These dogs don’t get to catch allot of ZZZZs during their working days. Understanding Psychiatric SDs and ESAs


By Sophia Rutti 

Dogs have, for thousands of years, been an integral part of human life. We have trained and developed the modern breeds to retrieve, guard, herd, hunt, and generally help to care for us through our symbiotic relationships with them. Now, the roles of working dogs are changing and being refined—there are still herding dogs, guard dogs, and hunting dogs, among others, but now, and for the last several decades, there has been a movement of dogs being used not only for our safety, but to improve people-in-need’s quality of life in a number of different ways. Nowadays there are therapy dogs, of varying breeds, that enter hospitals to provide comfort to the elderly or ill and therapy dogs that go into schools to help developmentally disabled children learn to read and build confidence. There are service dogs that help people who are blind, deaf, or medically disabled with a variety of conditions regain independence and confidence through their support.

There are dozens of ways that dogs help people through their work, but there are two different types of working dogs that, while similar, are often confused for one another: Psychiatric Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals. It is important to be specific because Emotional Support Animals do not have to be dogs at all! To an uninformed listener, the two might sound interchangeable, but in terms of training, skills, and legal status they are completely different.

Psychiatric Service Dogs are considered Service Dogs under the Americans with Disabilities Act. As a Service Dog they are “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability”. What this means is that a Psychiatric Service Dog is not only specially trained to behave appropriately in public environments such as schools, hospitals, airports, and work spaces, but also that a Psychiatric Service Dog performs “work” or “tasks” that directly mitigate an individual’s Psychiatric disability. 

Not all disabilities are immediately obvious and for many people with Psychiatric Disabilities, it is not readily apparent what ‘tasks’ their Service Dog might do—but that doesn’t mean that their Service Dog isn’t performing an essential task! 

For example, Psychiatric Service Dogs might be assisting an individual (civilian or veteran) with PTSD flashbacks. A Psychiatric Service Dog might be trained to recognize an individual’s “triggers” or “cues” that set off PTSD flashbacks that might be associated with disassociation, panic attacks, and anxiety, and interrupt the flashback before the individual enters a full episode. The Service Dog can ‘interrupt’ by redirecting the individual’s attention onto the dog by offering to play, performing grounding through licking or pressing weight on an individual’s chest or legs through Deep Pressure Therapy, or even by guiding their person to a “safe place” where they can regroup. 

Another example might be a Psychiatric Service Dog assisting an individual with autism. Depending on the individual, there might be sensory triggers involved with crowds and social situations. In that case a Service Dog can be trained to do crowd control, in which the dog circles the individual to give them more space, assist by guiding them to a less crowded environment, guide them to friend or family for help, or even by guide them to the exit of the building. 

There are dozens of other ways a Psychiatric Service Dog can be specially trained to assist individuals with psychiatric needs—they might go get help during a medical episode, retrieve medications when asked, remind the individual to take their medication at the same time each day, perform Deep Pressure Therapy, interrupt self-harm (when safe for the dog) and disrupt repetitive movements or behaviors, as a few examples. 

Service Dogs are only for people who are considered ‘disabled’ under the ADA. What does that mean for Psychiatric Service Dogs? It does not mean that a person has to look or seem disabled. What it does mean is that the Psychiatric condition must be one that is ‘disabling’—meaning, it prevents the individual from engaging and functioning in everyday life. That might mean for some people that it prevents them from feeling safe enough to go to the grocery store and for others that they cannot maintain a school or work relationship without support.

Most important to know is that Psychiatric Service Dogs are NOT dogs who solely provide emotional comfort or support. Under the ADA, “dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals”. Dogs who provide comfort or emotional support are very beneficial in a different way and while they do not qualify under ADA guidelines, they have essential tasks. These types of assistance dogs are Emotional Support Animals! 

Emotional Support Animals are not Service Dogs. They do not have access to all public spaces under the Americans with Disabilities Act and only receive limited accommodations under the Fair Housing Act and, depending from airline to airline, during air travel. 

Emotional Support Animals provide comfort and support solely through being themselves—they do not have to be carefully trained to perform tasks. These dogs might “work” by naturally snuggling with their owner when they are upset and by providing emotional support by staying close. Emotional Support Animals can be dogs, cats, rabbits or any other domesticated animal that can safely live in the home and provide emotional support by helping their “person” to feel secure and supported. They might provide this support through play like fetch and tugging, cuddling, or even providing tactile stimulation by allowing their person to touch their fur, gently play with their ears, or stroke their back. 

Emotional Support Animals and Psychiatric Service Dogs both have their own roles, but they are very different and have different legal status. 

Psychiatric Service Dogs are considered Service Animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act and receive full rights to public spaces in order to assist their individual through specially trained tasks that mitigate their disabilities. 

Emotional Support Dogs are not offered any rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and do not receive full rights to public spaces. 

To show the differences between PSDs and ESAs, it is best to look at the differences in their training history and their typical day. 

• PSD: 2+ years of specialized training for both access to Public Spaces and “Tasks” 

• ESA: No required training 

A Day in the Life of a Psychiatric Service Dog

Wake up and eat breakfast with owner, then get dressed for the day! They go with their owner everywhere and perform tasks as needed. For example, a PSD might remind their owner to take their morning meds before walking out the door. Then, on the walk to work, when the crowd on the sidewalk is getting too tight—they might perform crowd control to help keep their owner feeling comfortable. Then, when they stop in at a corner store, the PSD might notice their handler getting nervous/ anxious. The PSD might lick their hands, paw at their legs, or whine a little to get the handler’s attention to redirect the handler from their anxiety onto the dog. If their handler has a panic attack, the PSD might perform DPT to help ground their handler and if needed, the PSD might go and get help (from a human, this time!). Then, when everything is back to normal, they’ll go off to work together! The PSD will be completely non-invasive in the work environment. If needed, the PSD will leave its resting place and perform work for their handler—maybe retrieving medicine, or water, or encouraging its handler to go for a walk to relieve anxiety. Throughout the day, the PSD will get breaks and snuggles and lots of rewards from its handler and at the end of the day it will get to go play ball or chew on a bone and just ‘be a dog,’ but for most of the day it has an important job to do.

A Day in the Life of an Emotional Support Dog

Wake up and eat breakfast with owner. Owner gets ready for work and the ESA might provide emotional support by offering to play, snuggling, or staying close. The owner goes to work and the ESA stays home and might spend some time snoozing, chewing a bone, or going to a day-care facility to play! Then when the owner is back from work, it’ll snuggle, play, and otherwise offer stimulation for its owner and provide emotional support. ESAs can be a huge emotional benefit for people, but only in the home and through their own kindness and support! 

When you see an Emotional Support Dog or Psychiatric Service Dog be polite! Don’t ask why the dog is needed and don’t give unnecessary attention to the dog—they are there for their person, not for everyone else. It is important not only to understand the varying roles and rights of Psychiatric Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals, but also to help people be aware of treatment and management options for their Psychiatric needs that might help to improve their quality of life!

Sophia Rutti is one of the primary Service Dog trainers at Dog’s Downtown. Her background is in animal behavioral theory, with a focus on mitigating communication between humans and canines and her specialty is evaluating, selecting and training Service Dogs. She lives with a 3-year old German shepherd of her own who has an affinity for dog-friendly veggies