This is a question I get asked a lot. Very few people seem to be sure what they need to do to legally get a service dog. Information is scattered and it’s hard to know where to go to find the answer.
The interesting thing is, people assume that if you’re looking for a service dog, you don’t really need one or qualify for one.
But you know what? I’ve found that most people who are looking for service dogs aren’t having mild problems and are just wanting a dog for funsies. They are intimidated by the lack of information on the internet and are afraid to move forward without finding out if they really qualify for a dog.
So back off, skeptics. I’m going to talk to the people who are looking for answers.
You have severe symptoms that are really interfering with you living your life. Many of you are unable to hold down jobs or have social or academic lives because your anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder or other mental illness is so severe.
Some of you are unable to take medications for depression, anxiety. PTSD or bipolar disorder because of side effects that you cannot cope with, or because of other health problems or medications that interact with medications. Psychologists can only do so much, as well, for some people. Sometimes medication just doesn’t help enough.
I know how that is. Hunting through medications for something that works, but doesn’t give you horrible twitching or life-threatening Stevens-Johnsons Syndrome (that was my fun reaction to Lamictal) or whatever and also getting complete relief of symptoms is nigh on impossible.
Even if you do take medication and it helps you with your mental illness, did you know that also doesn’t keep you from qualifying for a service dog?
You’re probably researching this because you’ve been affected by a pet and recognized that when you’re with a dog, you finally start to feel better. So you’ve been wondering and hoping. Could a service dog be right for me? Will a service dog help me feel better? How do I get one if so?
How Do I Get Qualified for a Service Dog?
Now, before we get started, there are two different animals out there that you may have heard of. One is an ESA or Emotional Support Animal, and one is a PSD or Psychiatric Service Dog. They are two different classifications and they mean two different things.
For an Emotional Support Animal, you just need a note from your doctor or psychiatrist saying that you need an animal to comfort you. They cannot go anywhere special, UNLESS your state has a specific law saying ESAs are allowed in public places. You’ll need to check with your local and state laws for that information though. They do not need any special training beyond being polite. They are allowed in normally not pet friendly housing.
We’re not talking about ESAs here. They’re for milder cases; for comfort. I’m not a specialist in ESA laws, so I’m not going to go into that further. I don’t really know much about what qualifies you for an ESA.
For a Psychiatric Service Dog, however, you do need to be classified as having a disability.
Now, the disability needs to be provable through your doctor, basically, in case you need to file for discrimination against a business. You also will need to be able to get proof that your dog has been properly trained, either through a trainer/school, or if you owner trained, just a log of what you’ve done.
You do NOT have to qualify through SSDI (which are the monetary and health benefits you get through social security). You do NOT need to have any sort of a piece of paper proving you are disabled that you carry around with you.
What is a disability?
It’s having a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more of your major life activities or major bodily functions currently or episodically.
Major life activities are eating, sleeping, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating and working.
Major bodily functions are functions of the immune system, special sense organs and skin, normal cell growth, digestive, genitourinary, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, cardiovascular, endocrine, hemic, lymphatic, musculoskeletal, and reproductive functions. Although not specifically stated in the NPRM, the final regulations state that major bodily functions include the operation of an individual organ within a body system ( e.g., the operation of the kidney, liver, or pancreas).
Quite a few of the major life activities fall under things that are affected by mental disorders.
Here’s a list of the disabilities that the SSA officially recognizes, but any other illness that limits life activities also counts. This is just a list with descriptions (and the symptoms!) of disabilities that is nice to have in case you need something to back you up.
Print out your disability and mark it up in case you want to wave it in your aunt Betsy’s face and say “See, severe anxiety is a disability and that is why I need a service dog!” or in case you just want to make yourself feel better (no need to show it to anyone). The process of getting a service dog can be nerve wracking. It feels like any minute someone could call you a fraud and you wouldn’t be able to say otherwise. But that’s not true. Mental illness can be just as much a disability as a physical illness/handicap.
(Keep in mind you don’t ever actually have to share your disability information with anybody anywhere. At businesses, they can ONLY ask 1) if your dog is a service dog and 2) what tasks is it trained to do.)
How Do I Know if I Need a Psychiatric Service Dog?
Now, a Psychiatric Service Dog is helpful when a dog can be trained to perform one or more Tasks for you that you cannot perform for yourself.
The Tasks need to be related to your disability.
So, if you have panic attacks that really interrupt your life and keep you from being able to do your work, because you melt down, panic and can’t do anything but curl in a ball and hyperventilate for hours, a PSD can warn you in advance of panic attacks, keeping them from escalating or getting you to take your Xanax before you have a problem. They can help keep you in reality by providing grounding or deep pressure therapy – effectively replacing Xanax. Cool, huh?
Your PSD can also keep people away from you while you come out of an episode of whatever sort – random people coming up to you is generally not helpful. Alternately, they can alert people if you need assistance, grab/remind you to take medication or get a phone for you.
If you are unable to enter empty rooms because of PTSD, your PSD can enter the room first, check that it is safe and report back to you.
Dogs can detect mood swings, blood pressure drops, can keep you from self harming, can help you leave stores (if you panic and don’t know how to leave), find your car (some of my meds have a side effect of making me forget random stuff)… the list goes on and on for Tasks that a Psychiatric Service Dog can perform for you if you have a mental disability that keeps you from functioning daily.
Oh, and I forgot to mention that if your dog helps you with debilitating side effects from medications that you take, that counts as a Task too.
Anyway, I could go on all day about the neat things you can train your dog to do, but I’ll just leave it at that. A service dog can do so much to help you if you’re struggling.
So the answer to the question is, you don’t have to really do anything to qualify for a service dog, other than have a doctor verifiable disability and have something related to your disability that you can’t do for yourself that the dog can do for you. Pretty simple.
Hopefully that’s pretty clear. Feel free to send me an email if you have any more questions about this.
Also, if you’re interested, sign up for my newsletter! I’m going to be putting together online courses for training your own psychiatric service dog and you can get updates there.
If you’d like to learn more about choosing the proper dog to be an owner trained service dog, check out this article.