If you suffer from anxiety, you may benefit from having a service dog. Unfortunately, many anxiety sufferers don’t know how to get a service dog for anxiety or if there are differences in the types of assistance dogs.
Under the Umbrella of Assistance Dog
Service dogs, emotional support animal (ESA) dogs, and therapy dogs are assistance dogs. All three types provide comfort and assistance, but each type has its own set of rules for public access and housing rights.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service dog as a dog that is individually trained to perform tasks for someone with a disability or disabilities. These include physical (such as blindness), sensory, psychiatric (such as anxiety), other mental or developmental disability (such as autism spectrum disorder).
Service dogs can perform a wide range of tasks for their handler. The training process starts in puppyhood and is long. You can learn about the training and selection process by watching highly praised documentaries such as Pick of the Litter (2018). Learning obedience and tasks, as well as outstanding public manners, can take over two years. Only a small percentage graduates to working service dog status.
The ADA requires no certification or registration, but as a bare minimum, a properly trained service dog should be able to pass the basic AKC Canine Good Citizen test and ideally pass the higher level Urban Canine Good Citizen public access test.
Emotional Support Animal
Emotional support animals (ESAs) and service dogs are commonly confused. ESA dogs are prescription pet dogs. A prescription from your mental health provider is all you need to have an ESA. ESAs require no training like service dogs have to undergo and pass. Their only job is to be present, providing comfort and companionship for anxiety sufferers. ESAs do not have public access rights as service dogs do. For example, ESAs have no legal right to join you indoors at doctor exams or inside libraries. ESAs can, however, fly with their owners under certain restrictions depending on the airline, and owners can have certain housing rights in no-pet buildings.
You should check the ADA for complete information.
Therapy dogs are trained to behave perfectly in public to visit facilities such as hospitals to provide comfort. Hospitals, libraries, schools, and airports may offer therapy dogs to reduce anxiety for visitors, patients, and sick children. Most facilities require therapy dogs to be certified by Therapy Dogs International, or another organization, and/or pass the AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test. Therapy dogs have no rights in no-pet housing, nor do they have public access rights other than in the hospital, school, or other common spaces they’re supposed to work in.
What about Anxiety?
Psychiatric service dogs are trained to perform tasks to assist their handlers. Some of the tasks include interrupting flashbacks, giving deep pressure touches, or other tasks for panic attacks, or blocking strangers from getting too close to handlers with severe social anxiety. For owners with serious depression, psychiatric service dogs can encourage them out of bed, stop self-harm, get out of the house for exercise and sun, and more.
Service dogs trained to help reduce anxiety can do things like cover the owner to prevent strangers from touching them unexpectedly, anchor the handler during anxiety attacks to reduce symptoms, or interrupt anxious behaviors such skin picking, hair pulling, or head banging.
But How Do You Get a Service Dog for Anxiety?
It Comes at a Price
The best way to get an anxiety service dog is through a program that offers trained service dogs to people with disabilities. Puppies are temperament-tested, picked from litters, and get assigned to puppy raisers in the hopes they will make it all the way. Volunteers and professional trainers provide proper socialization, obedience training, and task training to prepare the dogs for public access, then pair the dog with applicants.
Programs for psychiatric service dogs are local and have long waitlists of two years or more. Fees can be $10,000 or more. The more you need a dog to do, the more the training and the higher the cost. However, there are some grants or possible sponsorships that can offset costs. Please do your own careful research of such grants.
Another way to get an anxiety service dog is to buy one from a trainer who has raised and trained the dog. But buyer beware! Scammers target disabled people, trying to sell them expensive, poorly trained “service dogs.” Avoid, avoid, avoid! Reputable dog trainers should have a website or Facebook business page with real testimonials as well as up-to-date certification from the APDT (Association of Professional Dog Trainers) or the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC). Most of all, the trainer should have at least one or two demonstration dogs (“demo dogs”) of their own training, which they use to show a variety of tasks and public access manners. Don’t put a down payment on a dog if the trainer can’t show off what their dog can do for anxiety sufferers.
Eliminate the Middle Man
The most difficult way to get a service dog for anxiety is to train one yourself. This method also takes a lot of planning, a ton of work, and some financial preparation.
First, you should decide whether to start with a puppy or an adult, and if you’re going with a puppy, then you need to find that reputable breeder who is planning a litter in the timeframe you want.
Choosing a reputable breeder isn’t easy either. Breeders have to be vetted for their practices, which is why you should speak to previous clients and cover all the specifics of what you would need for an anxiety service dog. Dog temperament is a blend of genetics and upbringing (nature and nurture), so getting a puppy that has been properly vetted for health, family or lineage health through genetic screening, and temperament testing gives the best chance of ending up with a solid service dog.
Reputable breeders will also test their breeding pairs (male/female) for specific health concerns such as hip dysplasia and upload the results to the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals. A tested dog will be searchable there, and you will be able to see all the tests performed and clearances. Responsible breeders should give breeder support to owners, a health guarantee, and some beginning potty, crate, and/or obedience training.
Getting a puppy to train up into a service dog is a huge time investment. If you are savvy enough as a trainer and have the time for a puppy, then training the puppy to your specific needs for anxiety is a great way not to have to pay professional organizations the full price.