Assistance Dogs: Psychiatric Service Dogs


This guest post talks through the pros and cons of deciding to get a service dog. As mentioned in ‘Assistance Dogs: The Basics‘, psychiatric dogs are less common in the UK and are not yet certifiable. If you’re interested in reading more about Sandi’s progress with Bambi, check out her blog, ‘Training a Service Dog‘.

Let me start by saying that I am not a dog trainer, or an animal behaviorist.  I am the human side of a service team.  The following is what I have learned from trainers and people working with service teams, and from my experience.  I have only dealt with psychiatric service dogs and have not dealt with guide dogs, seizure dogs or any other teams.  I have also done more research on veterans and psychiatric dogs, so I will be speaking more from the perspective of a veteran and a service dog.

There are a lot of things to think about when deciding if a service dog is the best addition to therapy for you.  There are many pros and cons with having a psychiatric dog.  Psychiatric dogs are also a new form of therapy and having one can be like blazing new territory on so many levels.

I will start with cons first, since so much information is out there on the pros, but less on the cons.

Combat veterans coming back from war right now are typically young and independent.  They may be missing their legs or other appendages.  They may have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or other psychiatric maladies. As young soldiers, they are stronger in mind and body than most.  Adding a service dog at this early stage of their therapy, this person could hide their problems in their dog.  They may not push themselves as hard to heal themselves and get better if they have the help of a dog.  They no longer need to get completely better, the dog will do things for them.  If the dog is comforting a PTSD patient, and the veteran has not worked with a therapist enough, and something happens to the dog, this could set back their treatment.  A newly returning PTSD patient can even delay their therapy, thinking that the dog has made them all better, until the dog passes years later, only to find they are in worse shape than when they first came home.

Some psychiatric patients can have aggressive tendencies when working on their problems.  A great deal of these post traumatic stress disorders stem from violent occurances.  The dog becomes tied into their therapy.  If something were to happen to the dog, accidently, the aggression can be focused on the people involved in the accident.  For example, if the dog were hit by a car, would the patient be aggressive towards the person that accidently hit the dog?

An obvious problem is that the patient may outlive their dog.  Is this person in a place to handle the death of the animal they have become so dependent upon?   Can they live without a dog until another is trained to help them?

The needs of the dog can be overwhelming for a person who needs help themselves to get things done.  The dog needs attention, and to be fed and walked.  These needs increase exponentially if the person is training their own dog from puppyhood.  Some people choose to go this way so that the dog will be trained to their needs and to train the dog to be a better fit. I have chosen to take this path but I do not recommend it unless you have a lot of time and patience for a puppy doing what puppies tend to do.

When having a service dog, there is quite a bit of unsolicited attention.  The worst of this attention is having long discussions with store and restaurant owners.  Some are not knowledgeable about the laws on service dogs.  In some cases you will have to educate them, before you can sit down and eat.  This can take time and some conversations will even get heated.  Again, this in new territory for many people.  Also, people are seeing a dog where they do not usually see a dog.  They are attracted to the dog, they want to pet the dog, and talk about the dog.  I had an experience recently at a state park where stangers were wanting to stop us and take pictures of my puppy, and talk about her and her breed.  It was like walking a celebrity.  This is actually indirect attention.  They are paying attention to the dog and this can be used as a way to talk to people and have something to talk about, or it can be stressful for both the dog and the person.


There are laws dealing with service dogs, and although they may seem vague as to what qualifies as a service dog. However, one thing is not vague; who’s responsibility it is when something goes wrong.  A well trained dog is not likely to bite someone, or cause any problems.  A dog that is not fully trained can bite, or even lie down in the wrong spot and trip someone.  In a lawsuit happy society, a lawsuit can be extremely stressful.  It is recommended that the dog is trained properly, and fully, with the help of a licensed trainer.

Now, onto the “pros”.  To start, the dog is a comfort to the person.  When it is hard to deal with everyday stress, a dog can help the person get through everyday situations.  Especially if this dog goes everywhere the person does.  Comfort dogs do not qualify as service dogs, but a service dog can be a comfort as well as a service dog.

The dog can also be a distraction.  Anxiety and panic tends to increase as the person gets caught in their own thoughts.  The dog can help the person stay grounded in the present with the dog.  The dog can be trained to be an even greater distraction.  They can be trained to lick the person’s face, or inform them that they need to go to the bathroom, so the person is forced to deal with everyday situations and not spiral into a panic attack.  The dog can also be trained to retrieve medications, or pull the person to a calm, safe area.  The dog can be used as an excuse to leave a situation, when the person says they need to tend to the dog’s needs.

Service dogs can be a great addition to therapy.  Adding the uncondtional love and comfort of a dog can speed up recovery.  These were some considerations to think about before making an informed decision about getting a service dog.  Discussing it with a doctor and a therapist is preferrable. I, personally, have made the choice to raise a service dog from a puppy and I am loving every minute I spend with her.

By Sandi Tester

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