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Training a Psychiatric Service Dog

Updated on June 29, 2015

It seems as if the need for service animals has gone through the roof these days, from the military veteran returning home from war suffering PTSD to the normal everyday citizen who is the victim of a traumatic event to a child born with a mental health disorder. The need and the demand for these well trained animals is a must and there truly are not enough of them to go around. In some cases the individual is able to purchase an animal already trained and ready to work, but for a majority of people purchasing isn’t an option due to the high amount each of these animals cost. The other problem is the amount of time it takes to train a single animal, maybe longer than the recipient can wait due to a life changing events and disabilities. Basically the individual is unable to grocery shop, go to work, communicate outside of the home, etc. It is important to understand the need and how to help those in the most need. There are programs out there designed to help the individual for low to no cost; however, the demands they place on the individual sometimes turns them into something of a dog and pony show when it comes to getting donations and sponsors. It is becoming more and more common to hear about individuals wanting to take back their lives and begin this type of training on their own by either learning and then teaching an animal on their own or by looking for individual trainers willing to take them on at a reasonable price.


To be fair it is important to point out some programs out there such as Soldier’s Best Friend (SBF) in Glendale, Arizona. Assistance Dog International which literally has chapters all over the world. The United Disability Service, National Service Dog Schools, Freedom Service Dogs of America and of course Paws and Stripes in New Mexico. By doing a simple Google search for service dog training programs in your area, you should be able to find a program that fits for you.


The thing is sometimes it does fall onto the individual who is needing the service animal to find and train the animal themselves or with the assistance of friends, family or individual trainer. Overall again it depends on the individual, their ability to follow through with a process and also being able to find assistance when needed. Two good books to read that will help with this process is “PTSD and Service Dogs: A Training Guide for Sufferers” by Rick and Heather Dillender and “Training Your Own Psychiatric Service Dog” by Katie Gonzalez.

Behavioral

If you do choose to go the route of training your own service animal, first you must find an animal that is suitable for the work. If you are lucky you already have the prefect canine for this type of work living with you at home, if not you must go out and find a canine. This process could take some time and asking for assistance shouldn’t be a game stopper. I have found that some of the best service dogs are rescued animals. These animals normally have been through their own hell and want nothing more than a loving family to be a part of. Some of these canines also enjoy the work and helps them to recover from problems they might have with trust or fear. The best way to find one of these dogs is to talk to the individuals at the location where you are looking and explain to them the type of canine you are looking for. Note: for best results you should ensure the canine does not have problems with other animals, granted this too can be worked on depending on the level of problem and the age of the canine. It is best to try and find a canine that isn’t over three years old, this will increase the chances of changing most behavioral problems the animal might have from previous negative exposure. Just remember, just because the animal might not look the part at first, doesn’t mean they won’t be able to be the part with consistent training, care, and of course love. In some cases rescues are the best way to go, since they know they are getting a second chance and want to make the best of it. I know my rescue service dog (In training) is one of the most loyal animal I have ever had, even with some of her problems we are still working through. However, I have received assistance from some very helpful dog trainers and through reading books such as “From Shelter to Service Dog, A Practical Guide to Behavioral Rehabilitation” by Rick and Heather Dillender.

Let's get started in training OB...

Now that you have your animal and are ready to begin training, it is important to remember start with obedience training, since this will be your foundation when it comes to passing a public assess test and then training on the task you want the dog to be able to do to help you. Obedience training can be obtained a number of ways, such as hiring or knowing a dog trainer to help you and your dog to learn from the basics to more advance obedience skills. A program my dog and I have been going through is Pet Smarts training program which starts out at beginner, then immediate and finally advance obedience training with a chance to take the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) Certification. This test not only shows your dog has completed obedience training, but also it shows the dog is able to be in public places without being unruly or causing a scene. Though this isn’t a mandatory certification, it definitely is a good one to have under your belt in case anyone decides to challenge you on your dog truly being a service animal. Things your dog and you will be expected to do to pass the CGC is: Accepting a Friendly Stranger, Sitting Politely for Petting, Appearance and Grooming, Out for a Walk (Walking on a Loose Lead), Walking through a Crowd, Sit/Down on Command and Staying in Place, Coming when Called) Reaction to Another Dog, Reaction to distraction, and Supervised separation. For further information on the CGC go to the American Kennel Club Association website. Note: like any other skill, obedience training is something that must be constantly worked on to help your dog remember what they are expected to do, for their safety, your safety and those around you. However, if you choose to try it on your own a good book to have is “Team Work Book One: A Dog Training Manual for People with Disabilities” by Stewart Nordensson and Lydia Kelley, which will teach you step by step how to train your dog and to get a positive experience. Regardless what type of training location you pick the key things to understand is you and your dog need to be able to perform different commands, such as: Watch this/Attention, sit, down, stay, stand, random recall, controlled walk (heeling), wait, and leave it. Once your dog has a strong and concrete understanding of what they are expected to do and are able to perform on command, it is now time to take the CGC and to move onto the Public Access Training.

Public Access Training/Test (PAT)...

The Public Access Training/Test (PAT) is extremely important in the aspect it shows your dog is able to perform and act approximately in public spaces. I know you probably are asking yourself, isn’t that what the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) Certification states? Well the answer to that is yes and no, the CGC shows that a good is well behaved and minds their handler; however, the PAT shows not only is the dog well behaved and minds their handler, but also they are able to conduct themselves approximately in setting such as a restaurant, a crowded location, being around other animals, loading and unloading from your vehicle on command, off lead, with distractions (noise, movement, food, etc.), the ability to be taken by another individual during emergencies and an overall bonding of the team. For further information on this test go to: Assistance Dogs International Website and it will give an example of what is expected. It is highly recommend that a video is shot and kept for records in case of an issue or a challenge is made about the dog’s training.

One thing I have forgotten to mention is to make sure you have the proper vest, markings, leash and any other equipment for your service dog. Though it is not required, it will help the handler to avoid being challenged every time they walk into a facility where animals are not allowed. This will help with maintaining anxiety levels at a lower level. It is against the law to ask the handler about their disability; however, it isn’t against the law for someone to challenge or ask what type of service animal it is and the tasks that it does for the handler.

PTSD Psychiatric Service Dog: Task

Time to complete our task training

Now that we have passed the CGC and the PAT, it is time to finish up with the individual task the dog will be doing to help its handler. It is recommended to work on these task during all parts of the dog’s training, as it will help to finish its training and becoming a service dog. When it comes to understanding what types of task a Psychiatric Service Dog should know to help their handler and to be justified as a service dog take a look at service dogs task for psychiatric disabilities, as it will go into depth on the different task a dog can be taught in order to be considered a service animal. Some examples are: the ability to bring medication and water to help alleviate symptoms, bring a phone or alerting others during a crisis, assisting the handler with balance on the stairs or to rise and steady themselves, ability to breakup an panic overload, wake handler from nightmare or to get up for work/school, checking the home for intruders and turning on lights, aiding to reduce hyper-vigilance and prevention of strange people from getting too close, etc. In some cases the dog may already understand what the handler needs and begin to perform the task with little to no training and in other cases they will need to be taught what they are being asked to do. In my situation my service dog started to and continues to wake me up at night when I am having a nightmare, she did this on her own and has received much praise and love for it. She also helps me to stand when I’m attempting to get off the floor or out of a chair, since my medication causes dizziness. Though I have had to work with her on this, she basically understood what was happening and started trying to help on her own. In public I am training her to provide me with a spacer to help keep people from getting to close to me in the aspect by providing a buffer for front, side and back. She does this by standing sideways in front of me or doing a reverse heel beside me. This ensures I am able to have a buffer and space around me depending on the situation. This isn’t saying she is aggressive toward people, but it is allowing me to have the space needed to help in the aid of my anxiety and hyper-vigilance. She also is learning how to help me through a panic attack by putting pressure on my upper legs and lower stomach, though she already was trying to help me in this department I am helping her to file tune her skills. These tasks are not hard to teach; however, depending on your dog it might take patients and understanding. A good book to read is “Teamwork II: A Dog Training Manual for People with Disabilities” by Stewart Nordensson and Lydia Kelley. The book aids you in teaching your dog the skills needed for such things as: retrieving and carrying medication, phones, or people for help, to position themselves to your side, front and rear, bracing themselves, going under a table and other skills needed to assist their handler with their disability. It is a good idea to teach and record the different tasks your dog does, as again it will help if you are ever challenged about your dog’s abilities. Note: As a handler a good number of task your dog should be able to perform is a minimum of three; however, the more they know the better they will be able to help you.

Example of people you will run into at some point or another...

Veteran with PTSD thriving thanks to Service Dog

Registering Your Team

Now that you have successfully trained your service dog it might be helpful to register them with the US Service Dog Registry. Though this isn’t mandatory, it is just another level of letting everyone know your dog has been trained and is an important part of your everyday activities. Note: Remember if you are being recognized by any group or organization, you must maintain their training requirements or they could recede their certifications if your team is ever caught doing something that is not following these requirements. Plus legally you can be asked to leave an establishment due to your team’s actions and have no legal right to challenge the owner, manager or staff of the establishment. Basically it comes down to doing the right thing and ensuring your team is properly trained regardless if it is by a professional, a friend, family or yourself. A properly trained and equipped team should never have a problem when it comes to getting access to public places or needed transportation.



Always Remember to Document all your training and keep it in a safe place.

Date and Time, Period of Training, Type of Training or Task Worked On

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    • Ky A Sutherland profile image

      Ky A Sutherland 3 months ago

      I see the author used a training vid that does not have use rights. The owner is proud of his canine, hard work and years of training , but ask first

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