The ability to serve as a Psychiatric Service Dog (PSD) has nothing to do with the dog’s breed. Mixed breed dogs are very well suited to assist those coping with mental illness. These dogs can be in-home companions or full-time Service Dogs who also accompany their companions out in public and to work.
The process of setting up a client with a PSD involves a number of steps::
- Assessing Client Eligibility
- Identifying dogs that have the potential to serve as PSDs
- Training the dog
- Remaining in touch throughout the working life of the dog
Assessing Client Eligibility
In order to be eligible for a PSD, the client must qualify as severely limited in their ability to function due to mental illness under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
If this is the case, it is recommended that the individual consult with his/her mental health professional and discuss whether or not they would benefit from having a PSD and whether they are capable of providing proper care for the dog. It is recommended that they consult with a mental health professional that will assess them and support their choice in seeking a service dog. This decision must take into account the client’s mental condition and their ability to care for a dog, and must coordinate with other forms of mental health treatment.
It is also important that the individual recognizes that they will need to cover the costs of caring for the dog once training is over (ex: feeding, veterinary care, equipment replacement) and must demonstrate the financial capacity to do so.
If the decision is made to pursue the benefits of a PSD, the individual may contact Healing Companions, Inc., whose dog trainer will aid in identifying a dog that has the potential to become a PSD. The health, temperament, and intelligence of a potential PSD candidate is taken into account. See: International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP)
There are a few ways in which a PSD candidate can be chosen. The individual may already have a dog, or a dog can be chosen from a rescue shelter or foster home. In both cases, dogs trained by the organization are usually between 1-2 years old.
Training Service Dogs
Once we find a dog that matches our criteria, training may begin. Training can be broken into 2 basic stages.
Stage 1 Basic Obedience Training
Although we have now stepped away from the program, one unique aspect of our early training was the role inmates were able to play in improving our clients lives, as well as their own. We worked with the Berea Animal Rescue Friends (ARF) Prison Foster Program to train shelter dogs in their basic foundation skills from 2014-2018. In this program, ARF teamed up with the Lorain Correctional Institute to provide care to some of ARF’s dogs were not doing well in the shelter, or who might have slight behavioral challenges that made them difficult to adopt.
Healing Companions, Inc., collaborated with the ARF Prison Foster Program to assist with training inmates to work with their shelter dogs. With the assistance of our trainers, inmates played a key role in the training process. Inmates helped teach the dog’s basic training such as heeling, sitting, recall, come, wait, stay etc. Over the course of our training we also taught the inmates relaxation and stress reduction techniques for themselves as well as the shelter dogs, incorporating canine massotherapy, Tellington TTouch Training, Reiki, meditation, breathing, visualization, etc.
An additional benefit of this program was the positive effect the training had on the prisoners themselves. By joining with the Prison Foster Program run by Berea, we helped provide a way for the inmates who train these dogs to gain skills and take steps toward turning their lives around. Over the years we also were able to home some Berea dogs with our clients as Psychiatric Service Dogs and continue their training under our program. Though Healing Companions, Inc. is no longer involved, Berea continues this valuable program.
Healing Companions, Inc. will now be expanding our program to provide our own basic training including all the skills mentioned above. We hope to be a source of further training and employment to some of those who complete the prison training program after their release.
While in the program over the years I’ve learned how to train using positive reinforcement methods and how important it is to keep it positive at ALL TIMES. While in the program I’ve discovered that the companionship and bond that happens when you’re with a dog has really helped me mentally in dealing with incarceration…In the future, I would like to explore the possibility of opening up my own doggy daycare/kennel/training center.–M.P., Inmate trainer
Stage 2 Specialized Training
Once the shelter dogs complete “basic training” and if they fit our programs criteria they are ready to graduate to the second phase where we provide the highly specialized training required to serve as a PSD.
The shelter dog is then matched and adopted by a client that qualifies under the ADA for a PSD. Their potential psychiatric service dog in training begins the public access and task training specific to that individuals symptoms/diagnosis and needs.
The training consists of weekly sessions involving our professional hands-on training with the handler (client) and the dog. In between sessions, the client will reinforce the training that occurred during the weekly session. In this program the client serves as the dog’s handler, and is an active participant in the training process.
We also train our dogs tasks that mitigate the symptoms of their handler’s illness. Depending on the specific client’s symptoms, we train our PSDs to guide a client disoriented by anxiety, conduct a room search to alleviate fear of intruders or of the unknown, provide assistance with balance and mobility, interrupt a panic attack, seek help for an incapacitated client, and more.
The training we provide is very thorough. The process of customizing our training to the needs of the client and teaching the PSD all necessary tasks takes between 1 and 2 years to complete.
Keeping In Touch
The dog’s trainer and the client will continue to maintain contact after the PSD has completed training. At minimum, quarterly contact will be made throughout the lifetime of the dog. Depending on the need of the client, frequency of contact may be increased.
Once a dog reaches the end of its working life (usually between 6-8 years) it becomes necessary to start training a successor dog. This dog will be trained to perform tasks that the client needs at that time, and will allow the client to continue to benefit from a partnership with a PSD.
It’s important that the client be prepared for the possibility that the PSD-in training (PSDIT) may be found to be unsuitable for the job after we have begun the training process (referred to as “washing out”). If we determine that the dog is unsuitable to serve as a PSD, we must still take the best interest of the dog into account. In such a case, we will request that the client agree to keep the dog unless circumstances make it unhealthy to do so. In those cases, the PSDIT will be placed in a new home.
In terms of measuring the impact of the program, Healing Companions, Inc., may use the Mental Health Recovery Measure (MHRM) and/or other testing tools to identify pre/post changes in scores. The MHRM is a standardized 30 item self-report measure specifically designed to assess mental health recovery from the perspective of the individual living with a psychiatric disability.
Video recording of lessons will also demonstrate progress and become evidence of the empowerment and increased self-confidence of the clients as they participate in training their dogs, helping to inspire others. Our PSDs provide both the dog and human productive, independent lives – a win-win transformation for both parties.