Neurotransmitters are powerful, and artificial stimulation of receptors in our brains has powerful medical applications that can transform lives. On the flip side, however, these receptors leave us vulnerable to drug abuse, which relies on complex pathways in the brain to make recovery mentally, physically, and emotionally challenging. Fortunately, individuals in recovery from drug dependence can find alternative methods of stimulating those receptors–safely and naturally–through emotional support animals, animal-assisted therapy, and service dogs. These animals can also help recovering addicts in other essential ways, such as establishing daily routines, forming healthy bonds, and providing loyal support.
Dogs are naturally gifted with a host of attributes that help their owners live longer, happier lives. They also have a long history of assisting people in difficult circumstances. In recent years, treatment protocols have expanded to take advantage of the ways that dogs can help prevent relapse and give patients in recovery a better chance at leading full, meaningful lives. There is life beyond addiction, and assistance dogs can provide a key piece of the puzzle.
This article outlines the research linking assistance animals to positive health outcomes, and offers examples of many ways that dogs aid the process of addiction recovery. 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 loved one. 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.
Research Supporting Assistance Dogs
In the 1860s, Florence Nightingale found animal companionship beneficial to her patients. Since then, dogs have been used in many capacities to help people recover from and manage illness, disability, and other conditions. Canine therapy is widely accepted as a valuable element of holistic addiction treatment: “In addition to the added comfort, dogs play a role in the healing process,” according to Addiction.com. “Clients may experience lower levels of anxiety and depression, begin to experience empathy, and build a positive sense of self-worth through caring for another being. After treatment, dogs can help recovering addicts stay active, reduce stress and loneliness, and provide a sense of purpose — all of which are instrumental in preventing relapse.”
Dogs help restore the brain’s neurochemical pathways to their original modes of functioning. Their powerful effects on the brain raise levels of dopamine, the same neurotransmitter that drugs like amphetamines and cocaine boost. Interacting with dogs, then, can help an addict find a healthy, sustainable way to reach a positive emotional state. Over time, these kinds of positive substitutes can drastically reduce dependence on drugs. Dogs also increase oxytocin, endorphins, and serotonin, all of which are “essential to our sense of well-being.” People often turn to drugs because they feel that something is missing from their lives; dogs can provide that missing link.
One study found that bringing therapy dogs into a rehabilitation clinic offered the additional benefit of helping clinicians gain more insight into their patients, and helping them to overcome potential obstacles. For instance, they might withdraw if the therapy animal did not immediately seem friendly enough, reflecting the same behavior that patient might have in an interpersonal relationship. Clients were encouraged to open themselves up to the possibility of rejection by remaining present and waiting for the pet to come to them. This challenging act of vulnerability can have enormous benefits. Substance abuse thrives when people allow fear to let them miss out on pleasurable experiences–and instead turn to the one coping mechanism they know they can depend on, no matter how deleterious its effects. Counseling that takes advantage of therapy dogs can help a patient change patterns of thought and behavior with immediate, real-world applications.
The Ranch, a mental health center with locations in three states, advocates for a unique treatment approach they call “animal-assisting therapy.” Patients are encouraged to volunteer at animal rescue shelters. In the process of extending aid and empathy to pets in need, addicts can undergo profound internal shifts: “Before those with a history of substance abuse can hope to find lasting sobriety, they must first rebuild their self-esteem to the point where they actually feel strong enough to accomplish difficult things and worthy enough to deserve the happiness and peace that was denied them during their years of battling against alcoholism or drug addiction.” Performing selfless acts of care can give a recovering addict a greater sense of strength and purpose. In fact, when they are further along on their journeys, they may even find a new career path in dog-sitting.
Addicts who turned to substance abuse because of chronic pain will also benefit substantially from working with pets. In as little as twelve minutes, researchers found that visits with therapy dogs significantly reduced self-reported pain, fatigue, and emotional distress. Therapy dogs can decrease the heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate; reduce the stress hormone cortisol; boost endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers; and benefit the immune system. Studies indicate emotional and psychosocial benefits of support animals, in addition to the task assistance that service dogs can provide.
It is difficult for researchers to quantify the unique benefits that a dog’s unconditional love has on a patient who is in recovery from substance abuse. Many have painful, traumatic histories, often accompanied by a deeply-held belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with who they are. This is one of the reasons that an animal who can offer unconditional, all-consuming love and emotional support can make such a pivotal impact on the recovery process. Depending on the patient’s capacity for caring for a pet and the type of support they need, their preference for an assistance animal may vary.
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 who 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, who 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.
People with a history of substance abuse are highly likely to have co-morbid conditions, such as psychiatric disorders, PTSD, eating disorders, chronic pain, limited mobility, or other issues. [Note: You can add links to associated Rover medical articles when applicable.] Depending on the needs of the individual, they may find a service dog who can carry out complex tasks invaluable in helping them achieve independence. These include calling emergency services in a crisis; reminding the owner to take their medication; retrieving items out of the owner’s reach; warning the owner about a situation that could trigger a flashback; and so on. Creative trainers are constantly expanding the range of tasks they teach dogs to help people with various conditions, and they share their insights to help other trainers implement the unique processes they use.
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 and Training Support Dogs
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.
Canine Assistants trains service dogs to assist children and adults with physical disabilities or other special needs in a variety of ways.
The Foundation for Service Dog Support provides training for service dog teams, support and encouragement for people who need service dogs and increased community awareness about the role of service dogs in public spaces.
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.
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. Isolation is a driving factor behind many addictive tendencies, so companionship is a natural solution that can have incredible, lasting effects.