How to train a dog to assist with anxiety and panic attacks?

March 19, 2024

In an era where mental health conversations are increasingly normalized, an unexpected ally shows up: dogs. These lovable creatures have always been known for their loyalty and companionship. Still, their capacity to provide emotional support for people dealing with anxiety and panic disorder is a lesser-known fact. This article aims to provide a comprehensive guide for training your furry friend to become a reliable companion in moments of emotional distress, acting as service animals for psychiatric health.

Understanding the Role of Dogs as Emotional Support Animals

Before diving into the training process, it’s essential to understand the role of dogs in this context. Often referred to as emotional support animals or service dogs, these are not your ordinary pets.

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Emotional support dogs offer comfort, companionship, and the potential to reduce symptoms of anxiety and other mental health conditions. They don’t necessarily need specific training like a service dog but should be well-behaved in public.

On the other hand, psychiatric service dogs are trained specifically to perform tasks and recognize behaviors that their handler is unable to do due to a psychiatric disorder. This could include sensing an impending panic attack and taking action to distract or comfort the handler.

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The Importance of Selecting the Right Dog

Not every dog can handle the responsibilities of being an emotional support or service animal. It requires a specific temperament and the ability to remain calm and focused in various situations. Factors such as breed, age, and health status can also influence a dog’s ability to fulfill this role.

When selecting a dog for this purpose, you are not necessarily limited to a specific breed. However, the dog should show signs of being patient, calm, and responsive to training. Puppies may be more challenging to train due to their high energy levels and short attention span. In contrast, an older dog could already have ingrained habits that may be difficult to break.

Training Your Dog for Anxiety and Panic Disorder Support

The training process for a dog to support individuals with anxiety or panic disorder is often multi-layered and requires patience. It is necessary to start with basic obedience skills, which lay the foundation for more advanced training.

Teach your dog to sit, stay, lie down, and come when called. This forms the base of good behavior and is necessary for more complex tasks.

Next, you should familiarize your dog with anxiety and panic symptoms. This could include rapid breathing, increased heart rate, or other visible signs of distress. Once the dog is familiar with these signs, they can be trained to respond appropriately. This may involve coming close to their owner to provide physical comfort or performing a specific task to distract the individual and help them refocus.

Professional Assistance in Dog Training

While it’s possible to train a service dog yourself, it can be a complex process. Professional dog trainers who specialize in service dog training can be immensely helpful. These individuals understand canine behavior in depth and have the techniques to shape this behavior effectively.

Trainers also help socialize the dog, which is crucial for emotional support animals. Dogs must be comfortable around various people and in different environments, especially if their owner frequents public spaces. Trainers can provide consistent and controlled exposure to various situations, ensuring your dog stays calm and focused.

Ensuring Your Dog’s Wellbeing

While training your dog to become a support animal, it’s vital to prioritize their welfare. Dogs are sentient beings with their own emotions and needs. They shouldn’t be considered merely as tools for managing mental health conditions.

Ensure your dog gets plenty of exercises, a balanced diet, regular vet check-ups, and plenty of love and attention. It’s also vital to give them time to just be dogs. Allow them to play, explore, and have fun. This not only keeps them happy but also contributes to their overall health and stamina, making them more effective in their role as support animals.

In summary, training a dog to assist with anxiety and panic attacks involves understanding their role, selecting the right dog, proper training, and ensuring their wellbeing. With love, patience, and consistency, your furry friend can become a significant part of your mental health support system. Remember, having a support dog does not replace professional mental health services but can be a valuable addition to a comprehensive treatment plan.

Educating the Public about Psychiatric Service Dogs

One of the greatest challenges faced by those with service animals is public misunderstanding. It’s crucial to educate others about the role of psychiatric service dogs and the legal rights of their handlers. Under the American Disability Act (ADA), service dogs are allowed in public places where pets are generally not permitted. This includes restaurants, grocery stores, libraries, and on public transportation. Unfortunately, handlers often face discrimination or intrusion from the public not familiar with these laws or the function of service dogs.

Public education can go a long way in ensuring respect for these animals and their handlers. This involves spreading awareness about the various tasks performed by service dogs, including aiding individuals with anxiety and panic disorders. Notably, unlike pets, these dogs are working and should not be petted, distracted, or otherwise disturbed without the handler’s permission.

Additionally, it’s critical to emphasize the difference between emotional support animals and service dogs. While emotional support animals offer comfort, service dogs are trained for specific tasks related to their handler’s disability. This distinction is necessary to minimize confusion and help maintain the integrity of service dogs’ work.

The Difference Dogs Make in Dealing with Anxiety and Panic Disorders

The benefits of having a service dog for individuals dealing with anxiety and panic disorders are immeasurable. These dogs provide a constant source of comfort, companionship, and support. For some, they are a lifeline, providing the means to live independently and navigate the world despite their mental health condition.

Research has shown that service dogs can lower stress levels, reduce feelings of isolation, and provide a sense of security. Moreover, their ability to detect and respond to panic attacks can be a significant relief for those constantly living in fear of their next episode.

Furthermore, service dogs can also motivate their handlers to maintain a routine, get regular exercise, and engage in social activities—all of which are beneficial for mental health. This multifaceted role of service dogs makes them indispensable to their handlers.


Training a dog to assist with anxiety and panic attacks is a thorough and painstaking process that demands patience, dedication, and proper understanding. The journey from selecting the right dog and teaching basic obedience skills to recognizing symptoms of anxiety and panic disorders is an intensive one. However, the invaluable companionship and support these service animals provide make every effort worthwhile.

Remember, while a support dog can be a significant asset, it should not be viewed as a replacement for professional mental health services. Rather, they should be seen as a valuable addition to a comprehensive treatment plan.

It’s also essential to prioritize the dog’s wellbeing throughout the process, ensuring they get regular exercise, a balanced diet, and necessary veterinary care. Above all, they should be allowed to enjoy being dogs, exploring their environment, playing, and having fun.

As we continue to normalize conversations around mental health, it’s equally important to acknowledge the role of these incredible animals in supporting individuals with anxiety and panic disorders. Their unwavering loyalty, intuition, and compassionate companionship truly make them a man’s best friend.