Life with a service dog comes with it’s own share of challenges . My life is completely different from what it was 12 years ago! Life with a psychiatric service dog is not all sunshine and roses, even though it is filled with kisses and wagging tails!
I’m going to walk you through my experience with my psychiatric service dog(s), past and present. And enlightening you to the cons of life with a service dog.
What is a Psychiatric Service Dog?
Cons of a Psychiatric Service Dog
- You May Not Be Physically or Mentally Able to Care For A Dog
- Service Dogs Have Off Days Too…
- You Will Either Be Put On A Professional’s Wait List or Have To Train Your Service Dog
- People May Not Respect Your Service Dog Or You
- Not All Dogs Make Good Service Dogs
- Planning Ahead Will Become A New Way of Life For You
- You May Have to Rehome a Dog You Love If He Fails Training
- Grooming Is Either Time Consuming or Will Cost You Money
- A Service Dog Career Is Short
- The Death of Your Psychiatric Service Dog (Retired or Active) Will Effect You Deeply
- Are you ready to tackle these psychiatric service dog challenges?
- Cons of a Psychiatric Service Dog
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While I have hacked mental health for over 20 years, that experience does not make me a mental health professional. This content is educational and informative and is not to replace the advice of your mental health team or doctor. For more information, please see my disclosure.
For you to have a legal service dog, you need to have documentation from YOUR mental health doctor or therapist stating how a service dog will improve your life (not a fake online registry or an online doctor that is trying to scam you out of your money). Please consult your doctor to add a service dog to your treatment plan.
What is a Psychiatric Service Dog?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states “a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.”
What are these “tasks” they talk about? A trained psychiatric service dog learns how to perform an action when a trigger (or stimulus) happens. They learn behaviors to help negate mental health issues.
Example: I have PTSD. Nightmares and sleep paralysis plague me when I am overly tired, anxious, or depressed. Koda has been taught to react to my thrashing prior to the paralysis. He will come paw at me to wake me, then lick my face to reorient me back to reality.
A psychiatric service dog does not naturally perform a behavior to help you feel better. It is taught to them. Psychiatric service dogs are taught to perform certain behaviors to improve the mental health of their handler.
So how can something that sounds great be negative? Like everything in life, there is always bad with the good.
Life with a serving dog can benefit you greatly, but it also comes with unique challenges. These challenges may be too much for friends, loved ones, and yourself. And your mental health will suffer if you can’t take the stress that will come with the benefits. So consider these cons carefully with your family and your doctor when you consider life with a service dog. Life with a psychiatric service dog is not for everyone.
If you want to learn the PROS of a psychiatric service dog, read the post below!
Cons of a Psychiatric Service Dog
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You May Not Be Physically or Mentally Able to Care For A Dog
Are you ready to fight your instincts to lay in bed all day and sleep when you’re depressed? What about stay indoors and hide from the world when you’re overly anxious? And when you’re sick, are you ready to get up multiple times a day when your dog alerts or when his needs arise?
A service dog is still a dog. They have emotional, physical, and mental needs that need to be addressed daily. No matter how late I have stayed up, my service dog wakes me up when his bladder calls. Yeah, even when I forgot my medication and fall asleep at 3 am. 8 am comes early even when your sick or stressed.
And if you have trained your dog to alert when you are showing specific signs of depression or anxiety, and want to be left alone, are you ready to have a dog pester you? You can’t lay in bed all day and ignore the world with a service dog. They just don’t let you. It’s their job.
If you really need to be left alone for your psychological needs, a service dog will be an annoyance and not a help.
Are you ready to have a dog with you every moment, in every situation? Are you ready for give up those quick trips and quick stops to your local store? Are you ready to make accommodations for your dog in your daily life? Do you want to take a dog with you on your self care vacation?
When you become a service dog handler, the dog is now classified as medical equipment and is meant to accompany the handler everywhere. You don’t get to leave your dog at home or in the car because it will be faster or easier without him. Would you leave your wheelchair at home? No. You either need the dog to negate your mental illness or you don’t.
Not all lifestyles are suitable for service dogs. Can you imagine an Olympic athletic having to work around having a service dog? Are your favorite hobbies ones you can take a dog along?
You will have to work with hospitals, hotels, businesses, friends, family, and more to accommodate your service dog. But shouldn’t they have to respect my need for a service dog? Yes, they do. But planning ahead only makes a better relationship and easier access for you and your service dog.
Do you want to work with the community, your job, and your family to make your life with a service dog easier? Or are you far too busy for that?
Some service dogs are taught to jump to alert you to distressing symptoms. Can you physical handle a dog’s weight on you? Bumping you until you react appropriately? My dog alerts me to the floor so he can lay on my lap and apply Deep Pressure Therapy. Can you get up off the floor? I’m 38 and some days it’s a lot, especially on a cold hard grocery store floor. Can you physically handle a dog?
A service dog that lays around and has his alerts ignored, quickly learns not to display that behavior anymore. He becomes ineffective. He turns into a pet. Then you have to repeat your training. Do you have the mental and physical energy to practice with your psychiatric service dog?
Life with a service dog is still active, physically and mentally, even when I am staying at home.
Service Dogs Have Off Days Too…
Your psychiatric service dog will not be 100% perfect. There are times where they will have their own ideas or they will be sick.
Recently, my psychiatric service dog in training Koda decided that he wanted to spin while walking. Yup, he was literally spinning and getting tangled in his leash. He wrapped me up in the leash, and himself, and we looked absolutely insane. He looked like he had not trained for the past year to go on this outing. He just wanted to play that day. He did not want to work.
I had to scratch my plans that day and go home because he was just not having it. You cannot take an unruly service dog into businesses. It’s poor manners, and the business has the legal right to ask any service dog team to leave if they are being unruly or disruptive. Too bad if you were going to the walk in pharmacy or the grocery store. You’re going home now.
Your dog will have days where he is sick or tired as well. There are days when your dog is going to have to be at the vet all day for procedures. Do you have the means to care for yourself mentally on those days?
Your dog may also spend a half or full day at the groomers.
Do you have a backup plan for these days? They WILL happen more often than you would like.
While psychiatric service dogs are wonderful 98% of the time, that 2% will leave you without a working psychiatric service dog for the day and leave you feeling vulnerable or frustrated.
You Will Either Be Put On A Professional’s Wait List or Have To Train Your Service Dog
There are two ways to get a psychiatric service dog.
- A professional service dog training service
Many companies breed suitable dogs to offer to their clients. They raise them from birth as service dogs. They are socialized and start training from day 1.
You are required to raise funds for the cost of the dog with a professional service, which could be thousands of dollars or more. This includes all care and training for the dog during his stay with the company. If you need a multi-purpose dog, you could accrue extra cost. I have only seen fees waived for the serving members of the military.
You are also put on a waiting list. I haven’t seen a professional waiting list yet that wasn’t 1-2 years long! If you require a multi-purpose dog, you might wait even longer. Everyone gets put on this list. There is a high demand for well trained psychiatric service dogs. The wait is about 2 years because they are dedicating 2 years of everyday all day training and socialization to the dog.
If they do raise their own temperamentally sound dogs for this line of work, and most of them do, you have little to no say in size, color, or breed. You get the dog they have trained for that line of work.
You are required to attend a series of training courses to help you adjust to life with a service dog, in person. You are responsible for your meals, accommodations, and such. And that’s weekly for however long the service deems. Or you are responsible for travel costs for the trainer and dog to come to your home until they see fit you have graduated from the program.
These programs tend to have a higher success rate due to their strict training, socialization, and intake guidelines for their dogs. But many dogs still fail out of the program because they cannot handle the job.
You can hire a professional trainer to train your dog for you, but you are still looking at thousands of dollars in training fees. More if you want private sessions, and you will probably need them for task training, there will be additional fees.
- You can train your own psychiatric service dog
When you train your own psychiatric service dog, the failure rate goes up, unless you are like me and have spent the time getting a dog training degree. Especially if you don’t have the budget to take the appropriate courses to learn to train your own dog.
You have to teach your dog basic obedience, advance obedience, canine good citizen skills, public access skills, socialization skills, task training, advanced leash skills, off leash skills, and more!
I have spent over a decade of my life learning to train dogs so I could train my own psychiatric service dog. It takes a lot of time, patience, trial and error to learn the skills needed to train your own psychiatric service dog. And I am still learning everyday!
It is a more budget friendly option because once you have learned these skills, you only have to read your training notes from your classes to remember what you did. –Yes, keeping training notes may help you train your next service dog, should you need one. Koda has his own training log to keep track of the hours and training we have done!
It is more time consuming overall. You have to learn how to train dogs, not just how to teach them down, sit, etc. You have to learn how a dog learns, what motivates them, what to do when your teaching plan fails, etc. It is not easy being the person making all the decisions and doing all the teaching. It’s like being a parent but to an alien.
A service dog is required to have 300 hours MINIMUM of training. Half of that being that first year of intense socialization. The rest is basic and advanced obedience, canine good citizen, public access, and task training.
If you decide to rescue a dog, you may have to also retrain the dog to solve problem behaviors such as barking, digging, anxiety, etc. It took me a total of 4 years to train my previous service dog.
People May Not Respect Your Service Dog Or You
Be prepared to join the club of frustrated service dog handlers who just want to be left alone. Service dog etiquette is frustrating to say the least. Since the ADA rules are so broad to protect those with disabilities, the public’s perception of service dogs are as well. And service dog etiquette isn’t quite on it’s feet yet.
Bad Things That have Happened With My Service Dog
- People trap me in the aisles so they can get a better view of the dog or talk to me about the dog. –As a service dog handler, you will frequently get questions about your dog and how to get one.
- People talk about me loudly. “Oh look! Wonder what’s wrong with her that she needs a service dog?”
- People ask me what’s medically wrong with me. Please don’t do this if you see a service dog handler.
- Adults will fight with me to pet the service dog, especially if their kids want to pet the dog. Even when told no, people will still try to pet the dog. There are some really nice and respectful people out there as well, but the bad ones will make you want to become a hermit. –There is no law or rule stating the public cannot pet a service dog. It is just highly frowned upon because it distracts the dog from his job. Your dog is likely to miss alerting if he is being petted. Which in multipurpose service dogs or medical alert service dogs, can be very debilitating to the handler.
- I have been physically and verbally assaulted for having a “dog” in a grocery store. No, people do not care it is a service dog.
- Kids feel the need to jump at and bark at the service dog when he is not on duty. –I have a really kid friendly neighborhood. And kids can run around and not have to worry about being kidnapped from strangers. We look out for each other’s kids here. But kids will be kids and they want to see a dog bark and lunge at them so they can run away.
- People will trap you in or out of your car making it hard to load your service dog. –I had to put large service dog vehicle stickers on 3 sides of my vehicle and still have to wait for cars to move some days.
- I have lost friends because I was now too much too handle. The service dog drew too much attention to us, they didn’t want to ride with a dog in the car, etc.
- Some family members have prohibited my service dog from entering their home during family events. Out of respect, I do not go to their home. You may get left out of parties, weddings, etc because of your service dog.
- There will be people who bring their untrained dogs or ESAs into public spaces where they should not be. -Emotional Support Animals only have airplane and housing rights as their presence eases their handlers anxiety or depression. They do not have rights to go to public places. ESA’s are untrained dogs that give their handler emotional support, hence the name. Basic or advanced obedience skills do not make an ESA a service dog. Service dogs that are trained to handle the stress, distractions, and pressures of a active environment as well as alert and respond to the handler as they were trained to do.
You will not go unscathed as a service dog handler. Are you prepared to advocate for yourself and your dog?
Not All Dogs Make Good Service Dogs
Dogs come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and personalities. Unfortanately, 50-60% of them do not have what it takes to be a service dog.
Dogs fail the training program for:
- Aggression of any kind
- Inability to do the Tasks
- Health Problems
- Too Loud
- Too Unruly
- Too Excitable
And about 70% of dogs fail out of the program after they start training. Out of 6 dogs that I have trained for this job, only 50% of them have actually worked for my needs. Two of which went onto an early retirement due to issues being taken seriously as a service dog due to their size. Small dogs, while very travel friendly, tend to be seen as pets more often by the public. If you are non confrontational in nature, a small service dog is not for you.
Planning Ahead Will Become A New Way of Life For You
There is no spontaneous trips in my life anymore. Doordash, Amazon, and other delivery services are my new best friend because I do not have to pack up to leave. There are NO quick trips when you have a service dog.
While I like to leave the house light (a cell phone and a mini wallet for my 2 debit cards), I need gear and supplies for my service dog.
There is his vest, collar, leash, dog potty bags, a travel mat if he’s laying for too long, and treats for difficult situations. That’s his quick trip supplies! –While a service dog is not required to have a vest or identification, it will make your life as a service dog handler MUCH EASIER!
That trip to Busch Garden’s is a challenge. Not only do I need to plan for the stay overnight, I plan for the pavement temperature, how many people will be there, what he can eat during the day while we are there, how much water to bring, etc.
There are even more challenges the longer we are traveling. From dog friendly stops to hotels with grass, the challenges are never ending when you have a psychiatric service dog at your side.
You May Have to Rehome a Dog You Love If He Fails Training
At some point, a dog is bound to fail training. If he is in a professional training program, the dog is adopted out just like a rescue dog would be.
But if you are training your own service dog, you will have to make some difficult choices.
Do you live in an apartment with a no pet policy? (*note: service dogs do not apply to these policies. See the ADA link above for details.) When you service dog in training flunks out of the program, they become a pet. Which is NOT protected under ADA law.
Are you unable to care for another dog other than your service dog?
Do you really want to leave that dog alone while you and your new dog go out training, running errands, and going places a pet is not allowed?
Many owners choose to rehome any flunked dogs as they will do well in a family setting with the training they have received thus far.
I was very lucky to have the opportunity to be a stay at home mom and was able to keep Mischa after she flunked out of the program. She and retired service dog Chloe absolutely love each other and keep each other company, often sleeping and eating together.
Grooming Is Either Time Consuming or Will Cost You Money
Grooming is non negotiable with a service dog. A psychiatric service dog, just like other service dogs, needs to be well maintained.
- Nails need to be clipped and should not clack on the floor so the dog has a comfortable stride.
- Dog should be brushed so loose fur is removed prior to going out on errands.
- The psychiatric service dog should be regularly bathed and smell pleasant at all times.
- The psychiatric service dog’s coat should look well managed.
- And if you don’t want to groom your psychiatric service dog yourself, you’ll pay for it often.
Koda is a husky/ german shepherd mix. Which means some point on his body is shedding. He is brushed before every outing to remove loose fur that may end up on floors. Nobody wants little fur balls on the grocery store floor.
You may have to get your service dog groomed more often than a pet, depending on your lifestyle.
I own multiple dog brushes, dog shampoos, and dog wipes so I can do quick or deep cleans on my current service dog. I also hand file nails to reduce marks from freshly clipped nails. I trim up excessively long booty hairs. I routinely groom my pup to be pleasing to others as well as sanitary.
A Service Dog Career Is Short
If you get your dog as a puppy and start training right away, you are starting your dog’s career at about 2-3 years of age depending on your training speed.
Zeak started out as an an emotional support dog to help ease my anxiety at home. Then progressed to psychiatric service dog training after my therapist suggested we add him to my treatment plan. He was 5 when he graduated from training.
While Zeak had an abnormally long career of 12 years (he was 17 years old when he retired), most dogs retire somewhere between 7-10 years of age. That is about 5-7 years. And you should be working on acquiring and training a new service dog prior to your dog’s retirement.
A dog may retire earlier if they lose interest in the work, lose their mobility, or their health becomes an issue. And in extreme cases, the dog’s death cuts the dog’s career tragically short.
The Death of Your Psychiatric Service Dog (Retired or Active) Will Effect You Deeply
Just a few months after Zeak retired, he tragically passed from a very hard to diagnose tumor that ruptured. He has a clean bill of health two months earlier. It was just that fast growing!
He was happy and active that morning, started tiring in the afternoon, and at dinner I knew something was wrong when he snubbed his food. And would not come snuggle with me. He couldn’t get up to do it.
We ultimately let him go to the Rainbow Bridge as dog’s with his prognosis only live 4-6 months IF they have surgery. They pass within the week if they do not. It is always terminal and he lived a good life. I didn’t want him to spend his last months in pain.
His death absolutely DESTROYED me. Not only did I lose my best friend, I lost a part of my journey and a part of myself.
I kept his collar, seen below, around my wrist for weeks. Yes, weeks. Seeing little bits of his fur, his favorite bed, and his favorite toys kept me in tears for weeks. i have suffered the loss of many dogs before him, but when you lose a pet you loose a companion. When you lose a service dog, it feels like your have lost your life line.
Zeak’s death was only a year ago, in April 2021. There are no words to describe the deep level of grief you have for losing a psychiatric service dog. Your body, mind, and soul hide from the pain. You are trying so desperately to cope without your support system. He was the dog that first took my pain away and gave me my life back when no one and nothing else had before. And he was gone.
It sent me into darkness. A place I hadn’t lived since 2007 when we had first became a team. I felt like there was no light and no happiness in the world. I wasn’t suicidal. But I couldn’t think. I felt I had died with him. I was just a husk of my normally pleasant bubbly self.
When your service dog dies, you feel unanchored with the world. All that anxiety and depression floods to the surface. For the first time in years, you have to do it all on your own. And it is debilitating. Your mental health can quickly deteriorate, and your may have to increase your treatment plan or spend time in a mental health institute to get back to a happy place again.
Are you ready to tackle these psychiatric service dog challenges?
These psychiatric service dog challenges will make an impact on your mental health and daily life. Weigh them carefully when you talk to your family and mental health team about adding a psychiatric service dog to your life.
For more information about the PROS of life with a psychiatric service dog, subscribe! I always release information to my subscribers first! The pros list will be coming soon to the blog!