to undergo a training program.
Keep in mind that you can buy any dog, whether from an animal shelter, breeder, or even breeding yourself. Training the dog to perform specific tasks for you is what will qualify them as a service dog, not buying them from a specific organization.
The ADA defines service animals as animals who are trained to perform tasks for a person with a disability. Psychiatric service dogs can help an individual with an anxiety disorder perform tasks related to their disability. Most of the research on the benefits of service dogs for anxiety is around veterans with PTSD. Service dogs can help improve quality of life and PTSD symptoms. More research is needed to examine service dogs for other types of anxiety disorders.
A Word From Verywell
Not all disabilities are visible, and thankfully the ADA is inclusive of psychiatric service animals for people with mental health conditions. If you have a mental health condition, such as an anxiety disorder, and struggle to perform daily tasks, then you may benefit from a service dog. Your service dog can be trained to perform these tasks for you and help you participate more fully in daily life while managing your anxiety.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Can you get a service dog for free?
Many service dog breeding and training organizations offer financial aid and provide service dogs for free. You could also train your existing pet, breed your own puppy, or adopt one from an animal rescue for free or low cost.
- What breeds are best for service dogs?
The ADA has no restrictions on breeds of dogs that can be service animals. However, trainers and experts have identified certain breeds as being more easily trained than others. The American Kennel Club states that German Shepherds, Labradors, and Golden Retrievers are common service dog breeds.
- Why can’t you pet service dogs?
Service dogs are working animals. They are essential to their owner's engagement in daily life and required due to their disability. Petting a service dog could distract them from their work and harm their owner.
- How can you identify a service dog?
Many service dogs wear special harnesses identifying them as service animals. However, this is not a requirement. To identify or confirm an animal as a service dog, the ADA permits business owners to ask only two questions: 1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? 2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform? It is not acceptable to ask an owner to provide documentation, explain their disability, or demonstrate tasks.