How Psychiatric Service Dogs Can Help With Depression

Woman getting a kiss off her pet puppy dog

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When you think of a service animal, the first thing that comes to your mind is probably a dog trained to perform the physical tasks that a person with a disability cannot. However, the scope of service animals has broadened in recent years, and they are available for people with invisible disabilities now just as they are for those with physical ailments. A diagnosis of depression is one reason that a person might benefit from a service animal.

A psychiatric service dog, also known by the acronym PSD, is a service dog who has been specifically trained to handle tasks that a person with a psychiatric disability may require for their health and well-being.

Ahead, we'll look at how a PSD can help someone with depression, how to know if you qualify for one, and what steps to take so you can go about obtaining one for yourself if you do.

Understanding Depression As a Disability

It's natural for anyone to feel depressed occasionally. However, that's different than a diagnosis of major depressive disorder.

Where feeling depressed, sad, or hopeless on occasion is a common occurrence, especially after an upsetting or traumatic life event, a major depressive disorder is more severe, persistent, and potentially disabling.

Illnesses may be obvious to the naked eye, or they can be completely invisible. Sometimes a person with depression might look unwell, and other times they may appear to be perfectly fine and healthy.

It's important to remember that we do not exist inside anyone else's mind but our own, so we don't get to judge whether or not someone else is really sick. A diagnosis of depression may be sufficient to obtain Disability Benefits, and it is a real disability. As such, a service animal can be helpful.

The Role of a Psychiatric Service Dog

If you've ever noticed that the act of being physically close to a dog is a cheery one, you're not alone. Touching and petting animals are great for our mental health, and it can be an uplifting experience that brings us joy and helps us feel loved and needed.

It has long been known that elderly people in care facilities who interact with animals experience relief from their depression and other psychiatric challenges.

Interaction with a PSD may be as simple as using the dog for touch and petting, but psychiatric service dogs perform other functions in addition to that:

  • They can keep their owners safe from strangers and protect them from human interaction if needed
  • They can also provide assistance in taking medication
  • PSDs can bring you a phone if you are in crisis and need to speak to a professional
  • A PSD can be trained to call 911 on your behalf in an emergency
  • They can nudge you back to awareness with touch if you are experiencing certain symptoms

How Does a Psychiatric Service Dog Differ From Other Therapeutic Dogs?

When considering a PSD, it's important to be clear about what the animal can do, how it's certified, and where it has access. There is often confusion around the different types of therapeutic animals, so let's break down the jobs of each, as well as where they have legal access to.

Service Dogs

Service dogs are professionally trained animals. The ADA specifies that dogs are the only animals that can be certified as service animals. An owner of a service dog has the right to bring their dog into public settings where pets aren't allowed, and into homes that don't allow pets to live there.

They are also allowed to be on the job with their handler, attend school with them, and travel with them on any form of transit, from buses to airplanes. To qualify for one, a person must have an appropriate diagnosis and clear need.

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals, also known as comfort animals, are not trained animals. They don't need to be dogs; ESAs can be cats, rabbits, ferrets, or even peacocks or pigs.

An emotional support animal is prescribed by a licensed therapist, and a letter of recommendation enables you to live in a home that does not allow pets. While ESAs used to be allowed on all planes, that is no longer the required law, and individual airlines each have different rules.

An ESA cannot be in other public settings, such as restaurants, where pets aren't allowed.

Therapy Animals

As the name implies, therapy animals are used for therapeutic purposes, but unlike service dogs, their training is not certified by the ADA.

Therapy animals are often dogs, and they're typically used only in therapeutic settings. That means that a therapy animal doesn't live with you, but instead is an animal you visit with.

Therapy animals are not allowed in all public places where pets can't be. They're treated more similarly to ESAs than to service dogs and do not have federal ADA protection for being allowed in places pets are not.

Steps to Take to Obtain a Psychiatric Service Dog for Your Depression

If you are interested in a psychiatric service dog, the best place to start is by discerning whether or not you qualify for one. If you don't, you can still get an emotional support animal, which can prove helpful for you in a home setting, or you can utilize a therapy animal in a therapeutic setting.

To qualify for a PSD for depression, you'll first need a formal clinical diagnosis of depression. Additionally, your diagnosis will need to say clearly that your disability prevents you from being able to perform one or more major life activities.

Once it is clear how your disability prevents you from being able to perform one or more major life activities, you'll need to figure out whether a PSD can perform those activities for you. If so, you're showing your need for a PSD; if not, you likely won't qualify for one, because the dog couldn't serve their intended purpose.

After you have qualified for a PSD based on the ADA standards, you have the option of self-training a dog or obtaining one that has been trained in the tasks you need them to perform. You can partner with a professional dog trainer to ensure a dog is trained to do exactly what you need.

The ADA does not require documentation for certifying a service dog, nor does it require the dog to wear a vest. However, individual places you go may have these requirements in order to allow your PSD in, so registering your dog is a wise choice.

Every state has different laws around service dogs. Before going too far into the process, make sure you're following all the guidelines of the state in which you live.

A Word From Verywell

Depression is a serious condition, and there are many ways to treat it. You may feel disheartened if you wanted a service dog but do not qualify for one. Know that there are still many other depression treatments available to you, such as many forms of therapy, antidepressant medications, and/or acquiring an emotional support animal.

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Ariane Resnick, CNC
Ariane Resnick, CNC is a mental health writer, certified nutritionist, and wellness author who advocates for accessibility and inclusivity.