How To Train a Service Dog for Anxiety and Depression

Service dogs are used to help support people with physical disabilities like blindness and missing limbs and help them gain more independence. Now many service dogs are also being trained to help with chronic mental health conditions and to empower people suffering from anxiety or depression to navigate life’s challenges. 

But how do you train a service dog for anxiety and depression

There are several steps to take to train a dog properly and it all starts with choosing the right dog. Service dogs can be trained professionally to help you cope with mental or emotional issues. You can also train your dog at home to help you with emotional trauma.

We’ll show the steps you need to take to train your service dog to detect any emotional or mental issues you may need help with. The training brings you closer to your dog and builds a companionship that will last a lifetime, healing you with unconditional love from your four-legged friend.

We’ll take you through the following points:

  • What are service dogs?
  • Service dogs vs. therapy dogs vs. emotional support dogs
  • What are psychiatric service dogs trained to do?
  • What anxiety disorders qualify for a service dog?
  • Service dog breeds
  • Can you train a service dog yourself?
  • How long does it take to train a service dog for anxiety?
  • How much is service dog training?
  • How to train a service dog to help with anxiety and depression
  • Certification and registration

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What are service dogs?

A service dog is a dog that is trained to help someone with a physical or mental disability live a more independent life. A service dog is seen by the Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA, as a working animal, not a pet.

The ADA defines a disability as an impairment that limits someone from completing major life activities. A guide dog will help people with a visual impairment, and hearing dogs help those who are deaf or hard of hearing. 

Medical alert service dogs are trained to signal the onset of a seizure, diabetic side effects like dangerously low blood sugar, and life-threatening allergies, among other medical issues. They will alert the people around you when this is about to happen so that they can take action immediately.

Psychiatric service dog

Psychiatric service dogs are trained to help individuals with mental and emotional issues rather than physical challenges. They help people with post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorders, panic attacks, bipolar disorder, and other brain-based illnesses and health conditions.

Psychiatric service dogs can calm people with social phobias, help them get urgent medical care if they start to have manic episodes or panic attacks, and help them or the people around them access their medication while they’re in a crisis.

Service dogs vs. therapy dogs vs. emotional support animal

You may think that a service dog, therapy dog, and emotional support dog all provide the same service, but that’s not true. 

A service dog is trained to help an individual who has a disability. They are recognized by the ADA and perform tasks that help support and empower those with a disability. If someone has a visual or hearing impairment, the service dog will be their eyes or ears, and as such, they require intensive training. 

Therapy dogs are trained to bring comfort to people in stressful situations or locations. Therapy dogs commonly visit hospices, hospitals, and disaster areas. They are not trained to deal with disability-specific challenges but are there as a peaceful presence to encourage calmness and reduce fear and panic.

An emotional support dog’s main focus is to provide comfort and company to one person: their owner. The dog doesn’t require specialized training but needs a happy, eager to please, and easygoing personality and temperament. Emotional support dogs are devoted to their people and responsive to their commands and emotions. An emotional support dog is not considered a service dog by the ADA.

What are psychiatric service dogs trained to do?

A psychiatric service dog is trained to assist owners diagnosed with mental health conditions like  post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety. 

Psychiatric service dogs, like physical disability service dogs, help their owner with their day-to-day routine, lifestyle, and necessary tasks. Here’s how they do that. 

Assistance in a medical crisis

If you have a medical crisis, your psychiatric service dog can help. This help may involve alerting others if they feel that you’re in danger, and calming you down by distracting you. If they feel like you need space, they will know how to warn others around you, allowing you to get a handle on the issue. 

Psychiatric service dogs know your daily routine and know when you should be taking your medication. 

They will be able to remind you to take the medication, or if you require this suddenly due to an anxiety attack, they will know where to find your medication and give it to you.

Help in coping with emotional overload

If you find yourself in a stressful situation, your psychiatric service dog will be able to help you work through it. This could be by distracting you or applying physical pressure to your body to keep you grounded and refocus your attention. 

The dog will pick up on any behavioral cues from you that signal anxiety and can instantly react to and defuse the situation– helping ease your mind and keep you from getting emotionally overloaded. 

Restoring the sense of safety

Many people suffer from anxiety and social phobias. Part of this comes from feeling unsafe in their surroundings. Your psychiatric service dog will establish a solid sense of safety just by being there with you. 

They quickly catch on to any signs that you may be triggered and act accordingly – whether it’s to distract you, retrieve your medication, or summon professional help in an emergency.

What anxiety disorders qualify for a service dog?

Service dogs can be trained to deal with anxiety disorders known as ‘invisible’ disabilities since you can’t see any physical impairments. 

The anxiety disorders that a service dog can help with are PTSD, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression. 

To qualify for a service dog, you will need to get written documentation from your healthcare provider to say that you’re being treated for an emotional or psychiatric disorder. They would then need to recommend that you require a service animal to assist you with your condition. 

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Service dog breeds

Some breeds are naturally gifted with helping others, such as a Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever, and German Shepherd. Considered “working dogs,” these three breeds are consistently reliable service dogs. 

Larger breeds of dogs can help provide physical assistance as they have the strength and height, so a Great Dane or Saint Bernard can be ideal for someone with mobility issues. Poodles are very versatile and can be trained to alert you to medical problems or help with your everyday routine around the home.

The key element in deciding whether a particular dog would be an excellent emotional support animal is their temperament and willingness to learn and support their owner.

Always do your research before deciding which dog breed to choose for your service dog.

Can you train a service dog yourself?

It is possible to train a dog yourself, and you’re not required to use a training program or professional service dog trainer. However, you need to fully understand the time and energy required to train your service dog. 

It can take many months to train your dog to understand your individual needs fully. When preparing your service dog, the first thing you need to focus on is the foundation skills. These basic skills are house training, socialization, and basic obedience training. 

Your service dog is there to help you, so their focus needs to be on you and your needs. By working closely with them from a young age, you will build a trusting relationship, and the dog will learn to understand your needs.

Necessary traits and skills of service dog candidates

When looking for a service dog, you must make sure that the animal you choose has certain traits. 

As your service dog will be with you at all times, they will need to be friendly, calm, and comfortable in social situations and unfamiliar surroundings. 

The service dog must be alert, ready to learn, and understand what to do when medical issues, including anxiety attacks, come up. You will be reliant on them for many things, so they need to be consistent, focused, and able to complete many repetitive tasks to help you.

How long does it take to train a service dog for anxiety?

It can take up to two years to fully train your service dog for anxiety help, and it requires lots of patience from both you and your dog. It’s best to start training when your dog is a puppy or between six months and one year old.

You need to make sure that you don’t rush the training. The more time you take to work with your dog, the better understanding they will have, which will help them become the perfect psychiatric service dog for you.

How much is service dog training?

Service dog training doesn’t come cheap, and this is one of the factors you need to consider before getting a professionally trained service dog. Training a dog through a professional service dog training organization can cost up to 30,000 dollars as there are many hours of work put into each dog.

However, the ADA doesn’t require service dogs for anxiety and depression to be professionally trained. This gives you the option of training your dog yourself or with the help of a professional trainer. The cost of a professional trainer will be between 150 and 250 dollars per hour, so these costs can also add up pretty quickly. 

It will cost nothing to train your dog yourself, but it will take many hours and lots of patience. Online training programs help you with this if you can’t afford a professional trainer.

How to train a service dog to help with anxiety and depression

Deciding to train your dog to become a service dog on your own can be a very rewarding experience. But it does require certain milestones and an order in which the training should be completed to get the ideal results.

Determine your dog’s job 

The first stage of training service dogs is deciding what you need them to do. What will their job be? You need to know this to guide their training in the right direction and avoid confusing your dog.

Once you understand what you need from them, you can build a relationship based on it with your dog. From this, they will begin to understand and recognize when you’re relaxed or when you start to feel anxiety.

Develop socialization skills

Service dogs need to start socialization skills from a very young age. As a service dog, they’ll travel with you from place to place, so it’s crucial that they don’t react badly to other dogs or people when out and about.

It’s best to start training them in their early months while they’re still a puppy. During this window of time, they must learn how to behave when introduced to new people, dogs, or surroundings. 

As soon as they’re up to date with their vaccinations and have a clean bill of health, it’s important to take them out to various places. They need to experience different environments to build confidence and to be able to tolerate stress without becoming fearful or aggressive. 

Learn basic manners and obedience training 

Basic obedience training is important for all dogs, especially service dogs. Every service dog needs to be trained to understand basic commands. The first obedience commands you need to teach your service dog are, sit, stay, come, heel, down, and leave it. These will allow you to introduce your animal to others and take them outside with confidence that they know how to behave.

If you struggle to get your dog to understand the basic commands, you can enlist the help of a professional. They will have lots of experience teaching your dog and showing you how to continue training your dog when at home.

Work on public access skills

Once your service dog understands the basic obedience commands, you can start to introduce them to the public spaces around them and work on their public access skills. 

The best places to start public access skills training are retail pet stores, outdoor cafes, and parks. Make sure that the sites you plan on taking them are pet-friendly ahead of time. It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with the laws about animals in public spaces in your town, state, or county.  

Individual response training

You need to train your anxiety service dog to understand how to alert you before you start to have a panic attack or anxiety attack. 

As your bond with your emotional support dog grows, they will pick up on your body language and how it changes before you slip into a panic attack or psychiatric episode. 

If you bring your dog close and cuddle them when feeling stressed or anxious, they will be able to understand these signs. Some people like to reward their dog with a treat when starting to experience the symptoms of a panic attack. Teaching them to respond through positive reinforcement is a great way to lay the foundations.  

Certification and registration

In the United States, it’s not required to have a certification for your psychiatric service dog or to get them registered. However, you will find that many staff at public establishments insist on proof before allowing your service dog to enter.

Many service dog owners find it best to have documentation and get them accessories, like harnesses, to signal to others that they are a trained service dog. You can register your service dog with the ADA to get a service dog certification and ID card. 

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Key takeaways on training a service dog for anxiety and depression

Many people in today’s busy world suffer from anxiety and depression, and it can really take on one’s life if not handled correctly. If you live alone, it can be difficult, especially when susceptible to anxiety attacks or if you require regular medication.

This is where a service dog trained to perform specific tasks for you can be helpful. They will be there to support you at all times, and with the proper training, they will fully understand your needs and routine. 

It can take many hours and even years to train your service dog fully and the first step to getting the right support animal is making sure that they have a suitable temperament and are willing to learn. 

The training will bring you closer to your service dog and build a perfect companionship, keeping you safe and helping you when you feel anxious or start to suffer from a panic attack. 

With the proper training and a great bond, your service dog will help and support you through bad times and empower you to handle your chronic mental health conditions with more confidence. 

Kate Basedow, LVT
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