I have some exciting news to share. But I’ll be honest, along with looking forward to what’s coming, I’m also a little apprehensive about the entire situation. See, I’m on the waiting list to get a psychiatric service dog from Little Angels Service Dogs. And it will be my first dog—ever!
Both my therapist and psychiatrist have been incredibly supportive in me taking this step. My therapist applied for the dog for me because she really believes this will be beneficial for me on multiple levels. As I mentioned, I’ve never owned a dog before. In fact, I’ve always been a little leery around dogs. But the more I have learned about the benefits of psychiatric service dogs, the more I was able to get behind the idea.
So I talked to my wife, who happens to be allergic to dogs, about what that would look like. She’s always been incredibly supportive of me seeking and trying treatment options, so she got on board (and was the one who actually initiated the idea). Because of her allergies, I am awaiting a hypoallergenic dog, which if I’m honest is a challenge for my masculinity (but that’s an issue for another day). But I believe this is going to be a beneficial experience and I’m looking forward to sharing it with you.
Since there seems to be a lot of confusion out there about service dogs vs. therapy dogs, I wanted to help clear it up.
What’s the difference between a service dog and a therapy dog?
There is a misconception out there that therapy dogs and service dogs are the same thing, but that’s just not true. There’s no doubt that they can both play an important role in people’s lives, but they serve different purposes. In short, therapy dogs provide comfort to people in settings like schools, hospitals, and nursing homes. Service dogs are trained to assist their owners with daily tasks to help them. That’s the short of it, but here’s some more information:
What are therapy dogs trained to do?
Therapy dogs have been making the news quite a bit these days. You hear about them after school shootings, traumatic events, or when the news is covering what’s going on at the local children’s hospital. I’ve even heard of schools bringing them in during exam weeks to help bring down the stress level of students. Therapy dogs are often brought into these situations to help comfort and support people.
Therapy dogs are someone’s pet. That person has taken the time to train their dog to behave in public situations. The dog has passed tests with an organization that registers therapy dogs. Then the owner takes the therapy dog to places like schools, hospitals, and nursing homes.
The sole purpose of a therapy dog is to provide emotional support to people simply by its presence. It isn’t trained to do specific tasks to help the person. It provides emotional support just by being there and allowing the person to spend time with it and pet it.
Where are therapy dogs allowed?
Contrary to popular belief, therapy dogs are not included in the Public Access Laws. That means that technically, therapy dogs shouldn’t be in restaurants, stores, or other public areas that all dogs aren’t allowed in. Therapy dogs are not serving their owner. The owner is usually volunteering along with the dog. So when the dog is not at a location where it’s “working,” then it’s just a regular pet like any other dog.
Is an Emotional Support Animal a therapy dog or a service dog?
Emotional Support Animals (ESA) are kind of a mix between a therapy dog and a service dog. The dog is providing emotional support and comfort to their owner. They aren’t necessarily taken to other locations to comfort others, and they aren’t trained to complete tasks to help their owner. Because of this, they are not considered service dogs and they don’t fall under the Public Access Laws.
What do psychiatric service dogs do?
Service dogs are for people who have a disability. Most people think of service dogs helping those who are blind, but they can be trained to help with a wide variety of disabilities. A psychiatric service dog is trained to help someone who lives with mental health challenges.
But here’s the thing—I believe everyone struggles with things like anxiety or depression from time to time. That doesn’t mean everyone automatically qualifies for a psychiatric service dog. In order to qualify, the person needs to have their daily functioning impacted because of their challenges. The dog should be able to help improve their ability to function.
Some of the challenges that a service dog can help with include Anxiety Disorder, Depression, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Bipolar Disorder, and social phobias.
How do psychiatric service dogs help?
Psychiatric service dogs are trained to help their owner with their own specific needs. Just like a person in a wheelchair has different needs than someone who is blind, someone with PTSD has different needs than someone with OCD. Examples of tasks that a dog can be trained to assist with include:
Where can service dogs go?
Psychiatric service dogs are included in the Public Access Laws. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, service dogs are able to go anywhere their owner goes. This helps the owner to have access to all public places that they might not be able to go without the assistance of their service dog.
The law requires that dogs be on a harness or leash when in public. The only exception to this rule is if the harness or leash would stop the dog from being able to complete the tasks that it needs to do or if the owner is physically unable to use it.
Why you should consider getting a psychiatric service dog
I just hit you with a load of information about dogs. Let me explain why I think this topic is so important, and it’s not because I have some ridiculous love of dogs that I want to push on everyone.
If you know me, then you know that I truly believe in the power of alternative treatment. I know that there are medication options that can help with mental health challenges, and I believe that there’s a time and place to use them. However, I also believe that just taking medication isn’t enough!
I have personally experienced the difference that alternative forms of treatment can offer. Things like eating right, exercise, journaling, meditation, and learning to play the drums tremendously changed my experience with my mental health challenges.
Psychiatric service dogs are an alternative form of treatment for mental health challenges.
For some, owning a psychiatric service dog could be the one thing they need that helps them gain control of their anxiety and depression. For others, it might be something that helps in addition to other forms of treatment.
From a stigma perspective, we need to enable more people to own a psychiatric service dog. The stigma that surrounds mental health causes some people to avoid getting the treatment they need. They don’t want to take medication. They don’t want to attend counseling sessions or support groups. And they struggle to keep up with self-care. These dogs could be the thing some people need to change all that.
How my psychiatric service dog is going to help me
If you pass me on the street, you wouldn’t think I would have a need for a service dog. That’s the problem with mental health challenges—you often can’t SEE that someone is struggling. You can’t SEE anxiety. You can’t SEE depression. However, while I might look calm on the surface, inside my head I might be fighting anxiety, depression or replaying a conversation over and over again trying to analyze it.
I’m a mental health speaker who travels the country on a regular basis to speak in front of crowds. But most days I would rather stay inside my house and hide from the world. I don’t travel and speak because I love jumping on an airplane and getting on stage in front of hundreds of people. I do it because believing that my message could help someone else is part of what gets me up in the morning.
That means I have to keep putting myself into situations that increase my anxiety. And it means I can’t give in to my depression and stay in bed for the day.
Here are some things my dog will be trained to do:
The process is actually pretty cool. When the is a dog ready for me, I will fly to San Diego or New Hampshire for two weeks for Handler Training. I train with the dog for six hours a day for the entire two weeks. My psychiatric service dog will be trained specifically for me.
I’m going to be working with Little Angels Service Dogs. After learning more about the organization I decided that I wanted to support the work they are doing. So I’ve decided to make them my charity of choice going forward!
List of psychiatric service dog breeders and trainers
If you think that you or someone in your life could benefit from a psychiatric service dog, I encourage you to pursue it. Talk to a mental health professional about your options and look for a breeder you can work with. There are TONS of breeders and trainers out there. I encourage you to do your research, but to help you out I’ve included a few options for you to check into below.
Please note, outside of Little Angels Service Dogs I have not worked with any of these organizations. This is simply a starting point for your research and not my recommendations.
This organization has locations in California and New Hampshire, but they place dogs throughout the entire United States. They have their own breeding program and place dogs that are between 12-24 months at the time of placement. Dogs are specifically trained for their handler and their training is held to standards similar to Assistance Dogs International (A.D.I.).
They don’t actually breed dogs here, but they find shelter dogs that meet their strict requirements and then train them to be service dogs. The company started in 2003 and is located in Indianapolis, Indiana. They offer three levels of services:
This is another company that trains shelter dogs to work as psychiatric service dogs. This Ohio based nonprofit was started by a psychotherapist who now has over 20 years of experience with service dogs. If you want more information about psychiatric service dogs, this website has a resource page loaded with options.
This business is actually NOT a nonprofit like many other psychiatric service dog providers. They offer boarding and training programs. They can train a service dog for you in 3 to 6 months, and because they aren’t a nonprofit, their claim is that you won’t find the long waiting lists that exist with many nonprofits. It’s another option to explore.
This nonprofit has the mission to “rescue dogs to rescue people”. They rescue shelter dogs and train them as service dogs for both adults and children. The founders of the organization even wrote an award-winning textbook on training service dogs.
Things to consider
The idea of getting a service dog is exciting, but there are a few questions you need to ask yourself before going down this path.
Want to follow my experience?
If you aren’t already following me on social media, you might want to go like and follow my pages (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube). When the day comes when I get my dog, I will share the details and document the process. And I know you want to see how cute my little hypoallergenic doggy is going to be!