Therapist

How to get a therapy dog for mental health

Overview

A service dog is one that has been trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Examples include guiding a person who is blind or taking protective action when a person is having a seizure.

Service dogs were once exclusively used by people with physical disabilities. They’re now also used by people with mental illnesses. Service dogs can help people with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

To be recognized as a service dog under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), the tasks a dog has been trained for must be tied to a person’s disability. Dogs whose only function is to provide emotional support or comfort don’t qualify as service animals under the ADA.

Physical vs. invisible disability

According to the ADA, an individual with a disability must meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • has a physical or mental impairment that significantly limits the ability to perform one or more major life functions
  • has a history of an impairment that meets this description
  • is seen by others as having an impairment that meets this description

Unlike a physical disability that may be obvious due to the use of an assistive device, such as a wheelchair or cane, an invisible disability is an impairment that’s not immediately apparent.

The term “invisible disability” encompasses many medical conditions (including mental and neurological) that are invisible to an onlooker. Depression is one of these conditions.

According to a 2014 report by the U.S. Census Bureau, 27 million adults were frequently depressed or anxious to an extent that seriously interfered with everyday activities.

If your depression meets the criteria set out in the ADA’s definition of a disability, you qualify to have a service dog for depression.

Psychiatric service dog, emotional support animal, therapy dog… What’s the difference?

A service dog for depression may also be referred to as a psychiatric service dog. This is not to be confused with an emotional support animal or therapy dogs, which are not recognized as service animals by the ADA.

Here are the key differences:

Psychiatric service dog

A psychiatric service dog is trained to recognize and respond to their handler’s disability by performing work or tasks. The handler must have a mental or psychiatric disability that limits one or more major life activity.

The ADA protects service animals and allows public access so that the dog can go anywhere its handler goes. A service dog is not considered a pet.

Emotional support animal

An emotional support animal is a pet that provides comfort or emotional support to a person. Unlike a service animal, an emotional support animal doesn’t need to be trained to perform specific tasks.

The ADA doesn’t cover emotional support animals so they do not have legal public access. They’re only covered under the Fair Housing Act and Air Carrier Act. This means the only places that are legally required to permit an emotional support animal are housing units and aircraft.

Therapy dogs

Therapy dogs are trained to engage with many people other than a primary handler. These dogs are used to provide comfort and affection as a form or psychological or physiological therapy to people in hospitals, nursing homes, and hospices. They do not have the same legal public access as service dogs.

All three types of service animal can be beneficial to a person with depression. The type that is best for you depends on your needs. Psychiatric service dogs are working animals and not considered pets. They’re extensively trained to perform specific tasks, such as reminding you to take your medication or leading you to someone if you’re in crisis.

An emotional support animal isn’t trained to perform any tasks, but can provide you with a therapeutic presence which can be comforting and uplifting.

How to qualify for a service dog

To qualify for a service dog for depression, you must have a letter from a licensed mental health professional stating that your depression prevents you from performing at least one major life task without assistance on a daily basis. A licensed mental health professional can be a psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist, or social worker.

You must also be able to:

  • participate in the dog’s training
  • finance maintenance and veterinary care for the life of the dog
  • be able to independently command the dog

The cost of a service dog is not covered by Medicaid or Medicare, or by any private insurance company. Some nonprofit organizations offer service animals for free or at a reduced cost. Many of these programs have long waiting lists. You can also pay to train a dog as a psychiatric service dog.

Tasks and benefits service dogs provide

A psychiatric service dog can be trained to perform a wide range of tasks to help someone with depression. These include tasks related to assisting during a crisis, helping you cope with emotional overload, and providing treatment-related assistance.

The following are specific tasks that a service dog for depression can perform:

  • remind you to take medication
  • bring you a phone during a crisis so you can contact support
  • call 911 or any other preprogrammed emergency number for help
  • identify and help with medication side effects
  • provide tactile support when you’re overwhelmed
  • prevent emotional overload at home
  • provide an excuse to leave a room if you feel upset with a discrete signal

Next steps in getting a service dog

If you would like to adopt a service dog for depression, speak to a mental health professional. They can determine if you would benefit from having one.

To learn more about service dogs, such as training and costs, contact one of the many organizations that train and place psychiatric service dogs. Some of these organizations include:

  • Doggie Does Good (https://doggiedoesgood.org)
  • Paws4People Foundation (https://paws4people.org)
  • Canines4Hope (http://www.canines4hope.org)

Taking care of an animal can be a great way to improve your mental health [1]. But not every landlord allows pets. You can get around this if a mental health professional certifies that you need an emotional support animal. There are other types of service animals too—it’s important to understand what you’re trying to get, because the steps are different for each type.

Emotional support animals (ESAs)

An emotional support animal (ESA) is just what it sounds like—a pet that provides emotional support. ESAs don’t need any special training (beyond the normal training a pet needs). Dogs and cats are the most common, but any domesticated animal can be an ESA.

ESAs are covered under the Fair Housing Act. This allows people with an ESA to have their pet in their home even if there is a “no pet” policy. The law also prevents additional pet fees for ESAs. Small ESAs can also travel with you on a plane free of charge. Unlike service dogs, ESAs aren’t allowed into other public places that don’t normally allow pets.

In order to get the benefits of an ESA, you will need a “prescription” from a mental health professional. This is basically just a signed letter stating that you have a mental health condition and that your pet helps you deal with it. Some landlords and airlines will accept a letter from a medical doctor, but often it needs to be a therapist or a psychiatrist.

Service animals (dogs only)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals as dogs that are individually trained to perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability [2]. This can be a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Only dogs are legally considered service animals. Other domestic animals are covered only as emotional support animals or therapy animals.

Qualifying for a service dog is simple. Actually getting one is a bit harder. To qualify for a service animal, all you need to do is get written documentation from your healthcare provider that you have and are being treated for an emotional or psychiatric disorder or disability and require the assistance of an animal because of it. The work a dog has been trained to do must specifically relate to your condition. Training a service dog yourself can be difficult and can take years. Usually you would get a service dog from someone else who has already trained it.

Psychiatric service dogs (PSDs)

A psychiatric service dog (PSD) is a specific type of service animal trained to assist those with mental illnesses. These include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. For example, a dog may assist someone with PTSD in doing room searches or turning on lights. Or it might help someone in a dissociative episode from wandering into danger. Providing companionship, calming anxiety, or providing a sense of safety merely by its presence are not legally considered “tasks.”

If you’re not sure whether to get an ESA or a PSD, think about what your specific needs are. Is this animal going to assist you in tasks you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do? You’ll probably need a service animal. Are they primarily going to provide companionship, non-judgmental positive regard, and affection? That sounds more like an ESA, which is much easier to get anyway.

Therapy animals

Therapy animals are used in therapeutic settings, like hospitals or nursing homes. Some examples might be a cat that lives at a treatment facility, a dog that is taken to visit people in a disaster area, or a horse used in equestrian therapy. Therapy animals provide affection and comfort to people, but they are different than PSDs or ESAs. They are screened for their ability to perform a specific type of therapy, and they are handled by professionals.

Can you take care of an animal?

Before getting any kind of pet or service animal, it is important to seriously consider the responsibilities that come along with it. Think about whether you can care for it physically, mentally, and financially. Service animals in particular are a big commitment. ESAs are a little easier since they don’t need special training, but any pet is still a commitment. If you can’t handle a dog, consider a lower-maintenance pet like a cat or a fish. If even that is too much, try starting with a plant or a stuffed animal, or another form of treatment.

Show References

  1. Mental Health Foundation. (2022). Pets and mental health. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/explore-mental-health/a-z-topics/pets-and-mental-health
  2. Brennan & Nguyen. (2014). Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals
    Where are they allowed and under what conditions? Retrieved from https://adata.org/guide/service-animals-and-emotional-support-animals

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