Psychiatric disorders include a variety of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Individuals who live with these conditions face daily challenges and social stigma that can affect every aspect of their lives. Treatment protocols that include medication, therapy, and social support can help them find equilibrium and balance. Additionally, many medical providers now prescribe therapy dogs to help patients cope with their symptoms and improve their quality of life.
Service dogs have long aided people with physical disabilities, and in recent decades have also become popular in treating those in recovery from trauma. But the close bond of humankind and dogs extends back for millennia–nearly as long as human existence, in fact. People have always depended on dogs for emotional support and assistance with daily tasks. And as research has consistently demonstrated the undeniable physical and emotional benefits of pet ownership, therapists have recognized the unique capabilities of dogs to alleviate the obstacles faced by psychiatric patients.
This article details the history and research supporting therapy dogs, provides an overview of the training process for therapy dogs, outlines common psychiatric symptoms and how canine companionship can provide assistance, and lists resources for seeking out therapy dogs. Psychiatric disorders can be enormously challenging, but navigating the process of treatment can be much easier with therapeutic animal companionship.
History and Research Supporting Assistance Dogs
Guide animals have been referred to in literature and art throughout history, but training schools for service animals first became popularized in Germany in the wake of World War I. Soon after, other countries such as Switzerland, Great Britain, and the United States followed suit. Many of the service dogs who came out of these training programs were paired with veterans, particularly after World War II when rising demand led to many more training schools being opened around the country. Over time, dogs have been recognized for their capabilities in assisting with all types of disabilities, including psychiatric disorders.
A 2009 study “elucidates the role of pets in recovery processes among adults with serious mental illness.” Researchers found that, beyond mere companionship, dogs provided support in four major areas:
- Providing empathetic, therapeutic responses: “In sensing their owners’ depression or other symptoms, pets could make their owners feel that someone empathized with their struggles. In fact, in some cases, pets were described as therapeutic,” the study states.
- Helping owners connect with other people, redeveloping necessary social support, since people often stop and greet animals–and pet owners are more willing to be vulnerable with other people when their pets help them overcome feelings of isolation.
- Providing a sense of family in the absence of (or in addition to) human family members. People with serious mental illnesses are often estranged from immediate family members, and are less likely to have their own children. Pets offer a stable, supportive presence in the home that functions as a substitute for, or augmentation of, familial relationships.
- A bolstered sense of self, including self-sufficiency and feelings of empowerment: “Pets provided a way in which patients were able to exercise control, feel that they mattered, and could make a difference in the life of another living thing….One man reported regaining his will to live due to his sense of responsibility to his pets.”
The specific benefits of therapy and service dogs will vary for each individual, depending on their condition and situation. Stress reduction is a major factor; most psychiatric symptoms are worsened under duress and improve when stress is lessened. Even a five-minute interaction with a dog can result in stress reduction, whereas an ongoing relationship with a therapy dog can actually lower a patient’s baseline level of the stress hormone cortisol.
What does it take to be a certified therapy assistance dog, emotional support animal, or psychiatric service dog?
Not all dogs who offer benefits to psychiatric patients are certified therapy dogs, who can be prescribed in a course of treatment and offer affection and comfort, but are typically not adopted or owned by the patient. Other forms of certification include Emotional Support Animals and Psychiatric Service Dogs. However, only certified Psychiatric Service Dogs are guaranteed right of entry into public establishments, according to the IAADP:
“While a dog’s companionship may offer emotional support, comfort or a sense of security, this in and of itself does not qualify as a ‘trained task’ or ‘work’ under the ADA, thus it does not give a disabled person the legal right to take that dog out in public as a legitimate service dog. Setting up a realistic training plan to transform a dog with a suitable temperament into an obedient, task trained service dog is the only way to legally qualify a dog to become a service dog [service animal] whose disabled handler is legally permitted to take the dog into restaurants, grocery stores, hospitals, medical offices and other places of public accommodation.”
Emotional support dogs (ESDs) are not covered by ADA regulations. However, the Fair Housing Amendment Act and the Amended Air Carrier Access Act both apply to ESDs. This means that they are permitted in certain types of housing that otherwise prohibit pets, and they must be allowed to accompany their owners in aircraft cabins.
Of course, therapy dogs will suffice for the needs of many psychiatric patients. However, if they need a full-time companion protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, they should research service dogs, who undergo much more rigorous training–and therefore tend to be more costly. Service dogs can carry out complex tasks on behalf of psychiatric patients: calling emergency services in a crisis, reminding the owner to take their medication, warning them about a situation that could be triggering, waking up their human partner to go to work or school, and so on. Some breeds are better suited to service dog tasks than others.
The American Kennel Club provides training for therapy dogs through socialization, behavior classes, therapy courses, and an evaluation process. A variety of organizations can provide final certification, including the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs, Love on a Leash, Pet Partners, and Therapy Dogs International.
To reach certification, the animals must prove that they can react appropriately to the various scenarios that could unfold while working with a patient. Although they may vary slightly by program, most will include the following components:
- Leash behavior on standard and extended lengths. The dog must be obedient on the type of leash that will be used by his or her handler, and also on a longer leash where there is more opportunity for distraction.
- Willingness to visit with a patient. The dog must demonstrate mannerisms of being friendly, gentle and imperturbable.
- Analysis of reactions to unplanned situations and distractions. For example, the dog may be tested by having a stranger approach waving his or her arms and shouting, or by a passerby dropping an item that makes a loud noise when it hits the ground.
- Meeting other dogs. The dog must remain focused on his or her handler if another animal approaches.
- Response to children. It’s essential that a dog behaves well around children, not only because the dog will likely encounter them while working, but because people with advanced stages of dementia may sometimes exhibit childlike behaviors.
An overview of the difference between psychiatric service dogs, emotional support dogs, and therapy dogs–and the ways that each can benefit those with conditions such as schizophrenia, depression, and PTSD–can be found here.
Resources for Finding a Care Dog
There are many resources for finding a companion service dog or a therapy dog. Additionally, there are many resources to assist those who would like to get a certification for their pet to become a licensed therapy dog. The following list provides useful information on some of the organizations that can help you in your search. For more information on what is available to you locally, you are encouraged to reach out to your local ASPCA or Humane Society chapter. Local trainers and care providers may be willing to work with you to help subsidize the acquisition of a service animal.
Assistance Dogs International is a coalition of not-for-profit assistance dog organizations that helps individuals find a dog to match his or her needs.
Alliance of Therapy Dogs is a national therapy dog registry with over 14,000 members across North America, and can assist those in certifying their potential therapy dog.
Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs is a nonprofit organization which evaluates, tests, trains and qualifies owners and their well-behaved dogs as therapy dog teams.
Heeling Allies privately trains Mental Health Service Dogs, Emotional Support Dogs and Skilled Companion Dogs that enrich the lives of qualified individuals living with certain psychological, neurological and developmental impairments.
Love on a Leash is a nonprofit dedicated to providing an avenue for volunteer pet therapy teams to engage in meaningful and productive animal-assisted therapy.
Pawsitivity is a nonprofit organization dedicated to rescuing dogs and training them as service dogs, including dogs for psychiatric support.
Pet Partners provides trained handlers and their pets to facilities looking to incorporate therapy animals into their programs. The website also provides a list of links broken down by state for finding a program to become a registered therapy pet handler.
Therapy Dogs International is a volunteer organization dedicated to regulating, testing and registration of therapy dogs and their volunteer handlers for the purpose of visiting nursing homes, hospitals, other institutions and wherever else therapy dogs are needed.
Find additional therapy dog organizations on the American Kennel Club’s extensive list of partners, and a list of resources about assistance dogs from the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners. Assistance Dogs International offers a program search to help people around the world find service dog organizations they can work with.
As thousands of families have already learned, dogs have the unique capacity to offer a form of assistive companionship that no human can emulate. No one should ever feel alone in their psychiatric experiences, trapped and unable to move on with their lives. That is why therapy dogs and service animals have undergone years of training–to make your life brighter, easier, and more bearable day by day.