A number of recent studies have proven that assistance animals and therapy dogs provide great relief for people with different conditions, anxiety and depression among them. If you're in this position, here's everything you should know about how to get a service dog for anxiety or depression, including what it entails, how an assistance dog can help with these mental health conditions, and the costs involved.
The Right Type of Service Dog
Is a dog that alleviates anxiety and depression in people considered a psychiatric service dog or an emotional support animal (ESA)? If you're not sure about the difference between these two types of service dogs, read this explanation before continuing further.
When it comes to anxiety and depression, psychiatric service dogs and emotional support dogs can both prove beneficial in relieving their handler/owner’s symptoms, but they do have a difference. Whether you require an assistance dog and which category of assistance dog is appropriate for you depends on the degree to which your anxiety or depression affects your day to day life.
Psychiatric service dogs and emotional support dogs are the two types that are “qualified” for people with these mental conditions, and below I'll explain how either of these types of assistance animals can help you, and everything else you need to know about both.
The Psychiatric Service Dog
According to the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) “A service animal is a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability… The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability.” (1)
Here's a simple example to illustrate this:
An individual suffering from extreme anxiety or depression may be unable to leave their home to do something as simple as picking up their medication which helps to mediate symptoms of their anxiety or depression. In this instance, a psychiatric service dog can “assist [their] handler in creating a safe personal space in public, serving as a physical buffer to calm [their] handler and reduce feelings of emotional distress in crowded places.” (2) This allows their handler to pick up their medication.
When Does Depression or Anxiety Qualify as a “Disability”?
Depression and anxiety do not always qualify as a disability, which means that not everyone with these conditions can officially obtain a psychiatric service dog to mitigate their symptoms. It's important to understand your situation and know whether you'll qualify to get a service dog for anxiety or depression.
When is anxiety or depression considered disabling?
There's an official definition for this. The ADA defines a disabling illness as an illness that physically or psychiatrically must limit one or more major life activities, such as walking, talking, seeing, hearing, learning, etc. If the illnesses do not limit one or more life activities, you do not qualify for a service animal (3).
For example, the individual we referred to in the above example who cannot leave their home because of their anxiety would qualify as “disabled” because of their inability to engage in a major life activity.
However, someone who experiences mild levels of anxiety, such as having an increased level of worry about what other people are thinking about them while they are out picking up medications, is not considered to be disabled.
Where the former individual was unable to leave home (something which greatly impeded their daily life), the individual with mild anxiety may be uncomfortable leaving home to pick up medication, but they are still capable of doing so. It's considered that their level of anxiety isn't preventing them from living a full life.
That is not to say that a psychiatric service dog would not provide comfort to the individual with mild anxiety – they probably would; however, in such a case a service dog is not considered to be a necessity.
How Does a Psychiatric Service Dog Aid in Relieving Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression?
Service dogs used for these mental conditons are becoming increasingly popular and there are many great success stories. There are several ways that a psychiatric service dog can aid in relieving the symptoms of anxiety or depression in people, including:
- Bringing medications, or bringing water so that medication can be taken.
- Fetching help during a dissociative episode or crisis.
- Laying over an anxious individual to provide physical comfort during anxiety attacks.
- Detecting anxiety attacks before they show themselves.
- Reminding severely depressed individuals to get out of bed or take medication.
- Bringing a phone to call for help or using an adapted phone device to call for help during a crisis.
How to Get a Psychiatric Service Dog for Anxiety or Depression
A psychiatric service dog can be obtained (1) through a service dog organization or an individual (2) may train their own service dog themselves. It’s important to note, however, that training your own service dog can be very difficult, much more so than people initially imagine and far more complicated than “regular” dog training. Let's look at both of these options.
1. Obtaining a Service Dog Through a Service Dog Program
Dogs that are trained through service dog programs go through obedience training, service training, and socialization prior to being matched with a potential handler in need of this assistance animal. The training is not over yet, however, because the dogs then undergo another set of rigorous specialized training to allow them to meet the needs of their specific handler (4).
Service dogs that are trained through service dog programs may be from a reputable breeder owned by that service dog program, from other third-party reputable breeders, or, in some rare instances, from shelters or rescues.
To qualify for a service dog from a psychiatric service dog training program you will be subjected to certain “rules” or “requirements”. These rules or requirements vary depending on the program you apply with. A good example of some common requirements can be found on the Canine Partners for Life eligibility policy and include:
- Physical ability to control, manage and care for a large dog weighing 50 – 100 pounds and the ability to create an effective support system.
- Ability to communicate effectively and appropriately with the canine.
- Financial ability to provide for his/her canine partner’s daily care, routine, and emergency veterinary needs.
- A lifestyle which would be significantly enhanced by the increased independence that a canine would provide.
- The willingness to seek assistance and advice from the graduate network.
- A realistic view of his/her disability and appraisal of his/her abilities.
- The motivation to achieve as much independence as is realistically possible.
- The ability to learn new information in a group setting, usually consisting of 12 – 16 students.
- An applicant medical information form.
- All graduates must attend “team training” classes to receive their service dog.
- All graduates must agree to attend graduate support classes as required.
The Cost of Getting a Psychiatric Service Dog Through a Professional Training Program
A psychiatric service dog’s cost will vary based on which service dog organization you contact. The average cost for a psychiatric service dog adopted for anxiety or depression runs between $20,000 to $30,000, which is obviously very expensive.
This high price reflects the time, effort, resources and amount of work that goes into raising and specialty training an assistance dog that will be specialized for you specifically and is essentially “custom tailored” for your condition and lifestyle (5). This may seem like a lot of money, but programs actually often spend much more than this to devote 600+ hours to training a dog, providing boarding for a dog, and providing vet care (6).
2. Training Your Own Service Dog
It is possible to save money by training your own service dog; however, this is a particularly difficult task to undertake and requires dedication as well as many of the criteria required by the professional training programs noted above. You should also keep in mind that training your own service dog will require a lot of discipline, time, and dedication.
Another benefit to training your own service dog (in addition to possibly saving money) is that there is no waiting list – many professional service dog organizations have lists of applicants for years into the future. On the other hand, individuals with depression and/or anxiety may not be able to partake in hundreds of hours of training a service dog.
What Type of Dog Can Be a Psychiatric Service Dog?
There are specific characteristics that make a dog a good candidate for service dog work for people with depression or anxiety, and while many canines can possess these characteristics, a few breeds tend to display them more regularly and so they are favored for service dog work.
When assessing an animal's suitability for service dog work, it’s important to consider the following questions:
- Are they are capable of carrying out the tasks that are required of them to help their owner?
- Are they are trainable?
- Do they have a high frustration threshold?
- Do they have a desire to please?
- Are they free from signs of personality flaws that may impact their ability to perform their job?
- Are they free from signs of genetic or physical illness that would impact their ability to perform their job?
- Are they people-centered?
- Are they distracted by excessive drive or energy?
- Are they otherwise easily distracted?
- Are they loud, reactive, or timid when faced with unfamiliar or overwhelming situations?
- Are they in their senior years? (senior dogs often experience the physical toll of age that can influence their ability to perform tasks and a reputable training program will not invest the money into training a dog that will only provide service for a short period.)
The key is to assess individual dogs rather than target specific breeds as being capable or incapable of providing service. Although, there should be some common sense in play; for example, a chihuahua would not make a good mobility service dog.
The Cost of Training Your Own Psychiatric Service Dog
Training your own psychiatric service dog can still be expensive, depending on what approach you take and how much help you need. Generally, it can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to $20,000 (7).
This figure depends on the type of dog you select. Dogs that have already served as pet dogs are generally not well suited for service dog work, so you will more than likely want to select and adopt a new pup with the express purpose of service dog training in mind.
Just like service dog programs do, you will want to ensure that you choose a physically healthy and psychologically sound dog to begin working with. The best place for that is likely to be a legitimate breeder. From here, you will need to invest in training, beginning with the basics of obedience and working your way up to teaching specialized skills that are tailored to your needs.
Outfitting a Service Dog
There is a common misconception that a service dog must somehow be “marked” as a service dog either with a harness, a vest, or some other type of identification. This is untrue and there is no official requirement to outfit your service animal: “The ADA does not require service animals to wear a vest, ID tag, or specific harness.” (9)
That said, you may still choose to pick up a service dog vest (better visibility, warning signs that you feel may be needed for others to see, etc.) or other supplies with a few features that allow you for better control of the dog or for the dog to assist you better.
Service Dog Licensing or Prescription Requirements
To have a psychiatric service dog, you do not have to have a doctor’s prescription. If you obtain your service dog through a service dog organization, however, they may ask questions about how your lifestyle would be improved with a service dog. This information will help them to match you up with the right canine for your special needs.
There is no requirement for a service dog to be licensed or registered with any special agency – in fact, it’s discouraged to use “licensing services,” not only because they are a scam to make money off service dog owners, but because they are widely used by people posing with fake “service animals”, and because they make it much harder for legitimate service dog handlers by teaching business owners to expect service animals to be certified.
The U.S. Department of Justice even remarked quite recently that:
“There are individuals and organizations that sell service animal certification or registration documents online. These documents do not convey any rights under the ADA and the Department of Justice does not recognize them as proof that the dog is a service animal.” (8)
Legal Protections of Psychiatric Service Dogs
Psychiatric service dogs are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) and the Fair Housing Act. You can read more about the protections afforded to Service Dogs in our article here.
The Emotional Support Dog
Now let's move onto to adopting emotional support dogs for anxiety or depression, which are slightly different from above mentioned psychiatric service dogs but generally many same things apply to this category of animals as well.
For individuals who do not qualify for a psychiatric service dog, emotional support dogs can still provide comfort in times of distress. An emotional support dog is a “lesser” choice because they are not trained to perform specific functions for their disabled owner with mental health conditions. Rather, they are dogs that “provide comfort just by being with a person.” (10)
Qualifying for an Emotional Support Dog
Unlike with psychiatric service dogs, to officially adopt an ESA and for the dog to be treated like an assistance animal, you will need to have a doctor's prescription.
In the words of My Assistance Dog, Inc. “To have an emotional support animal, a person must have a confirmed diagnosis (usually of a mental illness) and be given a prescription for an ESA by an overseeing doctor who believes the pet will be of benefit to the patient’s mental health.” (11)
Getting an Emotional Support Dog for Anxiety or Depression
If you are specifically looking to bring home a dog that can serve as an emotional support dog (and do not require the specific assistance that psychiatric service dogs can provide), some rescue organizations and breeders do make note of dogs within their programs who would make good ESA’s.
Often, a potential ESA is marked on the dog’s adoption profile or profile on their breeder’s notes, but if it isn’t, try contacting the rescue or breeder directly and ask if they have or can help you to find a dog that suits your needs.
What Makes a Good Emotional Support Animal?
Obviously, since the purpose of adopting an emotional support animal for anxiety or depression is primarily to provide comfort, then the animal in question must be good at providing said comfort to their handler.
However, there are also other factors to consider when deciding whether a specific canine makes a good emotional support animal, including:
- The size of your emotional support animal may be a concern if you are limited in your physical activity, if you live in a very small home, or if you plan to take your ESA on flights with you.
- A good temperament is a necessity – both towards you and other people and animals.
- Overall health should be a concern as it may limit the ability of your dog to provide emotional support.
How Can an Emotional Support Dog Help with Depression or Anxiety?
While psychiatric service dogs are specifically trained to assist owners with mental health conditions in many ways, an emotional support animal simply provides comfort to their owner by simply “being” with them, which can often be all a person with depression or anxiety really needs.
Some examples of how service dogs do that include:
- Providing a “listening ear” for anxious individuals.
- Providing physical closeness for depressed individuals.
- Providing a calming tactile sensation to detract from anxiety.
- Providing a reason to get out of bed ie: walking the dog, feeding the dog, etc. for severely depressed individuals.
Emotional Support Dog Licensing or Prescription Requirements
Same as with psychiatric service dogs, there is no official licensing of emotional support dogs by individual organizations. However, as mentioned above, a person requiring an emotional support dog and wanting to legally use ESA's services should have a “prescription from an overseeing doctor who believes the pet will be of benefit to the patient’s mental health.” (12)
Legal Protections of Emotional Support Dogs
Another difference from psychiatric service dogs is that emotional support dogs are not provided for under the Americans with Disabilities Act. They are, however, provided for under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) and the Fair Housing Act. You can read more about the protections afforded to Emotional Support Dogs in our article here.