Mental Health Assistance: A Growing Area for Service Dogs

In our last blog post, we discussed therapy and service animals. Most people are familiar with service animals like guide dogs or mobility assistance dogs, but lately more people than ever before are becoming aware of dogs that help people with mental illnesses.

In the United States alone, 1 in every 6 adults will suffer from a form of mental illness at some point in his or her lifetime; as for young adults,  the rate is even higher. It goes without saying that millions of people struggle day-to-day with serious mental illnesses like PTSD, bipolar disorder and major depression. Many others have less severe but still debilitating issues with phobias and anxieties, but the bottom line is that mental illness is a common growing concern – and it’s on the rise.

Beginning in 1750s Paris, dogs have been used to assist the blind, helping them gain independence despite their disability. Since then, people have discovered canines can be trained to assist people with a whole host of physical disabilities including: sensory and mobility issues, diabetes and cancer, autism and epilepsy, and bone and skeletal issues.

Through the interaction between service dog and owner, it was discovered that dogs have a lot to offer in the way of emotional support to alleviate negative emotions, soothe the emotional pain and redirect focus for the emotionally challenged. Ultimately, dogs can provide emotional (and physical) benefits to their owners. These benefits are especially important for people with behavioral health concerns – young and old alike.

What Is A Mental Health Assistance Dog?


It’s no secret that pets can provide us with happiness, protection and companionship among many other things that enrich our daily lives. However, a mental health assistance dog is a cut above the rest. These dogs have a natural disposition that makes them a perfect candidate for specialty training implemented to benefit the emotionally – and sometimes physically – disabled or impaired individual. A mental illness dog can be a purebred, or even a mutt, and are not to be confused with the average household pet.

There are two types of dogs in the mental assistance dog category: Psychiatric Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals. Both can reduce symptoms of mental illness and, in some cases, even lessen the need for and use of medication. These dogs can be life-changing for some, because they can also promote healing, empowerment, independence and generally improve quality of life. It has been well documented that having animals around can be mood-boosting and stress-reducing for everyone. But this is especially important for those with mental or behavioral health concerns.

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional Support Animals typically help reduce the symptoms of people suffering from behavioral health concerns through professionally assigned therapeutic care designed to provide the patient with emotional stability. These animals are trained to keep a clear head in situations where the owner becomes distressed from a wide array of emotions like fear and anger, worry and sadness, and anxiousness and panic. This dog requires a special knack for remaining calm and soothing the person rather than reacting themselves like most other dogs would.

Just by being there, an Emotional Support Animal might alleviate symptoms of anxiety if someone has a fear of flying or social phobia. With an Emotional Support Animal, people who suffer from these conditions may be able to travel more freely or go out in public with less discomfort. These dogs have the ability to become alerted to emotional distress without freaking out in order to refocus and guide the owner to a more controlled state of mind.

Psychiatric Service Dogs

Psychiatric Service Dogs, on the other hand, are trained to perform highly-specialized tasks for people who are legally disabled due to psychiatric illnesses. For instance; a Psychiatric Service Dog might help guide someone with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder out of a dangerous situation before that person has a panic attack. In addition, Psychiatric Service Dogs can do things like provide medication reminders, initiate daily walks and exercise, and even activate a special phone (called a K-9 Phone) to call for help in an emergency. In situations where a mentally disabled person becomes disoriented, a Psychiatric Service Dog is trained to prevent them from entering a busy street.

These specially-trained dogs can also help diffuse many situations that may trigger severe anxiety in individuals with fear-based disorders (like former victims of violence). For example, someone that has a real fear that someone may be hiding in his or her house may be enabled to live alone if their dog can search the house and give them confidence it is “all clear” before they enter. They could also do something as simple as turning all the lights on before they enter.

The list of things these amazing dogs can do does not stop there. Psychiatric Service Dogs may bring medication to the owner or alert an unaware owner to events like a fire or a family member in distress. They can also help with time-sensitive activities like reminding their owner to take medication, prompting a walk outside or waking them up when they should not be sleeping. There is a remarkably long list of tasks that these dogs can be trained to do. The training these dogs receive are specific to that individual’s particular needs.

Difference Between A Psychiatric Service Dog vs Emotional Support Animal

The idea of service animals – or emotional support animals – in the treatment of mental health has existed for many years. However, people are only recently becoming aware of how profoundly these dogs can impact the lives of those with mental health disorders and disabilities. Wounded military veterans diagnosed with PTSD and children suffering from Autism are some of the most prevalent circumstances of our time. But there are differences between a Psychiatric Service Dog and an Emotional Support Animal which can be attributed to the person who owns the dog, what specific function the dog serves and and how their legal rights are affected.

Trained Psychiatric Service Animals (PSA) which are required by to be certified by the American Disabilities Act (ADA), are deemed exempt from all cases of pet restrictions stating ‘no pet’ policies. This includes air and boat travel, housing, and establishments such as restaurants, hotels and retailers to name a few.  Whereas an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is not formally recognized as specialty trained or certified to meet a physical need – thereby which privileged protection is limited to cases such as air travel and homes carrying a ‘no pet’ policy.

It’s important to note that under ADA protection laws, building managers, landlords and hotels are strictly prohibited from charging additional fees for service animals or pet deposits since they are deemed ‘working animals’ rather than pets.

Get Involved!

We strongly encourage the professional training and implementation of service dogs to help form and maintain mental health within the community. If you would like to join us in our efforts, please feel free to contactus for more information. Find out how you can get involved to make a difference! Not only will you learn more about mental health assistance with service dogs, but you can become an immeasurable influence in the life of someone who has succumbed to a mental or physically challenge.

The staff here at Bed and Biscuit of Austin is a proud supporter of these nonprofit organizations in Texas that will train, match and place Mental Health Assistance Animals. If you know of someone that can benefit from a Psychiatric Service Dog or an Emotional Support Animal, please contact these wonderful organizations today.

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