Emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) are a group of diagnoses that are characterized by similar symptoms and interfere with everyday functioning. Hyperactivity, aggression, withdrawal, immaturity, and learning difficulties can all be signs of an emotional or behavioral disorder. EBD is a disability category defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and as such is primarily intended to assist parents, teachers, administrators, and doctors in improving student educational outcomes through a combination of therapeutic and institutional solutions.
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 students with EBD.
This article outlines the major forms of EBD, details research linking assistance animals to positive emotional and behavioral outcomes, and offers examples of many ways that dogs aid EBD students. Information about the types of assistance animals, including the training they undergo, can empower you to decide the best course of treatment for you or your child. Finally, a list of resources is included to help you find a support dog, or train your own pet as a service or therapy animal.
What are Emotional and Behavioral Disorders?
Some of the diagnoses that fall under the EBD category include:
- Anxiety disorders (GAD, OCD, PTSD, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder)
- Bipolar Disorder and Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder
- Conduct Disorder
- Eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, BED, and EDNOS)
- Schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders
Many of these ailments present differently in children than they do in adults, so the process of diagnosis and treatment may take time. It is possible for a child to have more than one EBD, but because of the overlap of symptoms, it is easy for one disorder to be mistaken for one or more other conditions.
While treatment needs may vary greatly across EBD categories, all of these patients need consistent, unconditional emotional support and benefit from regular routines. These areas, and more, can be targeted with the help of assistance animals.
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 emotional and behavioral 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.
- Providing an expanded sense of family.
- 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.”
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 EBD symptoms are worsened under duress and improve when stress is lessened. Even a five-minute interaction with a dog can result in stress reduction, and an ongoing relationship with a therapy dog can actually lower a patient’s baseline level of the stress hormone cortisol.
Types of Support Dogs and their Training and Certification
There are three types of support dogs that patients are commonly paired with. Patients in acute care, such as in-patient rehabilitation clinics, can seek out therapy dogs for short visits that provide targeted benefits. Those whose families are able to adopt an animal of their own may consider Emotional Support Dogs and Service Dogs. While neither is required by law to be certified, there are training programs available for each.
Therapy dogs can be part of a prescribed course of treatment, and they are typically part of a therapy team: The owner who takes the dog through training and certification generally accompanies the dog on therapy visits to nursing homes, hospitals, and other institutions.
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.
According to the AKC, “Therapy dog candidates should be naturally calm, friendly and affectionate to strangers. They also need to be well trained in basic obedience, able to easily adapt to novel noises, places, smells, and equipment. Therapy dog organizations also require that therapy dogs be healthy and have regular wellness check-ups and be well-groomed, clean and brushed at the time of all visits.”
After training, therapy dogs must complete a certain number of visits to achieve different levels of certification, and the organizations that host these visits–such as hospitals, schools, or clinics–assess the dog’s performance and suitability to therapeutic tasks.
Therapy dogs are the best solution for patients who do not want the responsibility of caring for an animal full-time, and instead wish to receive the therapeutic benefits of spending time with a pet in supervised, clinical environments.
Emotional Support Dogs
“Emotional support dogs are dogs that provide comfort and support in forms of affection and companionship for an individual suffering from various conditions,” the United States Dog Registry explains. In order to obtain an ESD, a patient needs a medical letter of recommendation.
Emotional support dogs 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.
There are few limitations on which dogs can be considered ESDs. For the purpose of reasonable housing accommodation under the FHA, these animals do not need specialized training and housing providers should not require any paperwork beyond the medical letter of recommendation. Their primary role is to provide companionship. Be wary of organizations offering registration kits to allow individuals to register their pet as ESDs. In most cases, these fees and kits are unnecessary for the accommodations available for ESDs.
The Foundation for Service Dog Support defines a service dog as “a dog that has been trained to perform tasks to assist an individual with disabilities. It is the ability to perform observable tasks, on command, that distinguishes a service dog from an emotional support dog, therapy dog or other working dogs. Some examples of tasks are balance and support, retrieving dropped objects, fetching medications and summoning assistance when needed.”
Those who need a full-time companion protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act should research service dogs, which undergo much more rigorous training than ESDs or therapy dogs–and therefore tend to be more costly. Training for a service dog is often in the range of $10,000-$20,000 and can take up to two years. Over this period of time, dogs are taught to be extremely responsive to their owners, to ignore any and all distractions, and to perform specific tasks that will help them to assist their human partner’s specific needs.
Service dogs can carry out complex tasks that help children with EBD gain independence. Even if parents are available to help their children most of the time, the service dog can accompany the child everywhere. A patient who has difficulty sleeping alone may find a new sense of confidence with a service dog at their side, allowing parents to rest more fully and be more available in the daytime.
Some breeds are better suited to service dog tasks than others, and dogs who do not acclimate well to training are dismissed from their programs. Only the dogs who are consistently able to perform all the required tasks for their service mission can become certified. The International Association of Assistance Dog Partners requires a minimum of 120 hours of training along with a specific list of tasks and requirements. However, people with disabilities have the right to personally train their service dogs, and do not have to go through outside organizations for the training process.
Service dogs are guaranteed right of entry into public establishments, like restaurants, grocery stores, hospitals, medical offices, hotels, and other places of public accommodation–and none of these establishments are permitted to require certification or paperwork to prove a service dog’s legitimacy or status.
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 EBD 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.