A psychiatric service dog can be trained to do incredible things. One thing you might have never thought of training your service animal to do is helping with self harming behaviors, and yes, nail biting is a self harming behavior.
People who suffer from ADHD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or other mental health challenges may exhibit self harming behavior. Self harming behavior can include scratching, picking at skin or nails, pulling hairs, burning, or hitting themselves.
Oftentimes, self harming behaviors are started unconsciously, meaning the behavior is not intentional and the person doesn’t realize it’s happening until the harm takes place. It can be difficult to stop, especially if the behavior is compulsive.
Service dogs can be trained to identify self harming behaviors and intercept them to prevent the handler from causing harm
If you have a disability such as severe OCD or ADHD, a service dog can perform a task to help you with that disability. This is often referred to as a psychiatric service dog because they help people with psychiatric disabilities rather than physical disabilities, like being blind or deaf.
Intervention could look like placing a paw over the handler’s hand to help them notice the behavior, licking their ankle or hand to get their attention, or biting at the handler’s clothing to pull the hand away. A service dog could also apply pressure to the handler’s chest or leg to help bring awareness to the moment, or even give an alert bark to get their attention.
Self harm is an invisible disability that psychiatric service dogs can support
It can be difficult for people with psychiatric disabilities to maintain their service animal in public because their disability is often invisible, and people don’t understand why they would need a service animal. This is one of the reasons it is so important to normalize mental health conversations. It’s also a good reminder not to judge people by their looks because we never know what struggles a person is facing on the inside.
Rather than reveal medical history or share personal, sensitive information about your mental health challenges, many people prefer to simply identify the dog as a service animal with ID cards, vests, or certificates. While it is not required and the American Disability Act does not recognize any registry as being “official”, it is often preferred as the best method to avoid disputes.
Know that if a business or landlord does ask for a certificate or doctor’s letter, this is not something the American Disability Act allows. See the latest FAQ direct from the ADA.
If you are flying with your psychiatric service dog, Airlines now require handlers to fill out a DOT form, which can be found here.
Doctor’s letters are also not required to maintain a service animal. If someone does ask you for a doctor’s letter, you can talk to your primary care provider, a licensed therapist, or a social worker you have a relationship with. Although it is not required, it may be preferable to trying to educate.
If you or someone you know has struggled with self harming behavior, talk to your therapist or doctor about ways of coping. If you have a dog you want to train to become a service animal, it’s simple enough to self train if your dog has a good temperament for being a service dog.
Service dogs need good behavior training and they need to be very focused on the handler. You can use clicker training to reward them for looking at you and paying attention to you. From there you can manually show them the action you want them to do and give them treats for doing it. Practice often until they understand it. If you are looking for resources on self training, check out the post, Guide to Psychiatric Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals. We have great recommendations
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