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SAMHSA News - March/April 2008, Volume 16, Number 2

Guest Speaker: Psychiatric Service Dogs Are Helping

By Leslie Quander Wooldridge

Editor’s note: Each year, SAMHSA staff members are invited to hear guest speakers present information on a variety of topics of interest.

Anna* has schizophrenia, and Paxil helps her to discern whether she is hallucinating.

But Paxil doesn’t refer to the widely-known medication for anxiety—Paxil is the name of her service dog.

Many people are familiar with the images of seeing-eye dogs that guide their owners across busy streets. Others may be familiar with service dogs that alert their hearing-impaired owners to sounds such as doorbells and phones.

But a new grassroots movement is bringing forth another class of service dogs—a class that may not be instantly recognizable to members of the public.

Psychiatric service dogs are supporting owners who are disabled by mental illness, and these dogs are trained to do therapeutic work and perform daily tasks.

“When it comes to mental health disabilities, we’re usually talking about invisible disabilities,” said Joan Esnayra, Ph.D., founder of the Psychiatric Service Dog Society in Virginia.

Recently, Dr. Esnayra visited SAMHSA to present at an in-service event for Agency’s Center for Mental Health Services. She is a trained geneticist who founded the society in 2001. As the owner of two psychiatric service dogs who help her manage bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, she personally has seen the benefits that service dogs can bring.

Lending Support

Just as traditional service dogs assist owners by performing physical tasks such as guiding, retrieving, and pulling, Dr. Esnayra explained that psychiatric service dogs also help with physical tasks. These dogs can be trained to interrupt dissociative episodes, provide timely medication reminders, and create safe personal boundaries for their owners.

They also perform “work” for their handlers through therapeutic functions.

Psychiatric service dogs may bark or nudge handlers who suffer from panic disorders in order to alert them to oncoming panic attacks, detecting these attacks perhaps through an olfactory cue. These animals also can help ease dizziness by bracing or leaning against handlers.

“When physiology changes, dogs notice,” said Dr. Esnayra, noting that when dogs exhibit uncharacteristic behavior, such as pacing, staring, or vocalizing, the dogs may be ”alerting” to an incipient episode.

“With reliable canine alerting, you have choices in how to manage or subvert the episode using cognitive skills, risk reduction behaviors, or PRN [given as needed] medication,” she explained. “Canine alerting behaviors facilitate the development of insight in the client, and this makes all the difference between functioning and not functioning.”

In addition to providing valuable alerts to handlers, these dogs also provide support for everyday activities. For example, service dogs have helped people with agoraphobia venture out in public again.

“This is a 24/7 human-canine partnership,” Dr. Esnayra explained, as her two ginger-colored Rhodesian Ridgebacks looked on. “Even if someone doesn’t fully comprehend the mechanisms of this intervention, they can still benefit from it.”

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Training Tasks

In general, there are three aspects of service dog training: basic obedience, public access skills, and disability-related tasks or therapeutic functions (work).

Owners of service dogs are not required to obtain professional training services, but Dr. Esnayra noted that the assistance of a professional can be valuable. “The law allows you to train your own service dog,” she said, also recommending that handlers join the listserv of the Psychiatric Service Dog Society to obtain expert guidance that can be passed on to a professional dog trainer.

Dr. Esnayra said there are about 5,000 psychiatric service dogs throughout the Nation, and handlers should expect to train their dogs for about a year before dogs can begin working.

Dogs of many breeds can be service animals, but Dr. Esnayra warned against high-energy breeds such as Dalmatians and Jack Russell Terriers.

Although many people may want to rescue dogs from shelters and prepare them for service dog training, Dr. Esnayra says purebred puppies from show breeders offer the least risk medically, as the ancestry of these dogs is known and training can begin early.

She added that training is an ongoing and essential process, so handlers should be prepared to invest the requisite time and money.

She also pointed out that psychiatric service dogs are not pets under the law and are permitted in restaurants, for example. However, even though service dogs legally can accompany handlers into public areas, handlers may face some resistance, especially because they are invisibly disabled.

So, the society founder said handlers should learn about service dog access laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act, and their own state laws.

“This is a do-it-yourself situation, and it takes a long time,” Dr. Esnayra explained. But as her two dogs watched her with rapt attention, she continued, “I happen to think the human/canine partnership is a sacred honor.”

For more information on the Psychiatric Service Dog Society, or to read the related literature, visit For more information on mental health, visit

* A pseudonym

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