Psychiatric Service Dog training involves a number of steps. 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.
Our process of setting up a client with a Psychiatric Service Dog:
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.
Once we find a dog that matches our criteria, training may begin. Training can be broken into 2 basic stages.
Healing Companions, Inc. provides our own basic training. Our basic training is similar to all basic training for dogs in that it includes the 7 common skills SIT, STAY, DOWN, COME, HEEL, DROP IT and GO TO MAT. Healing Companions uses positive reward- based training that includes play and allows our handlers to get to know their dogs more fully building a bond. We focus on building a two-way communication between human and dog as they both learn body language. They also learn stress reduction/relaxation techniques for human and their dog. A few dogs may arrive with some or all of these skills already and just need a refresher. Some will need to be trained completely. It’s also important to recognize that the handler will need to understand how to work with their new companion in the basic skill set before moving on to the more complicated 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.
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.
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.
Video recording of lessons will 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.