I receive more questions about psychiatric service dogs than any other type of service dog. The most common questions I receive pertain to the task training piece. I think in part, one of the reasons the questions come up is because some of the online task training lists for psychiatric service dogs include tasks that are ambiguous and sound a bit mysterious. For example: grounding, deep pressure therapy, interrupt a dissociative episode. How can a dog do all that?
The late Joan Froling created a list of tasks and behaviors that is far more specific. Realistically dogs don’t “provide therapy” themselves. They are dogs. However, they can jump up on a lap or put their paws on a specific part of their owner’s body and that contact might be calming. Similarly a dog is not going to know if someone is having a nightmare and needs to be woken up. But a dog could be taught to lick a person who is moving around a lot while asleep. The movement becomes a visual cue to lick.
Most of these behaviors fall into one of the typical foundation skills taught to most service dogs: targeting, a retrieve, or an alert type behavior. In short, whatever type of service dog you are interested in training or learning how to train, the same foundation skills are needed! It is a myth that a psychiatric service dog is easier to train than any other type of service dog.
Lastly, as I recently posted, mental illness impacts people in different ways. One person with PTSD may be impacted in a very different way than another. The tasks needed for one, may not be needed for another. And a person may have both a mental illness and another impairment, and need tasks related to both. Tasks need to be chosen in collaboration with the individual’s licensed therapist.
Just as with all types of service dogs, down-time, environmental enrichment, play, sufficient sleep are important for all service dogs, including psychiatric service dogs. Because any dog could get sick or injured, or otherwise need a break from working, people who use psychiatric service dogs need to have a “plan b” in place for how they will accommodate their disability when their dog cannot help them.
If you are a professional trainer interested in learning more about service dog training, the Service Dog Coaching Program may be a good fit for you. Foundation tasks that can be used to train psychiatric service dogs, mobility dogs, hearing dogs and many other types of service dogs are included in the program.