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Would a psychiatric service animal be a good fit for me?

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I have struggled with mental disorders for all my life namely ADD, bipolar disorder, and anxiety. But since I have come into adulthood and especially since graduating high school my ever present anxiety has begun steadily getting worse. I have been struggling with this for years and kind of just suppressing it and never really thought that it was that big of a deal (my parents are big on the "you don't need help just be happy" train of thought). But a few specific events have caused my anxiety to drastically worsen as well as call a few past experiences into question for me. The most telling incident was when my aunt asked me to house sit for her and I didn't think anything of it since I have been to her house countless times and it is only about 30 miles from my own home. However, after the first night there my anxiety rapidly rose until I was in a state of a near constant panic attack. This continued for the next three days that I was there with the only reprieve being when I went to Disneyland for a few hours. Then the same thing happened when I went to spend the night at a close friends house, again I was still close to home but could not cope with being away form my home. While the obvious answer to some may just be to "get an ESA and stay at home" this is not an option for me because the college that I am planning/dreaming of going to is in Georgia. Where I have no family. 2,000 miles from home.  Yet I always knew that this move would be difficult for me I was still planing to just get an ESA, which is allowed in the dorms at this school, and hope for the best. Yet upon closer inspection of time that I have had problems with my anxiety I'm realizing that perhaps my every day anxiety is not as minor as I always thought it was. While I am still able to function daily with tasks such as going shopping, working, and going to school I can not spend more than about 28 hours a week in public without having a total melt down complete with a severe panic attack which leaves me feeling very anxious and drained for days after. This is especially difficult when my boss needs me to work 25 hours a week on top of a 13 hour school week. Another reason that I am beginning to seriously consider a service dog rather than an ESA is the fact that I simply CAN NOT go to any new places alone. The only reasons that I am able to interact with the community in my home town is because never lived elsewhere and have had 19 years to become familiar with this place and the type of people here. The final reason that I am considering this is that (this sounds pathetic I realize) earlier this year I had an incredibly disturbing dream about the "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride at Disneyland which used to be a ride that I would go on every single time I went to Disneyland. but after having this dream I can no longer go on this ride without it causing a panic attack which leaves me feeling anxious for the rest of the day. This anxiety has also spread from being associated with this one ride to everything from all enclosed rides at Disneyland to train tunnels and any other  enclosed areas with no clear exit. I have tried different treatment options before coming here such as talk therapy, EMDR therapy, and a slew of medications over years with little to no results. While I am aware that my symptoms are no where near as severe as other people with an anxiety disorder I still feel that I would greatly benefit from having a constant and reassuring presence with me during these distressing times because I can not simply avoid new places, being in public, or enclosed areas. Please tell me if from what I have shared if I would truly benefit or even qualify for a service dog. I came to this forum to get advice and answers not fluff so please share your honest opinions. Thank you

The functional difference between a psychiatric service dog and an emotional support animal is that the service dog is there to perform tasks, to do things that the disabled partner is not able to do for themselves, while the emotional support animal is there for emotional support.  There isn't a recognized category for emotional support in public settings or for public access emotional support animals, at least at this time.

So what you need to ask yourself is what it is that you cannot do for yourself that others do for you and whether a dog might be able to do those things instead of asking family and friends to do them for you.  You should also discuss this with your mental health care providers.

I encourage you to re-examine medication.  Many or even most people will find that their first attempt at medication does not work and that they may have to try several different medications or combinations of medications to find the right fit for them.  It can also take up to six weeks for psychiatric medications to reach therapeutic levels and generally speaking any unpleasant side effects will lessen or disappear once that therapeutic level is reached.  So it can take patience and some trial and error to find the right medication.  Keep in mind that if a medication is simply intolerable (you can't make it for six weeks to find out if the side effects diminish or disappear) then it is important to talk to your mental healthcare provider about how to stop taking the medication because some of them need to be tapered off and can be dangerous or very unpleasant if stopped suddenly.

Bipolar is particular difficult to get the right "cocktail" of medications for.  Please be extra patient with treating that disorder and if possible, look for a psychiatrist who is known for having success treating bipolar since some are simply more talented with this disease than run of the mill psychiatrists.  A regular MD probably isn't going to have the skill for it, so seek out an actual psychiatrist.

Before getting a service dog, you would want to have given both medication and talk therapy your best effort because those are your path to recovery, to being free from mental illness or free from the most troubling symptoms.  A service animal is not a treatment.  It will not make you better like treatment can.  For many, who decide to jump the gun on getting a service animal before exhausting options in treatment, it is a trap.  It can keep them from improving because they give up on treatment and rely on the dog instead of healing themselves.

So this is another thing you should discuss with your mental healthcare provider, whether they think recovery is still possible for you and whether they have any treatments you haven't tried or tried fully.  Are they ready to consider your condition more or less permanent?  If not, then it's too soon to consider a service dog.

Another consideration is that it typically takes 18-24 months to fully train a service dog.  So this isn't going to be a quick solution to your problem.  In fact, it will take longer than most treatments would before you start benefiting (a few months versus 18-24 months).

It's not fun having a service dog.  It's a lot of extra work and a lot of extra limitations.  For a person with severe anxiety, it's a lot of added notoriety and social contacts and confrontation that they would not experience without the dog.  I think that if you ask people with legitimate service dogs (not the fakers that are becoming so common these days) whether they would prefer to not have a service dog, ie to not need one, would they rather leave their dog at home you'd get a good 99.9% saying absolutely they'd rather not drag their dog around with them everywhere.

Kirsten's right. I would trade in my dog's SDiT status for successful treatment any day. No hesitation. There's nothing 'cool' about having a service dog, and it sucks. It sucks being stared at in public. It sucks having people ask me what's wrong with me or who I'm training my dog for. It sucks when people try to distract my dog. It sucks when people are rude to me for having a dog. It sucks to have to be inconvenienced with carting him around everywhere. It sucks to have to spend $800 dollars on training alone, only to find out that we have to start all over (if he doesn't wash entirely), and that we still have a LOT more money left to spend on his training. It sucks to have to buy special gear for him, which gets expensive. It sucks having to do the extra grooming necessary for a SD's public image. It sucks having to constantly worry about access disputes. It sucks to have to put so much time, work, emotion, effort, etc into training the dog.


I'm someone who doesn't benefit from emotional support at all during a panic attack. I need tasks, whether they're done by a person, a device, or a dog. I chose a mixture of devices and dog because of my wish to be independent.

I need someone to remind me to implement coping mechanisms when I'm panicking, because I will not remember on my own. My various "service humans" currently do this for me, and some day my dog can be trained to do it. I need deep pressure therapy when having sensory issues (and I've found that it helps my panic, as well, but there hasn't been proof of that benefit yet, from what I've last heard, that's just my personal experience). I prefer swaddling under my heavy blanket or being laid/sat on or squeezed by a person, but could use a dog in a pinch. I need someone to lead me when I've started dissociating/am overwhelmed. Currently, my "service humans" do this for me, but a dog can be trained to do so. Sometimes, I get panic attacks where I freeze and cannot move. A dog can be trained to retrieve an emergency phone for me so that I can call for help or to go find a family member to come help me.

There are a bunch of others. Those are just a few to list some examples. Here's a little checklist that I use to determine whether something is a task:

*Is it related to my disability? For example, retrieving is something useful to me due to leg pain. But at the moment, my leg pain is undiagnosed, so I can't say that it's disability-related. Therefore, it's just a bonus and not a true task. However, the things I mentioned above are directly related to my disability.

*Is it something I cannot do or am significantly impaired in doing myself? For example, I like to use Max's fur as tactile stimulation to calm myself/reset my sensory input. It isn't emotional support, because I am using his fur's texture to stim. But it's not a task because I'M the one doing it; Max doesn't do anything. However, retrieving an emergency phone is important for when I freeze because I cannot move myself.

*It is not emotional support. If a human who you greatly disliked or a cold, emotionless robot couldn't produce the same effect, it's likely just emotional support. I might hate someone, but they can still remind me to implement coping mechanisms, they can still sit on me to produce DPT, they could still go for help when I need it, etc. There's no emotional support in those situations. If the 'task' is primarily emotional support (i.e. cuddling or licking you to calm you down), then it is not a task. Emotional support is a nice bonus, and I'd be lying if I said that I didn't utlize it with Max, but it is never considered a task.

A dog must be individually task trained to be a service dog and have public access. On SDC, we suggest training at least three tasks that would hold up in court. Some of us call those 'strong' tasks, as in that you can prove them in court. This is my checklist for whether a task is 'strong':

*It has to be related to your disability

*It has to be an action that you cannot do or are substantially limited in doing yourself

*It also has to be something that you can elicit or ask for on command, in order to prove that the dog is trained in it. That, or you need evidence that it has happened, such as a video of the task. Considering that the video evidence is kind of chance without the first part, it's wise to make sure that it's something you can elicit or ask for on command.

*Make sure that you can PROVE that it's not emotional support. Take DPT for example. I know it isn't emotional support (the way I use it; some people do use it as emotional support). But I have no way to prove it. So although I know that it is a task, and it is beneficial and important to me, I cannot prove it in court and therefore it is a 'weak' task.

Anyways, here's a Google Doc that I wrote of the steps I suggest for deciding whether you need/qualify for a service dog and if so what tasks you should have the dog trained in, as well as figuring out if that's your best option (you don't need a google account to view it).:

Hello there!

As others have stated, it is completely worthwhile to do therapy before getting a service dog. I used to be in the same position as you after I escaped a very abusive relationship, where I could not go places outside my home for so many minutes at a time without a breakdown. It wasn't like a normal panic attack, and it was truly awful. That said, I entered therapy, got diagnosed with several disorders, saw specialists who prescribed me medication and did specific therapies on me, and at this point in time, I am MILES ahead of where I used to be 2 years ago. I still don't feel wonderful about being out in public and group situations still will give me panic attacks, but I can handle them significantly better than I used to. A dog didn't help my mental stability, therapy did.

I'm not saying a dog will never help you, but it is completely worth it trying, for years, to do therapy before relying on a dog to do tasks for you. It will also greatly improve your chances of living a better life if you continue therapy even with a dog.

That said, I'm not sure a program will give you a dog without a proper diagnosis and some attempt at treatment. I would HIGHLY discourage you doing owner training. A psychiatric dog needs to be firm and stable as a rock and they cannot be that without a solid trainer. A trainer/handler who is nervous will just make the dog nervous and fearful, leading to a failure in training and needing to wash the dog from becoming a service dog.

Thank you all for your responses. Especially to Moonsong for that Google Docs list. I will be talking to my therapist about all this as well as those suggestions tomorrow. However this has brought up a few more questions for me. I have been in therapy, with different therapists, for my mental health problems for about 8 years now. For 6 of those years I was also working with a psychiatrist trying countless different medications/combinations with no lasting results and only stopping with the medication when I ended up in the emergency room experiencing a seizure caused by the medication. Due to this route not working and therapy only providing a few brief periods of peace I am truly wondering if my mixture of disorders will ever be under control with these traditional methods. All I do know at this point in time is what does actually help me and what I am incapable of doing for myself. So my questions are these, how long did you all spend on the more traditional methods of treatment (medication and therapy) before turning to service dogs? Have I just not spent enough time with these options to know if any of them will help? Are there other methods that I am not aware of that have helped you? Again thank you for all of your responses and honest answers.


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