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When people think of service dogs, they often think of those that help their seeing-impaired owners. However, people that suffer from anxiety can benefit significantly by having trained service dogs, in this case called emotional support animals, as well.
Here, we will go over what a service dog is and how it can benefit those with mental disorders like anxiety. Furthermore, we will discuss how to find a service dog and go over tips on how to train a service dog for anxiety.
What are Service Dogs?
Service dogs help people that suffer from physical or mental disabilities. They offer both practical and emotional support to their owners.
A service dog can be trained to assist with many conditions, including guide dogs that lead the blind and support those suffering from PTSD. There are even dogs that are trained to alert diabetic handlers to dips or spikes in blood sugar.
Service dogs that are trained for anxiety can anticipate their handler’s panic attacks, provide them with a sense of calm, alert others when help is required, and even fetch medications and water during a debilitating attack.
Dogs that are trained for mental conditions such as anxiety are known as psychiatric service dogs. A trained psychiatric service dog can help handlers suffering from bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, and more.
A service dog that has completed specialized training is recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and is therefore allowed anywhere their owners can go, including on airplanes and inside restaurants. However, service dog training is extensive and expensive.
What Are the Benefits of Having a Psychiatric Service Dog for Anxiety?
The most effective anxiety assistance dogs can do a variety of activities to assist their owners, such as:
- Bringing help when their owner is distressed in public or stopping people from coming near
- Reminding the person to take their medication on time
- Check out rooms before their owner enters, including checking under the bed and turning lights on or off
- Detecting when an anxiety attack is about to occur and fetching emergency medicine and water
- Calming the person in the middle of an attack by distracting them with a lick or paw, or by providing soothing deep pressure therapy by laying on them or by them
- Fetching the phone during a severe episode
Furthermore, being around dogs, in general, have been shown to help ease symptoms of depression and anxiety by:
- Providing company and love, thereby reducing isolation
- Boosting happiness and relieving stress
- Getting their owners out of the house to spend time outdoors
- Enhancing physical activity through play and exercise
The above has been shown in studies to have physical effects on the body above and beyond improving mood, such as lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels, the body’s primary stress hormone.
People who suffer from anxiety and PTSD also report less anxiousness and fear with the support of their dog, whether it is a trained one or not.
How to Choose a Service Dog
Not all breeds make good service dogs, so that is the first thing to consider. Take note of the breed’s reputation for temperament and how quickly they pick up training. Some of the best breeds for service dogs are boxers, huskies, golden retrievers, labradors, and German shepherds. Some people have even trained poodles successfully.
This does not mean you have to find a breeder of these for a pure-bred dog. Many handlers chose their service animals at their local shelter, which is an excellent option if you can do it. You can save the dog that you train to save you later!
When ‘interviewing’ for your service dog, look for one that is social and doesn’t startle or seem afraid, pays attention to and follows you, and allows you to hold them. As far as age, a puppy may be easier to train, but the adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks is absolutely untrue. Therefore, if you prefer an older dog, go for it as long as the temperament is conducive to the type of training you will do.
What Will You Need From Your Service Dog?
After you have found your furry future savior, you have to figure out what you will require of them. For anxiety, the dog will need to be able to predict attacks and instinctively know when you need help. In order to do this, they will have to bond with you so that they have a baseline of what is normal and what isn’t.
Developing the Service Dog’s Social Skills
If you get your dog from a breeder that specializes in service dogs of any kind, there is a good chance that they have already begun to be socialized. Meaning, the pup has been introduced to new people, animals, and situations and has been handled extensively.
If you get your puppy or dog from elsewhere, you will likely have to begin the socialization by taking your dog in public frequently, going to dog parks, etcetera. This will ensure you do not end up with a dog that gets stressed out or scared whenever faced with a new situation, person, or other animals, which would do neither of you any good.
Training a Service Dog—Start With the Basics!
Any dog needs to learn the rules of good behavior and have basic pet training such as sit, stay, come, down, and heel. This is true whether they are meant to be a pet or a service dog.
Suppose you are not up to providing this type of basic obedience training. In that case, you can get help from a professional dog trainer. They will consult with you, observe your dog, and figure out the best way to teach them. On top of that, they can provide you with the skills you need for further service training when the time comes.
Once the basic training is complete, you can begin to socialize your dog. Take your dog into public so they can get accustomed to new experiences, places, and having strangers around. They will need to learn how to behave appropriately in these situations. Getting them acclimated to regular outings to pet stores, outdoor cafes, and parks can assist you in helping them with this.
Can I Really Train My Service Dog to Recognize an Impending Panic Attack?
While it may seem difficult in theory, dogs are pretty perceptive. As long as you take time to form a close attachment between you and the animal, they will learn your body language and what a relaxed state versus an anxious one is. Furthermore, many dogs can pick up on the chemical changes in the body that fear brings on.
You may also assist the procedure by cuddling with your dog during an assault or when you’re anxious and giving them a reward. Likewise, if the dog instinctively comes up to you during times of distress, offer treats. This exercise will get the dog to focus on you and your mood fluctuations.
Keep in mind that training a psychiatric service dog on your own will not happen overnight. The process will require a lot of consistency and patience on your part. Start with the basics, and build upon them.
Psychiatric service dogs are excellent for people suffering from anxiety and other mental disorders. If you are still on the fence about whether you would benefit from having one, speak to a licensed mental health professional.
Can’t I Just Buy an Already-Trained Psychiatric Service Dog?
If you feel you cannot train a service dog independently, this is a valid question. There are specific criteria that you must meet in order to qualify for a psychiatric service dog from a professional organization. Some of the standard qualifications include:
- Having a love of dogs
- Having a life-changing, severe mental illness that restricts your daily activities and quality of life
- A recommendation from a doctor or psychiatrist
- You must be patient and have the ability to attend the handler training program
On top of these, it is essential that you have a stable home environment and the resources to care for the service dog for at least 12 years or more.
What is the Cost for a Professionally Trained Service Dog?
Service dogs go through an extensive training program that includes an average of 600-plus hours of training. Furthermore, there are a lot of other dog training costs involved, such as boarding and grooming. Factor these in with the veterinary expenses, and a service dog can be upwards of $40,000.
As this is cost-prohibitive for many people, they choose to enlist the help of a certified trainer. While less expensive, this option can still be costly. Other people choose to apply for fundraising to get their service dog for little or no cost.
Psychiatric Service Dogs FAQ
How long does it take to train a service dog for anxiety?
Professionally trained service dogs undergo extensive training upwards of 600 hours to qualify for certification and ADA status .
What anxiety disorders do qualify for a service dog?
Professionally diagnosed and debilitating psychiatric disorders that negatively affect the quality of a person’s daily life qualify for service dogs. These conditions include severe anxiety, depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and more.
Can you get a service dog for anxiety and depression?
Do anxiety and depression severely affect your life and ability to perform routine daily duties? In that case, you may qualify for a psychiatric service dog.
Do panic attacks qualify for a service dog?
If your panic attacks are infrequent and do not routinely affect your daily activities, you do not qualify for a service dog under the ADA. However, if you have a panic disorder and cannot perform regular activities without assistance, then you may be eligible.