Psychiatric Service Dogs vs Therapy Dogs: Learn The Difference

Many people interpret psychiatric service dogs and therapy dogs as similar and sometimes even interchangeable, but they do have differences. The first distinct difference is in the ‘service’ added after psychiatric. That one word makes all the difference, especially when it comes to the law. Keep reading to learn the difference between a psychiatric service dog and a therapy dog.

It is important to take note that it does not strictly confine disabilities to those that are physical. In fact,  service dogs can provide aid to those with mental illness by performing tasks like reminding them when to take their medications or alerting people suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) of an impending anxiety attack. My Psychiatric MindDog Toby, reacts when I dissociate and places his paws on my lap and licks my face in an attempt to ‘bring me back’ to reality. He also sleeps by my bed and wakes me when I am having a nightmare. Basically, service dogs are not confined to helping people with physical and overtly visual disabilities, as is the case with service animals owned by diabetic handlers.

The the tasks a dog can perform are carefully considered. A service dog is usually trained with the needs of his/her handler in mind. So if the handler will need help with stability getting up and down, the dog will be trained to provide that stability. Psychiatric service dogs are no different from any other service animal in this sense.

For example at Pawsitivity, psychiatric service dog help diffuse any situations that might cause their handlers to have a panic attack through tactile stimulation. They may also help their handlers get through the day by performing simple tasks like waking up their owners. In times of severe crisis, psychiatric service animals could also be trained to fetch their handlers’ phones, and in some cases, even call for help.

Under the ADA, service dogs have access to public areas and may not be prevented from accompanying their handlers even if there is a “No Pets” rule in place. Since service dogs provide valuable aid to people with debilitating disabilities, they are seen as more of an extension of their handler. A service animal’s open public access under the law is the line that differentiates a psychiatric service dog from a therapy dog.

Therapy dogs are not classified as service dogs and are often also called emotional support animals. Almost one in five Australians have experienced symptoms of a mental disorder during the 12 month period. Anxiety disorders were most common – 14.4%, followed by affective disorders – 6.2% (of which depression is 4.1%), and substance use disorders – 5.1% (of which 4.3% is alcohol related). A severe mental health disorder can prevent or hinder a person from doing everyday tasks thereby affecting a person’s quality of life.

People with debilitating mental illnesses utilise psychiatric service dogs to get through the day. For people who experience not-so-severe anxiety attacks or have to deal with milder forms of mental illnesses, therapy dogs are prescribed. A therapy dog can provide comfort and even distract a patient from any stressful thoughts or situations through play or hugs. A therapy dog can not work or perform tasks, like alerting the patient to take their medications on time. They are not trained nor have the instinct to perform the tasks of a service dog as well.

Therapy dogs are seen more as part of a treatment plan for patients rather than extensions of their handlers like psychiatric service animals. They are also not entitled to the same access that services dogs are able to take advantage of.

I would love to hear from you so please leave a comment. All feedback is much appreciated. Thank you. Erin