Are psychiatric service dogs the same as other service dogs?

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Answered by: Ashley, An Expert in the Dogs Who Work Category
Throughout history, dogs have worked for -and beside- us in many positions. We know well the steady sheep dog, the carefully bred scent detection dog, and the ever present hunting dog. We hear tales of the brave search and rescue, police, and military dogs. We have even come to know the service dogs that are the eyes and ears of the physically disabled. But now, those with psychiatric disabilities are able to benefit from the unfailing loyalty of a canine helper.

Across North America, in small but growing numbers, dogs are being raised and trained for just that. Puppies are selected for the right temperament and carefully socialized to the wide world around them as they grow. Taught obedience and etiquette, the furry graduates then start training for their day job.

Each one receives a different curriculum and will be able to help their handler individually. No two service dog and handler teams work together in exactly the same way. Some tasks a dog working with a handler with a mental disability might perform include keeping crowds at a distance with their presence, leading their handler to a safe place in a crisis, and assessing and assuring a safe environment. Others interrupt obsessive or harmful behavior or can call 911 on a special phone.

There are a growing number of organizations that train and provide psychiatric service dogs, but most are handler trained. Many professional trainers are willing to assist in teaching individual tasks. This path requires a great deal of commitment on the part of the handler, and can be very intimidating, as they have to organize their dog's program. It can also be expensive.

On the other hand, it does provide a greater level of bonding with the dog, a guarantee that the tasks and method trained are what you want, and the chance to pick your own dog. Receiving a dog from a professional organization gives the handler a greater chance of success and a confidence in that it was trained by someone with a great deal of experience. This comes at the cost of being given a dog they don't know, the possibility of a higher fee, and almost certainly, a long waiting list.

Unfortunately, many handlers are reporting having access problems not typically encountered by physically disabled people with service dogs. These cases seem to arise from the fact that disabilities are usually invisible, and the purpose and functions of the service animal less obvious. Sometimes this is made worse by a choice of small breed, which many people may not think of as a service animal. The laws are not perfectly clear in some places, and are hard to find in most, but in North America, psychiatric service animals are permitted.

They can be handler trained as long as the disability mitigating task requirements are met. There is no official certifying body for these animals and certification is not required. However, many organizations have individual tests that can be valuable in ensuring a dog is ready for public service. In addition, these certificates can help avoid access disputes for those who wish to avoid confrontation. Each state or province is different, but in most the handler must simply carry a physician's note stating that the person has a disability and that the service dog is needed.

Thankfully, these problems are not stopping the progress of these teams. Psychiatric service dogs are helping people who suffer with schizophrenia, paranoia and delusions, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, and many others. They help their handlers get out into and become part of the world. They help them feel safe, and give them someone to rely on. They give the back a sense of their independence. With the clear benefit of these animals, and the growing awareness in today's society, they should become more and more available to those who need them.

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