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Would I Qualify for a Service Dog?

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Hi Guys!

My name is Annie. I am 18 years old and am in my second year of college. I believe that at most I qualify for an emotional support animal, however public places can often trigger panic attacks and ESAs are generally not permitted in places that service dogs would automatically be protected to enter. I'll explain my situation a bit.
I started therapy for my anxiety and depression about 4 years ago and have continued therapy ever since, as well as taking daily medication and medication as needed when I feel like I am going to have a panic attack. For the past few months (I would say this has been for 6 months) my anxiety and depression has gotten extremely difficult to deal with. I initially looked into having an ESA because dogs have always been incredibly soothing to me especially when I am having a panic attack or depressive episode. In the past few months I have been addressing the sexual asault that I went through last year, and since then when I am in a crowded public place, walking alone, or even just taking the metro I feel extremely uneasy and cannot escape the thought that I am going to be harmed in some way, or that I am going to have a panic attack. My deppression has been causing a multitude of problems as well, and recently I have been struggling to get to class or leave the dorm. I know there are specific tasks that service dogs could be trained to complete, such as reminding their owner to take medication or to detect a panic attack. I just feel really lost and I believe a service dog would alleviate some of the problems I've been having, but I really don't know that I would qualify for one. I don't want to use my situation to try and get something that I am not entitled to, but I am trying to advocate for myself at the same time. If there is anyone who could take the time to talk with me about this, I would really appreciate it.


Hi Annie, welcome to SDC!

The qualification for a psychiatric service dog and an ESA are the same. You must be disabled by a psychiatric condition and be currently in treatment (according to case law, IIRC).

The difference is that an ESA is part of a treatment plan to help you get better: they provide emotional support to help you get through the rough spots. A service dog is a tool for mitigating a disability that is not expected to get better: they perform tasks (not emotional support) that the handler cannot do for themselves.

So if you're wondering which is better, that depends on where you're at in treatment and also if having one is right for you. The first thing you need to do is determine whether you're disabled. You should get a doctor to do this for you for three reasons:

1. If ever you're taken to court on the legitimacy of your dog/ESA, it will be extremely difficult if even possible to convince a judge that you are disabled without the agreement of a qualified medical professional.

2. If you ever need to bring the animal to work, on an airplane, in no-pets housing (or waive a pet fee), etc you will need a doctor's note.

3. It's really difficult to answer this question objectively. Most people either downplay their disability or see themselves as disabled when they aren't because of the severity of their symptoms.* A doctor can answer this question objectively and usually much easier than the individual.

So, in conclusion, before you start getting into ESA vs. service dog, have a talk with your doctor about whether they think you're disabled. Then, if that's the case, you'll need to talk to them about your treatment plan. Are you still expected to get better? Is there treatment that you haven't tried yet that might work? Getting a service dog before reaching as much functioning on your own as possible is not a good idea. Dogs are the ultimate enablers, and it will make it harder for you to get better once you depend on them.

*I'm not saying that a condition is necessarily worse or better depending on disability. Disability simply means that it is obstructing you from performing major life activities, not that you're suffering more or less than another person.

Only a doctor (or other clinician) can really answer your questions about "qualification," but I think that's not what you really meant to ask or need to know. Let me explain: an emotional support dog is a pet. You don't need any special status for yourself or training for the dog to have one, unless your housing provider won't let you have a pet dog. Most housing accommodations are covered by the FHA, which means they can't forbid you to have a pet if a clinician diagnoses you with a condition that is severe enough to impair a major life function and recommends that you be allowed to have a pet for emotional support.

A psychiatric service dog requires the same kind of diagnosis, and then the dog needs to be trained to perform work that mitigates your disability.  There are people (and I emphatically am not putting you in this category) who will train a dog to remind them to take medication, or carry pills in their vest, merely because they think that converts the emotional support dog to a service dog. It doesn't.

This is a complicated issue, and I urge you to get expert advice from your treatment providers about it.  Service dogs should make a person more independent, and the symptoms you describe make you vulnerable to developing an unhealthy dependence on a dog.  I want you to know that I completely understand and relate to your feelings of hypervigilance and fear in certain situations. I was the victim of an armed home invasion 25 years ago.  I did not like the therapeutic process (to cure my PTSD) at all, but it had to be done to save my career.  I took medication for a while and slogged through the therapy. It was hard work, but I got through it. A dog never ever substitutes for medical care. If your symptoms are worsening, you probably need a medication tune-up, and you might need more intensive or different treatment. From what you've said, this is not (IMHO) the right time to get a service dog, even if you were clear about the kind of work it would do for you. And that's a critical point. The idea way that a SD team develops starts when the person realizes that a dog could be trained to do things that the person can't do herself and prefers not to have a human helper.  Service dogs are (as a matter of law) durable medical equipment. They should be used when the handler has stabilized in treatment and reached a point when limitations are clear, and it is apparent that a dog could be trained to close the gap on some of those limitations.  My dog is a balance-walker dog.  He enables me to walk steadily, without falling or wrecking my joints with my wobbly limp.

I commend you for wanting to be honest about this process, and it seems like you understand what's going on here: you feel like you'd be more confident if you could have a dog with you in public, and you understand the dog would need to be task-trained for that.  So good for you.  It's not ethical to teach a dog to do a task to convert an emotional support dog to a service dog, and you recognize that. 

Since you're in DC, you have access to the various mental health practitioners who consult to service dog training programs in developing the mental health tasks and screening criteria for clients.  It would be great if you got an evaluation from a clinician who really understands psychiatric service dogs and can help you decide the question.

Here is something to think about as you try to decide between the two.

A service dog cannot provide comfort as a task. While my service dog in training  is obviously comforting to me while I am at home, I go out of my way to make sure that my family and I are not petting her in public or otherwise getting what could appear to be comfort from her. So if I have an anxiety attack in public I cannot rely on her to help calm me down.

A carefully trained service dog can provide early warnings to an anxiety or panic attack. A human can do the same thing. They are picking up on things that you do as your anxiety increases. You can train the dog to signal you at an early stage but then it is up to you to use your tools to calm yourself down. I have heard it can be hard for someone with anxiety to do the training of a psd.

Hi Annie, welcome  :smile:

I need to preface this by saying that I'm exhausted and my disabilities have been giving me a hard time today. I haven't been able to read the other replies thoroughly yet, so forgive me if I repeat things others have said. Also, because of my exhaustion and my specific disabilities, I may come across as blunt, but I do not mean to be rude. I want to give you my thoughts so you can have more information to make the decision that's best for your situation.

I'm in a bit of a similar situation as you. I'm 22 and this is my first (so far successful) semester living in a dorm away from home. I've been in treatment and on medication for anxiety and other things since I was 6. This summer I was diagnosed with PTSD and I was just officially diagnosed with depression. For the past few months I've been working with my therapist on sorting through my traumas, some of which I wasn't previously aware of. Working through trauma is hard. It sucks. I get triggered more, dissociate more, have panic attacks more. It will take time, but my therapist firmly believes that many of my symptoms will be get much better. But in the mean time, I've barely left my dorm room this week, I didn't get to sleep until 5am last night because of a panic attack, and I'm so weak this evening that I had to ask my RA to help me walk to Mass and then to get food on campus. I'm telling you all this because I want you to know that I understand your situation well.

But I don't have a service dog. Why? A service dog would halt my development my internal coping skills. I would not be where I am today, nor will I get to where I want to be in terms of symptom management and improvement if I relied on a dog to do things that I need to learn to do for myself.

One thing that happens with trauma is that your brain gets rewired to be in a state of constant fight or flight. Basically your brain doesn't ever feel safe. It has learned to believe that it is in constant danger, even when you're are not. Part of trauma therapy is helping your brain to re establish safety. At first, a person might use something outside themself to do it. I use the feeling of my cat's fur, my teddy bear, or I imagine the feel of a friend's dog's fur on my face and hands. But the goal is for me to have my own sense of internal safety. If I had my cat or teddy bear or a service dog with me all the time, sure it would help me with feeling safe, but I'll never learn to be safe on my own.

A few years ago when I first started looking into getting a service dog, I was unable identity that I was becoming anxious until I was at the verge, or in the midst of a panic attack or meltdown. I wanted a dog to alert me to my rising anxiety. But since then, I've learned to identify my anxiety earlier on my own. I wouldn't have learned to do that if a dog was doing the alerting for me.

There is a boatload of tasks a dog could do to physically help me deal with the effects of my disabilities. But some of these tasks with become unnecessary as I progress with therapy. In fact, I have task lists from when I first started looking into service dogs, and there are several that I already no longer need, or at least not as much. So you'll offen hear people talk about a service dog as more of a last resort, or at least as something to wait to get until you're at a spot when you've gotten to a point in treatment when there's not going to be tons of room for improvement left.

So my advice would be to wait on getting a service dog. If you haven't already done these things, perhaps try talking with your therapist about ways to work on feeling safe. Make plans about what to do have a panic attack or get stuck somewhere (ex. I have a card with my that has my disability info, how to help me, my mom's phone number, and says I need help which I keep in my wallet to hand to a passerby if I'm stuck in public. My dorm RAs know about my disabilities and I have the RA on call cell number in my phone that I can call if I need help on campus. I have an app on my phone that I can use to communicate in case I lose the ability to speak. etc. Even just having the plan is helpful for me.) Ask friends, family members, and your therapist to help identify things you do, or changes in your behavior that signal you're starting to panic, and then work on identifying those behaviors yourself. Also, you might try figuring out the busiest and most crowded times for places and then ovoid going during those times if possible. Things like that.

Finally, anxiety tends to have periods when it gets worse for a few months, but then gets better some. That's not to say that the hard times aren't extremely hard. It's just that a service dog is more of a long term commitment with an ideal working life of 8 years. For me personally, I'd look at your general disability trend (if those are the right words) over time, not just the past few months.

Anyway. Stay strong. Recovery takes time, though in the meantime things can be really hard. Good luck. And I hope some of my ramblings are useful for you.


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