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If you struggle with depression, panic attacks, or other forms of anxiety, you might have noticed that being around your dog (or even a friend’s canine companion) can make you feel more calm. You’re not alone in this! A wide range of people report the soothing effects of petting, playing, or otherwise interacting with their pets.
Maybe you’ve wondered what it would take to get an official service dog to help treat your anxiety. Here we break down everything you need to know: How to decide if you need a service dog, what to look for in your assistance animal’s temperament, and how to train their specific psychiatric tasks.
First things first: Do you need a service dog for anxiety?
Anyone with a disability can get a service dog
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), anyone in the United States with a diagnosed disability is eligible for a service dog. The organization defines an individual with a disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”
Service dogs can change their handlers’ lives
Training and caring for a service dog can come with a variety of financial, emotional, and other costs. Because of this, not everyone who lives with a psychiatric or physical disability is the right fit for an assistance animal — but many people are! Service dogs have helped more than 80 million American owners manage their medical conditions to achieve greater health, confidence, and freedom in their daily lives.
If you have a psychiatric condition or mental health condition like post traumatic stress disorder or depression — and are able to invest the necessary time and energy into caring for a canine — you might be a great candidate for a task-trained service dog.
What is an anxiety service dog?
A service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to provide services to help their handler navigate the world. They’re part of the treatment plan for some disabled individuals. Psychiatric service dogs are officially considered “medical equipment” — the tasks a service dog performs must be directly related to their handler’s disability.
Because of this, not all dogs who improve their owners’ quality of life by helping with their anxiety symptoms can be considered legal service dogs.
Emotional support animals aren’t service dogs
The ADA says “[we] make a distinction between psychiatric service animals and emotional support animals. If the dog has been trained to sense that an anxiety attack is about to happen and take a specific action to help avoid the attack or lessen its impact, that would qualify as a service animal. However, if the dog’s mere presence provides comfort, that would not be considered a service animal under the ADA.”
What this means is that emotional support, therapy, and companion animals are not protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. That doesn’t mean they’re not wonderful — they absolutely are! They just don’t have public access rights to visit non-pet-friendly places with their owners. (The only exception is housing: Emotional support animals are allowed to live with their handlers regardless of dog or breed restrictions.)
An ESA or therapy dog can become a legal, actual service animal, though, if they go through designated task training to help one specific handler.
Does your dog have the right temperament to be a service dog for anxiety?
This might seem counterintuitive, but it’s actually best if your service dog isn’t naturally worried about your anxiety. While it can be sweet to watch an animal sense your unease and try to make things better, it can also be a sign that they’re uncomfortable!
Your service dog will spend hours each day working for you in a range of environments — you want their tasks to be fun and rewarding, not driven by their own worry.
In short: The best service dog candidates are emotionally stable and nonreactive. They shouldn’t be overwhelmed by your panic attacks but should rather be able to eagerly work through them.
Make sure your dog is prepared for public access rights
Before training your dog to be an anxiety service animal, you also need to make sure they’ll be able to handle a variety of public environments in your everyday lives while paying attention to you. While this article dives into task training (how to teach your dog the specific services they’ll need to perform to mitigate your disability) it’s important to build strong public access skills, too.
Service dogs need to be able to:
- Settle for long periods of time in distracting environments
- Walk on a loose leash or in a heel command through crowds
- Ignore dropped food, prey, and other temptations
- Be so confident they aren’t bothered by things like sirens and machinery — or at minimum recover quickly from startling events
- Keep their attention on you as their owner at all times
You can train these behaviors on your own as your dog's handler, or reach out to a professional service dog trainer for expert guidance.
Choose what tasks you want your dog to perform
You’ve decided you’re a good fit for a service dog. You understand the importance of your working animal having a stable, solid temperament. Now for the details: Let’s take a look at how to choose the tasks you want your dog to perform and what methods you can use to teach them!
Prioritize what you most need
It’s important to prioritize the services that will have the greatest impact on your life. Everyone’s disability, surrounding environment, and personal preferences differ.
Some common anxiety service dog tasks include:
- Alerting you to an oncoming anxiety attack before it happens by nudging your body, barking, or lying in a specific position
- Preventing self-harm behaviors by pawing or nudging at your own hands
- Providing deep pressure therapy by lying on top of you, a bit like a weighted blanket
- Retrieving objects like medication, water, or your cell phone and bringing them to your hand
- Opening doors and flipping light switches
- Reminding you to take a medication by nudging, pawing, barking, or another signal you’ve chosen
- Circling around you to prevent strangers from approaching
If you think of something that isn’t on this list, it can still be a valid service animal task so long as it directly mitigates your psychiatric condition or disability.
Train your service dog’s tasks
Once you’ve decided what tasks you want your service dog to learn, it’s time to start teaching them. You’ll need to put in hours of training to polish their skills (or consider sending them to a designated service dog training program).
In the early stages, this process will look a lot like teaching your pet any other basic cue:
- You’ll need a reinforcer (like high value treats or a favorite toy), a reward marker (often a clicker), and some patience.
- You can lure your dog into the correct action, shape, or capture behaviors they’re already offering. For example: Pawing and nudging are great candidates for luring — while barking or retrieving objects might be better taught through shaping or capturing.
- Once your dog can reliably perform the chosen skill, you’ll associate a visual and/or verbal cue (like a hand signal or word) that lets them know it’s time to do the behavior.
Pair your service dog’s tasks with your anxiety symptoms
When your dog consistently does their tasks on your visual or verbal cue, it’s time to associate those behaviors with your anxiety symptoms! It’s great for your pet to be able to listen to what you say — simply having a “nudge” or “light switch” verbal cue can be a great help — but in the middle of a panic attack, you won’t be able to give them direction. It’s important your service dog can act on their own when needed to keep you safe.
This all might sound complicated, but don’t worry. It’s essentially the same process as adding a new verbal cue to a behavior your dog already knows! Instead of associating your dog’s task with a specific word, though, you’re now going to associate it with a certain anxiety symptom. These might include:
- Fidgeting (like picking at your hands, face, or other objects)
- Increased heart rate
- Heavy breathing
And so on. Pick the things you struggle with most — that’s how your service dog will have the biggest impact on your life.
How to associate your anxiety signals with your service dog’s tasks
Follow these steps to pair your new learned behavior stimulus (whatever anxiety symptom you’ve chosen) with your dog’s already-known hand or verbal signal.
- Manifest your chosen anxiety symptom. Some are easy to perform on demand, like fidgeting or heavy breathing. Others, such as an increased heart rate, might require more creativity on your end.
- Pause for just a breath. Then immediately give your visual or verbal cue for the task you want your dog to perform.
- If your dog responds, mark and reward them with treats or a toy!
- Repeat this several times. Keep your sessions short and upbeat.
- Eventually your dog should start to perform their service at the onset of your anxiety symptom instead of waiting for the visual or verbal signal.
Practice and proof in a variety of environments
Dogs often struggle to generalize behaviors. This means they might be able to follow cues in a familiar environment but still struggle to perform out and about.
Since your service dog needs to work in every environment you visit, however, it’s imperative that you spend time proofing their tasks. Here are some tips:
- The first time you ask your service dog to perform a task in a new context, take a few steps back in your training process to make it easier for them. Use your hand signal (or even your lure) along with your verbal cue to set them up for success.
- Make things more difficult slowly so your dog doesn’t get discouraged. You want to end your training sessions on a positive note, not with frustration!
- Make sure you always use the same visual, verbal cues, and anxiety symptom cues.
- Be aware of other subtle body movements that might confuse your dog, especially in the early stages of training.
- Video your sessions so you can evaluate your marker and reward timing.
- Make sure you aren’t asking your dog to perform in unfamiliar environments or situations before they’re ready.
When in doubt, seek professional guidance!
Service dog training can be overwhelming, especially if you’re trying to do it all on your own. Feeling stuck? Not sure how to troubleshoot new issues that are cropping up? Don’t worry: A professional trainer can make a world of difference!
Some canine professionals even specialize in assistance animals (and many have service dogs of their own, so they understand things from both a trainer and handler perspective). That means they can provide feedback on everything from public access behavior to specific tasks.
Professional dog training lessons can get expensive — but it’s a worthy investment to make sure your service dog is ready to act as medical equipment out in the world. If the cost of in-person private training is prohibitive, you might consider group classes, virtual sessions, or online content as well.
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