A lot of us say that our dogs make us happy. During Covid, one study even suggested that owning a dog helped stave off depression, but dogs can be more than just good company. They can help you manage chronic diseases from epilepsy to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
As Christine Henry, a licensed psychologist in Texas, explains, a client she worked with “came from a domestic violence situation. Even though she was safe, she had trouble sleeping at night and rarely left the home. Once she had a service dog, she was able to leave the home, and later was able to maintain a job in an office. She also was able to get off her sleep medication over time. She grew to trust the dog and know that he would alert her if there was an intruder.”
What Are Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs and Emotional Support Animals?
Pets can be used in a variety of different settings to provide specific services along with general comfort and support. A service dog is one that’s trained to perform a specific task, like a guide dog that helps a person with limited vision navigate their surroundings.
A therapy dog is one that is trained to provide emotional support to people in particular settings such as hospitals, schools, nursing homes and jails. One study in hospitals suggested that patients who saw a therapy dog reported less pain, anxiety, and depression immediately after the visit than those who didn’t.
Emotional support animals are pets that provide comfort in stressful situations and psychiatric distress. They are not trained to perform specific functions.
Service animals are the only ones generally allowed in public spaces. If you obtain a letter from a mental health provider, you should be permitted to have an emotional support animal in your home, but the letter does not mean the animal is permitted in public areas where pets are not allowed.
What Conditions Can a Service Animal Help?
Guide Dogs and Hearing Dogs
You’re likely familiar with guide dogs, animals taught to navigate surroundings for people with limited or no eyesight. These dogs undergo extensive training to support their owners.
Dogs can also be trained to help people with hearing loss. The pets can be trained to respond to doorbells, baby cries, or alarm clocks, explains Amy Sarow, AuD, an audiologist in Michigan.
Hearing loss affects more than just the ears. Studies show that over time, people who lose their hearing start to feel isolated and are at higher risk for diseases like Alzheimer’s. One study showed that those with hearing dogs reported less depression and anxiety and higher social engagement than those with similar hearing loss but no hearing dog.
Other people with hearing dogs considered themselves more independent and were less likely to require social services than their counterparts without the service animals.
“The positive effects on quality of life could even lead to better mental health and therefore reduced need for medication to manage mental health,“ says Sarow.
Allergies, Diabetes, and Epilepsy
Service dogs can also be trained to detect allergens in a room or specific foods. They can warn their owners about approaching seizures and bouts of low blood sugar. In situations where one of these events does occur, the dogs can be trained to recognize the emergency and seek help for its owner.
According to the Epilepsy Foundation, dogs may also lie down next to their owners during a seizure in order to help protect them from injuries.
Service dogs can serve as an ice breaker for children with Autism who struggle to socialize. The animals can also be trained to interrupt harmful behaviors or track a person with Autism who has wandered off.
Most studies evaluating the effect of a service dog on people with autism are very small, but some suggest the animals improve overall wellbeing of both the individual and their family.
Dogs can help people with physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy and paralysis, according to a 2020 study. The dogs can be trained to open and close doors, for example, helping people feel more independent. The researchers found that those who were provided with service dogs reported greater functioning in school, work, and social settings.
Dogs are frequently used to help veterans with PTSD. In addition to providing comfort, training service dogs to perform specific tasks such as alerting its owner if someone is walking up behind them or circling a room before they enter, the animals can reduce anxiety. One study showed that veterans who received service dogs were more likely to be able to reduce the dosage or number of their PTSD medications. Another study suggested that for these individuals, the calmer the dog, the greater the individuals would benefit from its presence.
Depression and Trauma
Those who are experiencing depression or trauma may not need a service dog trained to help them get out of bed, but an emotional support dog can still go a long way toward helping them recover.
“Petting a dog helps improve mental health almost instantly and can help someone who has experienced trauma begin to live more in the present moment,” adds Katie Ziskind, LMFT, a therapist and owner of Wisdom Within Counseling.
These pets also help encourage people to leave their beds to feed and walk their dog, providing motivation, fresh air and light exercise which is known to help depression, Ziskind explained.
How to Get a Support Dog
The first question you’ll need to answer for yourself is whether you’ll need a service dog, one that’s trained to perform specific tasks like identify seizures, open doors and alert you to your surroundings, or if you’re looking for an emotional support dog to provide companionship and comfort at home and on airplanes. If you need a service dog, you’ll want to reach out to an organization that trains dogs to perform the specific service you need. Try searching the database of accredited organizations from Assistance Dogs International.
If you’re looking for an emotional support dog, you can adopt one at your local shelter or speak to a qualified breeder. Make sure you discuss your needs with your healthcare professional and with those helping you to adopt or purchase your dog.
“Picking the appropriate size animal for the client and one with the right training for the situation or diagnosis is important,” says Ziskind.