A service dog is one that has been trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Examples include guiding a person who is blind or taking protective action when a person is having a seizure.

Service dogs were once exclusively used by people with physical disabilities. They’re now also used by people with mental illnesses. Service dogs can help people with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

To be recognized as a service dog under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), the tasks a dog has been trained for must be tied to a person’s disability. Dogs whose only function is to provide emotional support or comfort don’t qualify as service animals under the ADA.

Physical vs. invisible disability

According to the ADA, an individual with a disability must meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • has a physical or mental impairment that significantly limits the ability to perform one or more major life functions
  • has a history of an impairment that meets this description
  • is seen by others as having an impairment that meets this description

Unlike a physical disability that may be obvious due to the use of an assistive device, such as a wheelchair or cane, an invisible disability is an impairment that’s not immediately apparent.

The term “invisible disability” encompasses many medical conditions (including mental and neurological) that are invisible to an onlooker. Depression is one of these conditions.

According to a 2014 report by the U.S. Census Bureau, 27 million adults were frequently depressed or anxious to an extent that seriously interfered with everyday activities.

If your depression meets the criteria set out in the ADA’s definition of a disability, you qualify to have a service dog for depression.

A service dog for depression may also be referred to as a psychiatric service dog. This is not to be confused with an emotional support animal or therapy dogs, which are not recognized as service animals by the ADA.

Here are the key differences:

Psychiatric service dog

A psychiatric service dog is trained to recognize and respond to their handler’s disability by performing work or tasks. The handler must have a mental or psychiatric disability that limits one or more major life activity.

The ADA protects service animals and allows public access so that the dog can go anywhere its handler goes. A service dog is not considered a pet.

Emotional support animal

An emotional support animal is a pet that provides comfort or emotional support to a person. Unlike a service animal, an emotional support animal doesn’t need to be trained to perform specific tasks.

The ADA doesn’t cover emotional support animals so they do not have legal public access. They’re only covered under the Fair Housing Act and Air Carrier Act. This means the only places that are legally required to permit an emotional support animal are housing units and aircraft.

Therapy dogs

Therapy dogs are trained to engage with many people other than a primary handler. These dogs are used to provide comfort and affection as a form or psychological or physiological therapy to people in hospitals, nursing homes, and hospices. They do not have the same legal public access as service dogs.

All three types of service animal can be beneficial to a person with depression. The type that is best for you depends on your needs. Psychiatric service dogs are working animals and not considered pets. They’re extensively trained to perform specific tasks, such as reminding you to take your medication or leading you to someone if you’re in crisis.

An emotional support animal isn’t trained to perform any tasks, but can provide you with a therapeutic presence which can be comforting and uplifting.

To qualify for a service dog for depression, you must have a letter from a licensed mental health professional stating that your depression prevents you from performing at least one major life task without assistance on a daily basis. A licensed mental health professional can be a psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist, or social worker.

You must also be able to:

  • participate in the dog’s training
  • finance maintenance and veterinary care for the life of the dog
  • be able to independently command the dog

The cost of a service dog is not covered by Medicaid or Medicare, or by any private insurance company. Some nonprofit organizations offer service animals for free or at a reduced cost. Many of these programs have long waiting lists. You can also pay to train a dog as a psychiatric service dog.

A psychiatric service dog can be trained to perform a wide range of tasks to help someone with depression. These include tasks related to assisting during a crisis, helping you cope with emotional overload, and providing treatment-related assistance.

The following are specific tasks that a service dog for depression can perform:

  • remind you to take medication
  • bring you a phone during a crisis so you can contact support
  • call 911 or any other preprogrammed emergency number for help
  • identify and help with medication side effects
  • provide tactile support when you’re overwhelmed
  • prevent emotional overload at home
  • provide an excuse to leave a room if you feel upset with a discrete signal

If you don’t qualify for a service dog for depression, you can still consider an emotional support animal. These animals provide comfort and companionship, but they’re not eligible for the same protection as service dogs in public places.

Emotional support animals are allowed in all housing units and able to fly for free. Emotional support animals are usually dogs or cats, but can include other animals.

There are a number of other treatment options for depression available as well. A combination of medication and therapy is often successful in managing depression. There are also lifestyle changes and alternative treatments that can help you cope with depression.

Treatment options for depression include:

Speak to your therapist about other treatment options for depression. If you don’t have one, you can find a mental health professional online through the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) or by calling 800-950-NAMI.

If you would like to adopt a service dog for depression, speak to a mental health professional. They can determine if you would benefit from having one.

To learn more about service dogs, such as training and costs, contact one of the many organizations that train and place psychiatric service dogs. Some of these organizations include: