Anxiety Service Dog Training: Lending a Helping Paw

Anxiety Service Dog Training: Lending a Helping Paw

Key Points

  • A service dog assists an individual with a disability, including anxiety.

  • Anxiety service dog training is expensive, but some organizations provide them free of charge.

  • There are steps to perform anxiety service dog training yourself.

  • Dogs sense when a person is feeling stressed.

Have you ever met a superhero with four legs? Maybe you have but just didn't know it. A dog with anxiety service dog training performs a task that opens up your world. They enable you to do things that seem impossible. An anxiety disorder is a scary thing to deal with but a service dog helps you make it through your day-to-day life.

Imagine you have an anxiety attack and an animal with anxiety service dog training puts a stop to it. What does that mean to you? What does that feel like? You now navigate your world with less apprehension and anxiety. You don't have to live in fear anymore.

What's an Anxiety Service Dog?

A service dog is an animal that helps an individual with a disability. Many people automatically think of a seeing-eye dog when picturing a service animal, but some also help people manage their anxiety. This is often referred to as a psychiatric service dog (PSD).

You're not required to get your dog from a certified dog trainer. If you don't have the experience, it's best to leave it to the professionals. Because your dog likely goes with you into public places, a service animal must be well-trained in social situations. A reputable dog breeder or trainer gives their dogs the social skills needed to go out in public.

Any public place must allow you and your service dog access unless the dog doesn't respond to your commands or becomes out of control. This is another reason a professional dog trainer is a good idea. The trainer works with you so that you learn the proper way to control your dog.

Anxiety service dog comfort owner at home

Tasks That Anxiety Service Dogs Perform

Dogs are very intelligent and perform well at a variety of tasks. When you want a service dog to assist with your anxiety, first decide what, specifically, you want the animal to do for you.

In Medical News Today, counselor and psychotherapist, Jayne Leonard, lists roles that anxiety service dogs fulfill:

  • Detecting signs of an anxiety attack before it happens

  • Fetching medication or water during an anxiety attack

  • Bringing someone to help the person in distress

  • Preventing strangers from approaching the person in distress

  • Calming a person down during an anxiety attack through distraction, such as licking their face or providing a paw

  • Providing deep pressure therapy to soothe their owner

  • Retrieving a phone during an anxiety attack

  • Reminding a person to take their medication at certain times of the day

  • Performing safety checks of rooms or turning the lights on for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

This isn't an exhaustive list. You may have other specific triggers that produce anxiety and a service dog does something to help mitigate that feeling. Think about your needs and decide what's within a dog's capabilities that might benefit you the most.

As long as a dog is capable of carrying out a task that assists you with your disability and you're able to control them, they qualify as a service dog.

PSD Training

If you want, you have the choice to get a dog that's already trained as a service animal. You may also already have a dog or know of one that you want for training. As long as the dog has the potential to perform the tasks needed to help you with your disability, it doesn't matter where they came from.

Owner walks their service dog through the park

Professional Training

If you need your service dog right away, consider getting one that's already trained. The training process is very time-intensive and sometimes takes years.

Any dog breed is trainable as a PSD, but some breeds are more suitable for certain tasks. For instance, if you need reminders to take medication, any size dog works. If you suffer from PTSD and need a dog to turn on the lights before you enter a room, a small dog isn't tall enough to reach most light switches.

Particular breeds are also better at calming anxiety because they have a more relaxed demeanor. If you have the option, choose a calm dog breed that's more apt to relieve your anxiety. No matter what your needs are, there are dogs of every size known for experiencing less stress than others.


When deciding whether to get a service dog, the expense may be a major concern. A trained service dog may easily exceed $25,000 in 2023. If your financial situation limits your ability to get a service dog, some organizations offer help.

NEADS World Class Service Dogs offers fundraising opportunities for their clients so they don't end up paying a fee. Instead, clients commit to raising a minimum of $8,000 for their organization. As of 2023, the cost of raising and training a NEADS dog is over $45,000. They allow clients to donate out of pocket instead of fundraising, but unless your dog has a thick wallet, take advantage of the help they offer.

Core training for the NEADS dogs begins in puppyhood. Then, when they're near completion of their training, they're matched with a client and trained with the new owner's specific needs in mind. The client spends 10-14 days with the trainer because humans need some training too.

The American Humane Society has a Pups4Patriots program to provide service dogs to veterans who are suffering from PTSD or traumatic brain injury.

Canine Companions is a non-profit organization that provides service animals at no cost to the recipient. They're run by donations and fundraisers.

Anxiety service dog walks through a congested area

Training Yourself

You may have experience training dogs in the past and want to train your dog. It's a long process and requires a lot of patience.


There are a few advantages to training your dog. One is that you know the desired task that you want your dog to perform and you train them in a way that's specific to your needs. Another advantage is that you don't have to worry about the expense of a professional trainer or coming up with funds to pay for a dog that's already trained.

One other advantage is that you train them in your own controlled environment. You also strengthen the bond between you and your dog throughout the training process.

Steps to Training

If your dog has no training whatsoever, begin with basic commands -- sit, stay, heel, come -- and see how they do. If you or your dog has trouble with this process, consult with a professional trainer. They must be able to master the basics before moving on to anything more complex.

Training a dog to perform a particular task is no different than other types of training. You use a lot of repetition and positive reinforcement until they master the action on their own.

What requires a little more finesse is training your dog to remain calm in stressful situations. You must use desensitization to make sure your dog is unresponsive to anxiety-inducing triggers.

The opening of an umbrella, for instance, is often an action that startles a dog. Start by letting your dog sniff the umbrella and let it lie around the house so that they get used to it. Then, open the umbrella slowly and reward them for acting calmly. Speed up the action a little at a time. They're allowed to react at first as long as they calm down quickly.

This process goes for any other object or action that your dog reacts to. Every dog is unique and has different reactions to various objects or situations. Get to know your dog and observe their tendencies.

Anxiety service dog rests on bed with owner

When training a dog to respond to an oncoming anxiety attack, they must first learn to recognize your state of being while you're calm. Then teach them to respond to signs or "tells" that alert them to an impending episode. If you're unaware of all of your signs, ask friends and family that know you well what they've seen before any of your attacks.

Next, decide what action the dog needs to take to alert or distract you. This may be barking, licking, pawing, or even running around in circles. Show the stressed responses in a controlled environment and reward your dog for responding in the way you want them to.

Your dog may not always need these physical signs, because dogs sense stress in humans. In a 2022 study, researchers Clara Wilson, et al. found that "dogs were able to discriminate, with a high degree of accuracy, between human breath and sweat samples taken at baseline and when experiencing psychological stress."

In a real-life situation, your dog likely knows when you begin to become anxious -- maybe even before you realize it yourself.

Another essential part of training is to make sure your dog is well-socialized. They must get used to being around other people and animals without reacting with fear or aggression.


There are major drawbacks to training your dog yourself as a PSD. When you have anxiety, it's difficult to put yourself in fear-inducing situations. When your dog senses your fearful reactions and isn't yet fully trained, that stress easily transfers from owner to dog and vice versa. The point of having a PSD is to prevent or lessen anxiety, not become part of it.

One thing that helps in a potentially stressful situation is if you give your dog a calming treat before an event that's likely to cause some anxiety for them.

Ultimately, the choice is yours, but a professionally trained service dog is the best option.

Service dog vest worn by a dog

How Do You Qualify?

Qualifying for a service dog isn't difficult. If you're in treatment for a mental health illness, you simply need written documentation from your healthcare provider stating that you're in treatment and that you require a service animal to assist you with your disability.

You're allowed to enter any public place with your anxiety service dog and you don't have to provide documentation. The staff of any business may only ask if you need your dog for a disability and what task the animal performs.

Your service dog also travels for free on airlines. They're allowed to stay with you at your seat as long as they don't encroach into the aisle or the leg space of the passenger next to you.

When traveling, bring along a calming blanket to give them some comfort as they comfort you.

Emotional Support Animal

Are you in need of help with your anxiety right away? Consider getting an emotional support animal (ESA). The ADA doesn't protect the rights of ESA owners, but some local laws allow them to enter public spaces without discrimination.

As mentioned earlier, the training process for a service animal takes a long time. If you have to raise funds to get one, that's a long process as well. In the meantime, get a dog that provides comfort and calms your anxiety.

There's no required training involved and all you need is a letter from your healthcare provider or medical professional recommending it. An ESA isn't allowed the same accommodations as a service dog, but they're given rights by the federal Fair Housing Act. As long as you're able to provide documentation, you aren't denied housing.

Man holds an anxiety service dog while crossing a boardwalk via wheelchair

Saving the Day

If you suffer from anxiety, some tasks seem impossible. A PSD helps you to jump those hurdles. The training is expensive, but take advantage of the programs and non-profit organizations that defer these costs. An anxiety service dog is within your grasp. Just reach out your hand and grab that leash.

Aren't you amazed at all the things anxiety service dog training allows your dog to do? They not only sense that you're about to have an anxiety attack, but they put a stop to it.

Have you ever met a superhero with four legs? Look down at the service dog standing by your side and meet your hero!

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