Service dogs for anxiety are like other service dogs because they are trained to do certain tasks depending on a person's needs.
That said, service dogs don't just help people with physical disabilities like hearing or visual impairments. Psychiatric service animals are trained to help people with mental health conditions like anxiety participate fully in their day-to-day lives.
This article will go over what you need to know about getting, training, and certifying a service dog for anxiety.
What Is a Service Dog?
According to the last update to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals are defined as animals that are "individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability."
Psychiatric service dogs are working animals that do tasks for their owners. Service dogs for anxiety are trained specifically to help people with mental health conditions in their daily lives.
Only dogs and miniature horses are approved by the ADA to be service animals. No other animal can be a service animal.
Service Dog vs. Emotional Support Animal
A service dog for anxiety is not the same as an emotional support animal.
According to the ADA, emotional support, therapy, comfort, and companion animals do not qualify as service animals. While these animals do provide emotional support, they are not trained to perform specific tasks for their handler.
Emotional support animals are not protected under the ADA. That means you may not be allowed to travel with them and you can't take them into some public places. You will need to check the laws about emotional support animals in the state where you live.
According to the ADA, if your dog is trained to perform specific tasks during an anxiety attack—such as getting help or providing tactile input to calm you—it is considered a service animal.
However, if the simple presence of your dog provides comfort and calms your anxiety, then it is considered an emotional support animal and is not a service animal.
Benefits of Service Dogs for Anxiety
Like other service animals, service dogs for anxiety are trained to perform tasks or otherwise provide assistance to their owners that help them engage safely and fully in everyday life.
However, a service dog can't just be trained for any task. According to the ADA, the tasks must be directly related to the owner's disability.
A psychiatric service dog can help someone with anxiety by:
- Detecting signs of a panic attack before it begins
- Helping their handler avoid triggers
- Reminding their handler to take their medication
- Performing room searches or safety checks
- Waking their handler up from a traumatic nightmare
- Turning on lights for someone with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Opening doors, retrieving mail, or other tasks for someone with social anxiety disorder or agoraphobia
- Interrupting self-harm or obsessive-compulsive behaviors
- Keeping disoriented or panicking handlers from danger
- Providing tactile sensory input for reducing anxiety
Most of the research that's been done on service dogs for anxiety has been on veterans with PTSD, which is one type of anxiety disorder.
One study found that for a group of veterans with PTSD, using psychiatric service dogs and having intensive trauma resilience training for three weeks reduced their PTSD symptoms and improved their overall quality of life.
Another study looked into how service dogs were able to provide these benefits. The participants with PTSD who used service dogs reported that the animals helped:
- Disrupt nightmares
- Improve sleep quality and duration
- Reduce hypervigilance by alerting and creating boundaries
- Help turn attention away from invasive or trauma-related thought patterns
- Improve emotional connection with others
- Increase community participation
- Increase physical activity
- Reduce the need for medication
- Reduce suicidal impulses
How Much Does a Service Dog for Anxiety Cost?
It can cost up to $25,000 to purchase a service dog from specialized organizations. This cost covers the selection or breeding, veterinary bills, food, and extensive, rigorous training from service dog experts. You may have to pay even more if your animal needs to learn specific skills.
Many service dog breeding and training organizations, such as NEADS and the American Humane Society, offer financial aid and even provide service dogs for free or subsidized rates through grants and funding.
Certain protected groups may also have access to special funding for service dogs.
The Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers for Veterans Therapy Act (PAWS Act) signed into law by President Biden has helped to reduce the cost of service dogs for veterans.
There is also no requirement to buy a service dog from one of these organizations. Technically, you could train an existing pet, breed your own dog, or adopt a dog from an animal rescue for a low cost.
How to Train a Service Dog for Anxiety
You have a few options for training a dog to be a service dog for anxiety. You might decide to have them trained by experts or undertake the training on your own.
Can I Train My Own Service Dog for Anxiety?
If you want to have a service dog for anxiety, the first step is training. The ADA does not require that service animals undergo a professional service dog training program.
That said, there are many of these programs available. Working with an expert helps ensure that your dog is highly and effectively trained.
While you do have the option of training your service dog for anxiety on your own, you should know that it can be a very time-intensive process—especially if you have never trained a dog before.
Even though training a service animal can be frustrating and challenging at times, many people also find it very rewarding.
How Do I Start Training My Dog?
The American Kennel Club (AKC) recommends that service dog training starts with:
- House training, including eliminating waste on demand
- Socialization in many environments, including staying attentive to a task in various settings
- Teaching the dog to ignore distractions and focus on their handler
Once a dog has mastered the basic skills, it will need to be trained to perform specific tasks to assist with its owner's anxiety. This training step is essential because it is what qualifies the dog to be a service animal.
Dog trainers use certain techniques to teach a dog to perform tasks. In a study on veterans with PTSD who trained their own service dogs, they used techniques like:
- Positive reinforcement (e.g., physical praise or petting)
- Negative punishment (e.g., ignoring the dog)
- Positive punishment (e.g., verbal corrections)
- Dominance (e.g., alpha roll)
- Bond-based (e.g., co-sleeping)
The study also showed that bond-based and positive reinforcement techniques had the most positive training outcomes, while positive punishment had more negative outcomes.
How Do I Get My Service Dog for Anxiety Certified?
The ADA does not require that service dogs receive any documented certification. Some states, counties, colleges, and universities offer voluntary registration programs, but they are optional. There are also many organizations that sell and provide service animal registration or certifications.
If you want to complete (and pay for) certification for your service dog, know that it is not recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice or the ADA. They are not a necessary requirement under the ADA for you to use a service dog for anxiety and to receive the protections and rights they have.
Which Breed Is Best to Train as a Service Dog for Anxiety?
If you want to get a service dog for anxiety, you may wonder if you can choose any dog or if a specific breed would be a better choice.
Any breed of dog can be a service dog, but certain dogs tend to make better service animals than others.
You'll want to think carefully about the tasks your service dog for anxiety will need to do for you. For example, if your dog will be opening doors or turning on lights, you'll need to pick a breed that will be big and strong enough to do these tasks safely.
Other qualities to look for in a service dog include:
- Focused and attentive to their handler
- Be calm in all settings
- Be alert but not reactive
- Highly trainable for specific tasks
- Have a desire to please
- Desensitized to distractions
- Not easily diverted from tasks
- Demonstrate information retention and learning
- Be easily socialized in many different settings
Where to Buy a Service Dog for Anxiety
Training is what makes a dog a service animal, not where you bought it. While you can buy any dog or even breed dogs on your own to be trained, there are also organizations that breed and train service dogs specifically.
These organizations are highly specialized and offer expert training—in some of them, only the top 30% of the dogs will pass the training program.
You may want to buy a service dog for anxiety directly from one of these organizations; however, just know that they can have long waiting lists or expensive fees.
A service dog for anxiety is not the same as an emotional support animal. A service animal is trained to do certain tasks that are related to its owner's disability. For example, a psychiatric service dog could help a person with an anxiety disorder by reminding them to take their medication or helping them avoid triggers.
Most of the research on the benefits of service dogs for anxiety has been on veterans with PTSD, which is an anxiety disorder. While these studies have shown that they are helped by service dogs, we still need more research specifically on service dogs for anxiety.
A Word From Verywell
Not all disabilities are visible. Thankfully the ADA is inclusive of psychiatric service animals for people with mental health conditions. Service dogs for anxiety are just one example of how these specially trained animals can help disabled people.
If you have an anxiety disorder and have a hard time with your daily tasks, a service dog might be helpful. Your dog can be trained to do tasks that will help you can engage more fully in your life and manage your anxiety more effectively.
Can dogs feel your anxiety?
Research has shown that dogs can sense when humans are anxious. Part of this is because of the chemicals we give off when we're stressed (which dogs can pick up on) as well as our behavior, which our dogs watch closely to figure out how they should react to a situation.
What disqualifies a dog from being a service dog?
According to the ADA, a dog cannot be a service dog if it does not perform certain tasks for its owner that are related to its owner's disability.
A dog that provides comfort just by being near its owner could be considered an emotional support animal but is not a service animal because they have not been trained to perform a specific task.
Can you get a service dog for free?
Many service dog breeding and training organizations offer financial aid and provide service dogs for free. You could also train your existing pet, breed your own puppy, or adopt one from an animal rescue for a small fee or even for free.
What breeds are best for service dogs?
The ADA has no restrictions on breeds of dogs that can be service animals. However, trainers and experts have identified certain breeds as being more easily trained than others.
The American Kennel Club (AKC) states that German Shepherds, Labradors, and Golden Retrievers are common service dog breeds.
Why can’t you pet service dogs?
Service dogs are working animals. They are essential to their owner's engagement in daily life and are required because of their owner's disability. Petting a service dog can distract them from their work and may even harm their owner.
How can you identify a service dog?
Many service dogs wear special harnesses identifying them as service animals. However, this is not a requirement.
To identify or confirm an animal as a service dog, the ADA permits business owners to ask only two questions:
- Is the dog a service animal that is required because of a disability?
- What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
It is not acceptable to ask an owner to provide documentation, explain their disability, or demonstrate tasks.