When you’re in recovery from addiction or a mental health disorder like anxiety or depression, it’s normal to experience episodes of loneliness, fear, confusion, low self-esteem, lack of motivation, and worry over your future. While you’ve learned a lot about your condition during rehab, psychotherapy, and support group participation, you may want to explore the mental health benefits of therapy dogs or service animals as you continue your healing journey.
The Benefits of a Service Animal for a Mental Health Condition
Pets are commonplace in America, with 63 percent of families having them in the household. Besides the fact that pets are often cute and cuddly and can help children develop traits of responsibility and caring, there are also distinct benefits of pets for mental health.
Benefits of a service animal may be particularly valuable for those family members who suffer from anxiety or depression and those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A bipolar disorder service dog, for example, in addition to providing supportive pro-social interaction, may help the individual with bipolar disorder better cope with the condition’s roller coaster of emotional swings, helping to ensure medication is taken as prescribed.
In general, service animals and therapy dogs can help individuals with mental health conditions and disorders by:
- Promoting a greater sense of independence.
- Fostering motivation.
- Bolstering a desire for self-improvement.
- Providing companionship.
- Increasing confidence in social settings.
- Alerting their owners to potential dangers.
- Pulling or pushing them out of harm’s way.
- Serving as reminders for health-related actions.
- Mitigating isolation and loneliness.
Psychiatric service dogs, and service dogs in general, must be individually trained to meet their handler/owner’s specific needs. For example, they can be trained to:
- Guide someone who’s disoriented.
- Help the person who panics in a crowd find an exit or family member.
- Do a room search to alleviate hypervigilance in someone with PTSD so they can safely enter.
- Signal during fire alarms, weather alerts or other sounds.
- Re-direct or interrupt an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) behavior.
- Provide balance assistance to someone in panic or on strong prescription medication.
- Bring medication.
- Get outside help.
- Identify hallucinations.
In addition, service dogs can help relieve depression symptoms by compelling the depressed person to get out of bed and move around.
Lloyd et al. (2019) studied psychiatric service dogs in Australia and how the animals assisted their handlers who’d been diagnosed with a mental health condition. Depression (at 84 percent), anxiety (social anxiety, 64 percent; generalized anxiety disorder, 60 percent), PTSD (62 percent), and panic attacks (57 percent) were the most self-reported mental health diagnoses, with many reporting multiple diagnoses. Other reported diagnoses included OCD, eating disorders, and autism spectrum disorder. The psychiatric service dogs performed a number of tasks for their owners:
- Anxiety reduction through tactile stimulation (94 percent).
- Bringing the owner back to the present through nudging or pawing (71 percent).
- Interrupting a behavioral state that’s undesirable (51 percent).
- Maintaining constant body contact (50 percent).
- Stimulation through deep pressure (45 percent).
- Blocking contact from other individuals (42 percent).
The psychiatric service dogs in this study were trained by either the owner or a qualified trainer and owner. None were exclusively trained by assistance/service dogs provider organizations.
What Defines a Service Animal?
When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990, service animals weren’t limited to dogs. At that time service animals could be from other species, including miniature horses, pigs, even monkeys. However, the Department of Justice amended the ADA in 2010 to specify only dogs as service animals, stating that “other animals, whether wild or domestic, do not qualify as service animals.” Under certain limitations, though, the final rule permits using trained miniature horses as an alternative to service dogs.
According to the ADA, a service animal “is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.” Furthermore, the task or tasks the dog performs “must be directly related to the person’s disability.” This includes a physical disability, as well as a mental health disability, that interferes with or prevents the individual from performing daily activities.
However, it’s important to note that while someone with depression may have a psychiatric service dog trained to help that person adhere to their medication regimen or other tasks, the final rule states that dogs “used purely for emotional support, are not service animals.”
Still, emotional support animals serve a useful purpose for many people who do not qualify for a service animal, yet benefit from the comfort and companionship of these animals.
Can You Register Your Pet as a Service Animal?
Since the requirement for service animal designation involves special training to perform a task for the person with a disability, a pet dog already in the household usually cannot be trained as a service dog. Service dogs, then, differ from regular pets due to their specialized training, which takes about two years. So, although it’s unlikely you’d be able to have your pet trained as a service animal, or register a service pet, some pet owners do, as the Lloyd et al. study of psychiatric service dogs in Australia noted. You still can take advantage of the benefits of pets for mental health.
What Conditions Benefit/Can Have Service Animals?
Service dogs typically help individuals with visual, hearing or mobility impairment, yet they also benefit those with diabetes and mental health conditions. These include PTSD, anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), OCD, autism spectrum disorders, and others.
Those who don’t qualify for a psychiatric service animal may still want to get a therapeutic pet, and pets for anxiety can fill an important need, although they’re not actually anxiety service animals.
As for how people benefit from animal interaction, including mental health pets, therapy dogs, interaction with service animals, and those undergoing animal-assisted interventions, a study in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that the activation of the oxytocin system plays a key role in a number of beneficial physiological and psychological effects. These include:
- Improving social contact, quality of life, mood, and symptoms in those with chronic schizophrenia participating in dog-assisted therapy.
- Reducing depressive symptoms in elderly residents in a nursing home with a resident dog.
- Reducing self-reported anxiety and fear.
- Improving physical and mental health.
Who Licenses/Registers Service Animals?
No centralized process exists in the U.S. for disabled persons to legally register a service dog and take it on planes and into public places. The DOJ’s regulations, however, allow them the privilege of doing so, provided that the dog has specific training to perform tasks relating to the owner/handler’s disability. California offers free registrations for assistance animals that supplants the need for licensing.
Where do you obtain service animals? How to find a psychiatric service dog? Get a prescription from a mental health professional or medical doctor. Look for provider organizations for these service animals. In the U.S., Assistance Dogs International (ADI) and the International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF) are two accredited facilities training service dogs. Non-accredited facilities are more often likely to use shelter dogs and assist people to train their own dogs.
What are the Benefits of Getting Your “Service Animal” Registered?
It’s more of a quality assurance benefit to get your service animal certified or registered. Certification is not required by U.S. law. On the other hand, those who have service animals under the ADA, as previously noted, will likely be provided with a certification of the dog.
Do You Need to Get it Registered?
If you buy a service jacket online, it’s likely worthless. The only correct way to obtain service animal certification (not registration) is to go through a legitimate training organization or trainer that trains your dog as a service animal. You’ll get a certificate or identification card that verifies the animal meets ADA requirements. Accredited organizations and trainers will also certify that you and your dog meet the ADA’s standards for consideration as a qualified service dog team. Free registration is offered in California.
Animals in Therapy
Mental health pets not only help at home, either. While they’re not personal pets that live in your home permanently, there are therapy animals that may be part of a program. The most recognized animals in therapy are therapy dogs and therapy horses.
Animal-assisted therapy can improve treatment outcomes in psychological disorders and can be used along with other types of psychotherapy, according to a study published in Advances in Mind-Body Medicine. A pilot study in Frontiers in Veterinary Science found that short-term dog-assisted intervention involving soldiers with PTSD improved their mental wellness, “particularly regarding the ability to experience joy.”
A study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress found that equine-assisted therapy may be effective in treating symptoms of anxiety and PTSD. Another study in Military Medical Research found that therapeutic horseback riding helped military veterans with PTSD by significantly decreasing their PTSD symptoms, which includes emotional numbing, anxiety, and flashbacks.