Service dogs have a long history of providing assistance to people with physical challenges and are increasingly used to aid those with psychiatric challenges. Psychiatric service dogs are extensively trained to perform specific tasks to meet the individualized needs of their handler and are permitted access to public places in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).1
Psychiatric service dogs can be trained to assist people living with bipolar disorder as well as other mental health challenges, including autism, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and panic disorder. The tasks a service dog is trained to perform to aid someone living with bipolar disorder depend on the individual’s circumstances and personal challenges and needs.
The Role of Service Dogs for Bipolar Disorder
The ultimate function of a psychiatric service dog is to alleviate or diminish the negative effects of bipolar disorder on the handler’s life. Examples of tasks a dog might be trained to perform for its human partner include:
- Bring medication or remind their partner to take prescribed medicine at a specific time(s)
- Awaken their partner at a specific time each day
- Remind their partner to go to bed at a specific time to keep sleep cycles regular
- Bring a portable phone to their partner or call 9-1-1 if the handler exhibits behaviors that might indicate a manic episode or severe depression
- Interrupt potentially dangerous behaviors in their partner by nudging, nagging, or distracting with play
- Alert the handler to the telephone, doorbell, or smoke alarm if their partner is asleep or possibly sedated due to medication
- Calm or interrupt hypomanic or manic behaviors by leaning into their partner, or placing their head in the handler’s lap
- Provide a link to reality if their partner experiences delusions during a manic episode2
While not considered a service dog function per se, the emotional support provided by a canine helper is often as valuable as the tasks the animal performs.
The presence of the dog can also help ground an individual with bipolar disorder and introduce a sense of stability and routine.
Laws Relating to Service Dogs
It is important to note that to qualify for the protections and allowances of the ADA, both the individual and the canine must meet specific criteria. In short, an individual must have a disability and a service dog must be specifically trained to meet the needs imposed by that disability.
- An individual with a disability is defined by the ADA as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.
- The ADA defines a service animal like a dog individually trained to do work or perform specific tasks to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. If a dog meets this definition, it is considered a service animal under the ADA, regardless of whether it has been licensed or certified by a state or local government.3
Importantly, a psychiatric service dog differs from an emotional support dog, also called a comfort dog. While emotional support dogs certainly provide love, companionship, and comfort to their human partners, they are not trained to perform specific tasks that aid the handler in daily functioning. As such, emotional support dogs are not covered under the ADA.3
If you’re living with bipolar disorder and considering getting a psychiatric service dog or an emotional support dog, talk with your doctor to determine what type of canine companion is best for you. A psychiatric service dog involves a considerable financial commitment because of the extensive training required, which may take up to two years to complete. Depending on your specific needs, however, you may consider this an invaluable investment.