Most people are familiar with the concept of a service dog, or guide dog, for the blind. Service dogs can help people with many other types of disabilities, too, including those with psychiatric disabilities.
People with psychiatric conditions like depression and anxiety often find that having a pet like a dog makes them feel better, but relying on a dog for comfort or affection doesn’t make it a service dog. That’s usually referred to as an emotional support animal, and emotional support animals can be very beneficial to people with psychiatric disabilities, but they are essentially pets. Service dogs are actually trained to perform tasks to help people with psychiatric disabilities, and the Americans with Disabilities Act grants disabled people the right to take their service dogs into public places where pets are normally not permitted, like stores and restaurants. You cannot take an emotional support animal into most public places, however.
So would you benefit from a psychiatric service dog?
Are You Disabled?
To qualify for a psychiatric service dog, you must be disabled in accordance with the definition of disability given under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). That means you must be substantially limited with regard to at least one major life activity; major life activities include things like seeing, hearing, communicating, walking, breathing and thinking. Many people are diagnosed with things like depression or anxiety but are not disabled according to this definition. Even if you receive disability benefits, you may not meet the ADA definition of disability. Talk to your mental health care provider if you aren’t sure if you are considered disabled or not.
Are There Tasks a Dog Could Be Trained to Do that Would Mitigate Your Disability?
A service dog must be trained to do specific tasks that mitigate your disability. Essentially, the dog must be trained to do things for you that you cannot do for yourself because of your disability. For instance, if you take medication for your condition that sedates you so much that you sleep through an alarm clock, a service dog could be trained to wake you up and make sure you get up when the alarm clock goes off. However, if you are able to get up by yourself when the alarm goes off, you do not need a service dog for that task.
To figure out if there are a tasks a service dog could be trained to do to mitigate your disability, make a list of the things you cannot do for yourself because of your disability. Think about how a dog might be able to do those things for you. Talk to your mental health care provider if you aren’t sure if there are tasks a service dog could do for you.
Are You Able to Care for a Dog?
There are some programs that provide service dogs free of charge to people with disabilities. Other programs charge fees for their services. Even if you work with a program that charges no fees, though, caring for a dog can be costly. You’ll be responsible for food, toys and accessories, veterinary care and other services for your service dog. Insurance companies usually won’t cover the cost of caring for a service dog. If you cannot afford to care for a dog, then a service dog is not a good option for you.
Your service dog will need to be fed and walked daily. He will require regular exercise. It’s important that service dogs be groomed regularly since they will accompany their handlers into various public places. Handlers also need to keep up with their dogs’ training or the dogs’ skills may begin to decline. If you don’t have the time or ability to care for a dog, then a service dog is not a good option for you.
Service Dog Central. http://www.servicedogcentral.org/content/node/77. What Tasks Do Psychiatric Service Dogs Perform?
U.S Department of Justice. http://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm. Service Animals.
Service Dog Central. http://www.servicedogcentral.org/content/faq. Frequently Asked Questions.