Five Essential Tasks For PTSD Service Dogs

Written by: Lindsay Giguiere



Time to read 5 min

It's shocking to learn that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) affects approximately five percent of adults in the United States - that’s almost 13 million people!

According to the American Psychiatric Association , PTSD typically occurs in people who have experienced a traumatic event or series of events. Examples include natural disasters, acts of terrorism, war or combat, serious accidents, sexual assault, intimate partner violence, or bullying.

In this article, we’re going to look at how a psychiatric service dog can help someone with PTSD navigate everyday life more easily, and the type of tasks they can be trained to perform. We’ll also consider who qualifies for a PSD, and the options for training a dog to become a qualified psychiatric service dog capable of supporting an owner with PTSD.

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What is a Psychiatric Service Dog (PSD)?

First of all, let's define a PSD. A psychiatric service dog has undergone training and demonstrated the ability to perform specific tasks for their human partner suffering from a mental health disorder or disability. This can include PTSD, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or depression.

Psychiatric service dogs are a subset of service dogs protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA defines service animals as dogs individually trained to work or execute tasks for someone with a physical or mental health disability.

What symptoms of PSTD can a service dog help with?

People with PTSD often experience the following symptoms:

  • Intrusive thoughts, including involuntary memories, nightmares, flashbacks, etc.

  • Avoidant behavior to evade memories of the traumatic event. This may manifest as staying away from certain places, avoiding certain activities, refusing to talk about experiences, etc.

  • Cognition and mood changes can include an inability to remember details of the trauma, feelings of fear, anger, guilt, or shame, and more.

  • Changes in arousal and reactivity - for example, increased irritability, angry outbursts, reckless behavior, hypervigilance, trouble concentrating, or insomnia

Numerous treatments and management approaches exist to help people with PTSD cope with the challenges of everyday life. A psychiatric service dog (PSD) may be prescribed by a mental health professional as one aspect of an ongoing treatment plan and provide valuable daily assistance and reassurance.

What are the five specific tasks that a PTSD service dog will perform?

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Psychiatric service dogs can perform several different tasks for people with PTSD (or other mental health conditions), including the following:

Service task #1: Deep Pressure Therapy (DPT)

Deep pressure therapy involves the canine placing pressure on the owner (usually by lying on them) to help achieve a calm state when they're having a panic attack or flashback.

Service task #2: Interruption

Interruption tasks involve the dog intervening when the owner is experiencing troubling emotions or engaging in potentially harmful behavior.

They may interrupt their emotional state by licking their owner's face or hands when crying, dissociating, having a panic attack, or scratching/picking at the skin. PSDs may also interrupt and wake the owner when they're having a nightmare and provide a comforting presence to help their human calm down. 

Service task #3: Movement

PTSD service dogs can also perform several movement tasks to assist their owners if required. For example, they may block the handler from moving toward a dangerous situation, for example, or circle the handler as a form of crowd control in a busy location, keeping others at a distance.

They can even be trained to pull wheelchairs (if they are a big breed and strong enough), check rooms for intruders to reassure their owner they're in a safe place, or deliver notes to get help when their human is struggling.

Service task #4: Guide tasks

If someone with PTSD struggles to navigate their environment independently, whether they have vision problems or not, a psychiatric service dog can perform guiding tasks to help.

For example, they may direct the owner to an exit or specific location, bring them to a particular item or person, or guide them home while ensuring they avoid moving objects.

Service task #5: Calling for help

Service dogs, including psychiatric service dogs, can also be trained to call for help when their owner needs additional support.

They can be trained to use dog-friendly phones to call 911, call pre-programmed numbers (perhaps those of family, friends, or support workers), or call a suicide hotline in case of an emergency.

How Can I Get a Psychiatric Service Dog?

There are two primary ways you can get a psychiatric service dog trained to support PTSD and help manage and alleviate your symptoms.

The first option is to purchase a dog specifically bred and trained to assist people with PTSD. These dogs are carefully raised from day one to act as service dogs and undergo significant training before adoption.

The second, less expensive (but also more time-consuming option) is to get a dog (either from a shelter or breeder) and train them to be a psychiatric service dog yourself. If you already have a beloved dog, there is also the option of teaching them to perform specific tasks beyond those a typical pet would know.

Training a Psychiatric Service Dog

The process of training a psychiatric service dog can be challenging and time-consuming. Still, it's gratifying and allows you to build a stronger bond with your dog.

When it comes to training, you have two main options: online or in-person psychiatric service dog training.

Online Psychiatric Service Dog Training

Online PSD training allows you to meet with a certified trainer via video chat. They will guide you through lessons and provide feedback on your technique to ensure your dog can perform specific tasks related to your unique needs and goals. They will also 'sign off' your PSD, which will be required when, for example, you want to travel by air and keep your PSD by your side during the flight.

In-Person PSD Training

In-person PSD training is similar to online training in that the trainer guides you through a series of tasks and gives you the tools you need to build a strong relationship with your dog.

However, this training takes place in person instead of via video. The trainer may come to your home, or you may meet them in another location.

How can I qualify for a Psychiatric Service Dog?

To qualify for a psychiatric service dog, you must be diagnosed with at least one mental health condition or disability (such as PTSD) that interferes with your ability to perform activities of daily living safely.

A licensed mental health professional, for example, a psychologist or therapist, can make a diagnosis and confirm whether, in their opinion, a PSD would help you manage your condition more effectively.

Psychiatric Service Dog vs. Emotional Support Animal

Psychiatric service dogs differ from emotional support animals (ESAs) because PSDs must undergo training to perform specific tasks for their owners.

ESAs, on the other hand, provide comfort and support with their presence. They're not required to perform any particular tasks. Because ESAs don't perform specific tasks, they're not protected by the ADA in the same way that PSDs are.

Psychiatric Service Dog Training with Free My Paws

If you could benefit from a psychiatric service dog we can help you through our Free My Paws Psychiatric Service Animal Certification Program can help. We offer online psychiatric service dog training with experienced, licensed professionals.

Reach out today for more about our services and even if training is needed, we can help … explore how to get your personalized PSD training plan.