by Anne Martinez
If you’ve started exploring the world of service dogs, you’ve probably come across the term Psychiatric Service Dog, or PSD. This is a type of service dog that assists people who have mental health disabilities.
Psychiatric Service Dog vs Emotional Support Animal
PSDs are different from Emotional Support Animals (ESAs), though they do have something in common — both serve people who have a mental health disability. An ESA provides comfort, a valuable act. A Psychiatric Service Dog does that also, but in addition is specifically trained to perform tasks or do work that mitigates your disability. This specific training is what qualifies the dog as a Psychiatric Service Dog.
Calming Deep Pressure Therapy
A Psychiatric Service Dog can do many different things to help alleviate the symptoms and consequences of severe mental health impairments, depending on your needs. One of the most common PSD tasks, across many diagnoses, is Deep Pressure Therapy (DPT).
A Psychiatric Service Dog provides DPT by using its bodyweight to apply pressure across your body in particular ways, often across the chest and abdomen. The PSD is effectively serving as an on-call, warm, weighted blanket. This type of pressure helps you (or almost anyone) relax and feel calm. Deep pressure applied in this way has been scientifically shown to help modulate the nervous system. A trained Psychiatric Service Dog can perform this service anywhere, anytime, when given the command do to so.
Help with Grounding
A Psychiatric Service Dog can also help with grounding when you need help breaking free from an intense emotional state and bringing your focus back to the present. Grounding is something you must do yourself, but the PSD can help by serving as a point of focus. For example, the Psychiatric Service Dog can lick you in the face or hands until you feel reoriented to the present. This kind of behavior is often referred to as tactile stimulation.
Alerting and Behavior Interruption
Psychiatric Service Dogs are also frequently trained in alerting (a.k.a. signaling), interruption, and/or distraction. Alerting means making you aware of something the PSD has noticed but you have not. For example, if you start shaking your leg when you’re about to go into a panic or anxiety attack, your dog could be trained to paw your knee when you start doing that. Then you can take action to prevent a full blown attack, such as leaving the situation or asking for Deep Pressure Therapy.
Interruption tasks are useful when you’re doing something undesirable, such as hair pulling or skin picking. The PSD interferes by nudging or pawing you, or providing some other kind of distraction, such as bringing a toy for play. Training interruption for serious self-harm is risky business, and often not a good idea. If you have a sharp implement in your hand, the dog could get hurt trying to intervene.
Additional Helpful PSD Tasks
There are many more services a Psychiatric Service Dog can provide. A PSD can give medication reminders, help create personal space by standing between you and other people, or fetch a helper when needed. If medication causes you to become dizzy when bending over or gives you tremors that make you drop things, your PSD can be trained to pick items up. People with severe PTSD sometimes train their dog to enter a room first, check for strangers, and even turn on the lights. A PSD can also use a special, push-button K9 phone to dial 911 in an emergency. See our Giant List of Service Dog Tasks for even more ways any service dog can be trained to help its handler.
Training to reliably perform behaviors like these (as long as they’re related to the handler’s impairment) is what makes a Psychiatric Service Dog a Service Dog and not an Emotional Support Animal. A PSD is treated like any other Service Dog under U.S. laws. For people with mental health issues that are severe enough to impair the ability to work, socialize, or even go to the grocery store, a Psychiatric Service Dog can be a life-altering force. A therapist might not answer a distress call in the middle of the night, but a PSD will.