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Getting Started with Tasks

Many people starting their exploration of psychiatric service dog (PSDs) get stuck on "task lists." Save yourself some time by approaching tasks from the front end instead of trying to shop for tasks off-the-rack. I understand that task-shopping can be appealing for a person who doesn't know what a PSD can do, but it can get a person in trouble if they are ever in a position to prove their dog is legally a service dog.

Start by listing off the things you cannot do for yourself. Be very scientific in evaluating each item. Instead of listing "cannot leave the house," look deeper into what it is that is preventing you from doing it. If the answer is "fear," then ask "of what?"

Let's try an example.

A person cannot leave her home. It is because of fear. She fears her home will catch on fire in her absence and her cats will be killed. If she wasn't worried about her cats or a fire, then she could leave her home. The specific fear is of a smoldering electrical fire. One thing she does to make it easier to leave is to unplug all electrical cords before leaving, but that doesn't mean the smoldering hasn't already started before she unplugged everything. She has smoke alarms all over the house to warn her of smoke, but they aren't sensitive enough to tell her when something is smoldering. If she just had a way to check whether anything was smoldering after she unplugged everything and before she left she would be able to talk herself into going.

Fortunately, her dog's sense of smell is very much more powerful than her own. She knows that dogs can detect things as little as narcotics, cancer cells, even a single fingerprint on a pane of glass. She could put that terrific nose to good use if her dog could just tell her whether there were any wires smoldering.

A dog can be taught to search for a specific, named scent and signal the handler when they find it. This training is just like the professionals use to train drug dogs. She has her dog trained to detect smoldering smoke and run back and forth between her and the origin of the odor to show her.

Now let's compare that truly helpful task with what a person might have picked from a list of canned tasks: "Fear of what could happen," task = "Tactile Stimulation." Would having a dog solicit and stand still for petting really have solved her problem? She might feel better (most people do when petting a dog), but would the dog have actually done anything that truly helped her overcome her limitation?

U.S. Federal law requires that to be considered a service dog the dog must be trained to do something which mitigates the person's disability. If a person wants their dog to have legal status as a service dog, then it must be task-trained. The Department of Justice has determined that emotional support, such as petting and cuddling, do not constitute trained tasks as these are natural behaviors of dogs. Some of these so-called task lists can give a person a false impression that their dog is a service dog simply because it does something on the list. People tend to believe what they read on the internet, even if it isn't true, and especially if it is something they wish is true.