Service Dogs work for people who have physical, psychiatric, or developmental disabilities. These highly trained and specialized dogs undergo thousands of hours of schooling so they can perform their work safely and reliably. They learn tasks to help reduce the impact of their handler’s disability. These tasks fill in gaps in the handler’s capabilities. By partnering with a Service Dog, disabled individuals often gain peace of mind, independence, and increased confidence.
Since they commonly work in public, Service Dogs must be free of temperament flaws, focused, inobtrusive, and well-trained. Furthermore, the Americans With Disabilities Act specifies that they must be individually task trained to do work specifically for their handler. The types of tasks a Service Dog performs varies depending on the dog’s job. Mobility Assistance Dogs might pull a wheelchair, help their partner stand up after a fall, or provide counterbalance. Hearing Dogs alert to sounds in the environment so their handler can respond appropriately. Psychiatric Service Dogs (PSDs) increase their handler’s day to day functioning by helping to manage chronic and acute episodes of mental illness and related symptoms.
What are Psychiatric Service Dogs?
Psychiatric Service Dogs work for people who have psychiatric disabilities. Typically defined as “a spectrum of mental disorders or conditions that influence our emotions, cognitions, and/or behaviors,” psychiatric disabilities primarily affect the brain and brain chemistry. Many mental illnesses cause physical signs and symptoms, too. Examples in the U.S. government’s Psychiatric Enforcement Guidance document include anxiety disorders (which include panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder), bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, major depression, and personality disorders. Other examples include phobias such as agoraphobia, eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, and dissociative disorders such as dissociative identity disorder and depersonalization disorder.
Like all Service Dogs, Psychiatric Service Dogs perform specific tasks and work for their handler. These tasks vary widely depending on the nature of their handler’s disability and exact needs. It’s important that tasks be trained behaviors that reliably occur on verbal, physical, or environmental cue(s). Behaviors that any dog can do, like sit for petting or provide companionship, do not qualify as Psychiatric Service Dog tasks.
In order to be a Psychiatric Service Dog, a dog must be trained as a Service Dog and partnered with someone who has a psychiatric disability. Merely having a disability and a dog does not make that dog a Service Dog — only task training and the proper temperament can do that.
In addition to task training, Psychiatric Service Dogs undergo extensive socialization, obedience, and public access training. They should be free of reactivity, timidity, and aggression of all kinds. Good Service Dogs appear quiet, calm, well-behaved, and focused on their handler. These traits allow them to work in highly distracting environments without struggle.
Guide to Psychiatric Service Dog Tasks
Psychiatric Service Dog tasks are trained behaviors or skills performed by a Psychiatric Service Dog on cue. Tasks are specific, concretely definable, and reliable. Tasks happen on cue or command. Cues can be verbal, nonverbal, or environmental. Verbal cues include spoken commands like “Go Get Help” or “Search the House.” Nonverbal cues are usually hand signals. Some are very subtle (like a finger twitch) and others are overt, like holding a hand straight out or waving. Environmental cues might be sensory-based or circumstantial. Hearing a doorbell, seeing a behavior like rocking back and forth, or smelling a particular medication might all serve to environmentally cue a dog to perform certain tasks.
Trained tasks don’t just happen sometimes or with no known trigger. Tasks, including alerts, reliably happen when the handler asks for them to happen or when the environment indicates taskwork is necessary. Things that any dog can do don’t count as trained tasks. This includes providing comfort, snuggling or allowing petting, and increasing the handler’s activity levels.
Note: Just because a task isn’t listed in this guide doesn’t mean it isn’t a valid task. Service Dog tasks are highly specific to each dog and handler team. Many Service Dogs perform tasks for multiple disabilities or draw their task work from tasks more commonly associated with other kinds of Service Dogs. The types of tasks and work a PSD performs should directly address the handler’s symptoms and needs.
Common Psychiatric Service Dog Tasks
Many psychiatric disorders and mental illnesses result in difficulties completing everyday activities. Examples include working, attending school, performing personal care/hygiene, interacting with other people, and doing chores. Some people sleep or eat too much or not enough. Others become extremely sedentary. Medication side effects can cause changes in energy levels and physical function. Dizziness, sleepiness, disorientation, and nausea are all common. Keeping a schedule can be a struggle for many who suffer from mental illnesses. Focus, motivation, and socializing often prove difficult or impossible.
Psychiatric Service Dogs are far from a cure-all, but many handlers find training their dog to perform common PSD tasks helps with the everyday reality of living with a psychiatric illness. Some of these tasks address symptoms caused by the illness itself and others help mitigate medication side effects. The Psychiatric Service Dog tasks below represent routine tasks a handler might frequently use to help mitigate regular, chronic, or every day symptoms.
Schedule Based Tasks and Work
Many people living with mental illnesses (MI) struggle with maintaining a healthy schedule. Sometimes this is because of the MI itself. Other times, it’s because of medication or treatment side effects. People who are depressed, who have ADHD, or who are on lots of medication often have difficulty remembering tasks. Psychotropic medications and their side effects can cause sedation, memory loss, or issues with communication. PSDs can help provide reminders and alerts for important events. They can also help their owner respond to alarms more reliably.
Wake Up Partner in Morning
Many psychiatric disorders cause changes in sleep patterns or habits. Many people complain of reduced energy or motivation. Lots of psychotropic medications heavily sedate or cause nervous system depression. A Psychiatric Service Dog can be trained to wake their handler up in the morning by licking, nuzzling, and engaging them. Some handler opt to have their dog pull the blankets off them and flip on the lights.
Some PSDs perform this task when the alarm goes off. Others are trained to do this task when the sun comes up or via some other environmental cue.
For medication reminder tasks, the dog nudges their handler or grabs a bag with medication in it and delivers it. This task is either a timing-based task where the dog’s meals are used to provide impetus for the dog to pester the handler at certain times or it’s a cue based task using an alarm or beeper. When the dog hears the alarm or beep, the dog reminds the handler to take their medication.
Service Dogs can help increase compliance with alarms by nuzzling or nudging their handler when the alarm goes off until the handler has done the specified activity. This can help with reminders to eat, take meds, go to the gym, or shower.
Psychiatric Service Dog tasks can include noise alerts, similar to the type of tasks Hearing Dogs perform. The dog can be taught to alert their handler to smoke alarms, a crying baby, the phone ringing, or other important sounds. Even if the handler is sleeping or heavily sedated, the dog can be taught to persist in the alert until the handler responds appropriately.
Symptom Management Tasks and Work
Some tasks directly address the core symptoms their handler experiences or deals with.
Handlers might take lots of medication one or more time a day to help manage their mental illness. Their Psychiatric Service Dog can retrieve a beverage to help make adherence easier for the handler. Many medications cause dry mouth or increase levels of dehydration. Retrieving a beverage can help the handler relieve these symptoms, too.
Some PSDs go to the fridge, open it, remove a drink, close it, and return with the drink to the handler. Others are trained to grab a bag or basket with a drink in it off a specific shelf and bring it to the handler.
Some medications must be taken with food. Some handlers need reminders to eat. In either case, their Service Dog can retrieve a snack from a snack box or basket located where they can easily access it and bring it back to their handler.
Paying for Items
Socializing can trigger anxiety, panic, or dissociation for some people. Many Psychiatric Service Dogs pay for items at stores so their handler can reduce direct interactions.
Weakness, instability, dizziness, and vertigo are both common physical effects of MIs and common medication side effects. All of those signs and symptoms can make bending over to pick something up difficult or unsafe. Service Dogs can retrieve dropped items or objects low on a shelf and bring them to their handler’s hand.
Functional Tasks and Work
Some Psychiatric Service Dog tasks are more physical in nature. These tasks work to directly improve their handler’s functionality.
Instability, unsteadiness, and disorientation are very common amongst Service Dog handlers with psychiatric disorders. Larger, sturdy, healthy Psychiatric Service Dogs can be cross-trained to do brace and mobility support tasks. For many handlers, harness work helps them navigate and ambulate more safely.
They hold onto their dog’s harness and the PSD helps them with stairs, transitioning from sitting to standing, or with forward momentum to help them walk longer distances or maintain movement speeds. Many PSDs provide bracing, counterbalancing, or both. Some handlers find holding on to their dog’s harness while the dog slightly leans into the harness is extremely comforting and grounding.
A Psychiatric Service Dog can carry meds, In Case of Emergency documentation or paperwork, snacks, or drinks in a backpack. Having the supplies more easily accessible can help the handler better fuel their body and maintain their schedule while out and about.
Some PSD handlers are nonverbal all of the time. Others may not be able to speak during acute episodes of panic, mania, or other intense symptoms. Some people prefer to communicate via notes instead of face to face. In any case, Psychiatric Service Dogs can be trained to deliver a laminated information card, small notebook with pen, or other item to a designated person or bystander. This task to be location-based (carrying notes from the upstairs office to the downstairs lobby and back) or target based (handler points to or names someone specific and the dog takes the card to them).
Psychiatric Service Dog Tasks for Acute Symptom Management
A person experiencing acute symptoms of a psychiatric illness often experiences anxiety, panic, paralyzation, or other symptoms that cause distress. Examples of acute symptoms include flashbacks, panic attacks, sudden bouts of suicidality, and hyperventilation. These episodes are usually distinct from the symptoms a person regularly experiences. They’re often more intense, too.
Psychiatric Service Dogs can intervene during crisis and acute situations to help calm and stabilize their handler. The methods that work vary team to team. Some handlers need their dog to retrieve an inhaler or medication. Other handlers need tactile grounding or deep pressure therapy from their Service Dog.
Crisis situations happen when the handler is so overwhelmed by the intensity of their symptoms that they’re unable to manage it alone. A Service Dog can retrieve medication for acute episodes of anxiety or panic, bring a cell phone so the handler can call a support person, bring a crisis kit with items in it for grounding and comfort, answer the door to allow EMS into the house, lead help to their partner, or go get help from a nearby friend or coworker.
Some people experience dizziness, disorientation, vertigo, or other uncomfortable physical symptoms on an acute basis. Their Psychiatric Service Dog’s tasks might include mobility support, counterbalance, or helping wake up a partner who is unresponsive. Some handlers might need reminding to get up and exercise or to meditate or use some other symptom/crisis management tool.
Emotional symptoms can vary from anxiety and panic to flashbacks or nightmares to feelings of worthlessness and suicidality. Many Psychiatric Service Dogs offer tactile grounding and deep pressure stimulation during these kinds of episodes. They can also turn on lights and require engagement to help break a dissociative episode or period of flat affect. Many handlers have their dog nuzzle them repeatedly or start to “jitter” from foot to foot so they have an excuse to leave a difficult or triggering situation. Really distressed handlers might need their dog to guide them to an exit or through a crowd.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Service Dog Tasks
Symptoms of PTSD include hypervigilance, isolating onself, changes in mood or behavior, difficulties sleeping, flashbacks, nightmares, emotional detachment, and many others. Service Dogs can help reduce anxiety, paranoia, and irritability via helping their handler feel more secure in the environment. This could be done via turning lights on before the handler enters the home, checking for intruders, opening the front door to provide an escape route via a tug or button, or preventing people from walking too closely to them. Some handlers need reality or hallucination checks from their dog.
The dog can help watch the environment so the handler can relax a bit more. Maybe the Psychiatric Service Dog alerts the handler to people walking up behind them or sits facing backwards while the handler is in lines or at the ATM. Larger or darkly-colored dogs can serve to enhance security simply because people might think they’re “scary.” This illusion can be increased by teaching fake “guard” type tasks where the dog goes to the end of their leash when told “Watch them!” or barks on command. (Note: Service Dogs cannot be trained in personal protection.)
Many PTSD Dogs wake their handlers up from nightmares by nuzzling them or turning on lights. Other dogs use deep pressure stimulation or tactile grounding to help break flashbacks and ground their handler in reality.
Tribute to Joan Frohling
Joan Frohling served as a pioneer in the Service and Assistance Dog field. She had a dream of founding an advocacy organization for people with disabilities partnered with Assistance Dogs. Through that dream, the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP) was born. In addition to paving the way for advancements in all kinds of Service Dog realms, Joan initiated much of the early research into Psychiatric Service Dogs. Furthermore, she was one of the first trainers to really dig into what PSDs are capable of and the good they can do for their handlers.
Our Psychiatric Service Dog Tasks article was inspired by Joan’s historic breakdown of Service Dog Tasks for Panic Disorder, PTSD, and Depression. Written in 1997 and updated in 2009, her outline of tasks has proved invaluable to thousands of teams over the years. She dedicated her life to assisting those with disabilities gain independence, freedom, and fulfillment. She passed away in 2016 after a lifetime of service to those she served most passionately.