Friday, July 13, 2012

Rosie: Getting a Psychiatric Service Dog

A while ago we came across information about Psychiatric Service Dogs (PSD's). You are probably most used to service dogs such as Seeing Eye Dogs, but over the years they have found that dogs can be trained to assist with all kinds of disabilities.

Psychiatric Service Dogs assist people with whatever disability comes with their particular mental illness. For instance, people with schizophrenia who hear voices can train their dog to check rooms for them or alert them if someone else is around them. If the dog does not see or hear something, then the person (the dog's handler), knows that what they heard or saw was not real. PSD's can ground someone who has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when they have a dissassociative flashback or can awaken them during night terrors. PSD's can stop people who self mutilate by pawing at them until they stop the behavior. Often psychiatric medications make you forgetful and if you don't take your medication you can have severe side effects so your dog can be trained to bring you your medication. Your dog can be trained to awaken you when you can't awaken due to medication side effects or deep depression. A PSD can ground you and provide tasks that decrease anxiety enough so that a person can have a job and function every day. PSD's can even alert you to a panic attack or manic episode before they happen. These are just a few of the things Psychiatric Service Dogs can do but basically, they help you live your life with your disability.

Once we found out what PSD's could do we decided that getting one would be a good option for me, especially since I have such a hard time with medications.

Getting and training a PSD is not all that easy. Typically with many other types of service dogs, you can get a dog who has already been trained from an organization. There are places that train service dogs such as Seeing Eye Dogs, Autism Service Dogs, and there are even organizations that provide Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with PSD's but other than that, most Psychiatric Service Dogs are trained by their handler with the assistance of a dog trainer and someone who specializes in training dogs to do PSD tasks.

From my experience and with the resources we have, here are the basic steps to getting started with a PSD:
  1. Talk to you Psychiatrist and/or Psychologist. As with all types of service dogs, you must have a disability in order for you to have a service dog. If you have a disability, your doctor will wright a letter stating that you have a disability and are in need of a service dog. You will keep this in your files, but you do not need to carry your doctors order with you as it is illegal to ask for proof that you need a service dog.
  2. Find a basic dog trainer who uses positive reinforcement training, most often Clicker Training. Do NOT use a trainer who uses yelling, shock collars, or other forms of negative reinforcement. This trainer will help train the basics, socialization, and the Canine Good Citizen Class. 
  3. Find someone in your area who does PSD task training or find online resources for PSD task training that your regular trainer can help you with. Make sure your trainer knows how to train a dog for all the basic service dog requirements like potty on command, tucking their tail while inside, how to sit under a chair or table, etc...
  4. Find a dog.  There are many ways you can find a dog appropriate for a PSD but the best thing to do is have a dog temperament tested by a vet behaviorist. I would suggest finding a rescue dog that has gone through a basic training program and has passed Canine Good Citizen so you know they are trainable and they will be a bit older, past the puppy phase, which is really hard to handle. Just because the dog took well to basic training though does not mean the dog will be a good service dog so you need your trainer to check the dog out. For instance, we have a dog already who was trained in a prison program. She is a fantastic dog who learns really quickly but I could not use her as a service dog not only because she is too old already, but because she was abused and is very anxious. Her anxiety makes her very scared in certain public situations, causes her a lot of stress in the car, and when I am manic, she hides from me, so she would not be able to help me when I needed her.
  5. Start training, realizing it will probably take two years and if it does not work you have made a commitment to still keep your dog as a member of your family. 
  6. Love your dog and create a great relationship with him or her.
Rosie, Psychiatric Service Dog in Training


Rev. Katie


  1. Good for you, Katie. I love this idea. I met a veteran in the Valley with his service dog for PTSD. I have a four month old puppy. I'll be curious to see how Rosie progresses as a PSD. Best of luck!

  2. Wow, now that is really neat! Never heard of using dogs that way but it makes perfect sense. Looking forward to further installments on this journey.

  3. My very untrained dog has been a good companion for me through depressive episodes. Mostly I found his very happy greetings for me a bit uplifting and I liked to pet him or scratch his belly as we laid around in bed quite a lot.

    Best wishes in training Rosie I hope she will soon be lessening your symptoms.

  4. Katie, I wish you the best with your training. After almost two long years we were able to finally get our dog Cass for my daughter Faith. Here is a link to our story as we are also trying to raise awareness on mood disorders and psychiatric service dogs.