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Assistance dogs for Mental Health Wellbeing/PTSD recovery and healing

Assistance dogs for Mental Health Wellbeing/PTSD recovery and healing

The notion that ‘pets are good for us’ is by no means a new one and we have often heard of how man’s best friend is the dog.‘Man’s best friend’ is domesticated, easily house-trained, serves as a remarkably strong social catalyst and can be readily shaped to help people with a wide variety of disabilities, including mental health.  

Assistance dogs are often thought of as aides for people who are blind or visually impaired, but these animals make life easier for adults and children with a wide range of physical and psychological illnesses.  As the definition of disability has expanded to encompass a variety of physical and psychological conditions, so has the potential for service dogs to aid people with their capacity for steadfast devotion and affection.  Having an assistance dog enhances human health physically and psychologically in a number of ways e.g. stroking, the provision of companionship, the dog assisting an individual with their disabilities, enabling an individual to interact with society, exercise, etc.  Owning and caring for a dog creates a routine and promotes responsibility. Dogs also encourage people to go outside and interact with others, all while behind the physical and psychological barrier of an animal.This approach can be especially useful for people who have anxiety disorders such as PTSD. If a person becomes overwhelmed by public or crowded spaces, a service dog can discreetly escort the owner away from the commotion.

Living with a mental health condition can be very debilitating and isolating and there are now numerous studies which are providing evidence of therapeutic benefits for those living with mental health issues who have a dog including for people with special needs, vulnerable older adults and children. It has been demonstrated in these studies that interaction with animals can benefit individuals with a range of mental health issues, schizophrenia, depression and personality disorders.

For those living with mental health issues and the debilitating effects, having a dog brings normality and everyday life a little closer and begins to reduce the isolation and loneliness that individuals experience. The constant companionship and support and reassurance of an undemanding animal, that gives unconditional love, is often one of the most missed aspects of their lives. For those living with mental health issues’, having an assistance dog provides an individual a little extra boost in addition to receiving perhaps medical care and psychiatric interventions which are often only offered on a short term basis.

Having an assistance dog helps to foster social contact with those suffering with mental health issues and reduces the loneliness experienced by such individuals.  Having a dog in the person’s life encourages interaction with nature, with the world around them, with the community.  But far more than anything else, an individual suffering with mental health issues receives the unconditional love and empathy that a dog provides and this in itself is profoundly healing.

One study with individuals suffering with agoraphobia found when paired with an assistant dog, individuals reported an 86% reduction in their symptoms.  In addition, more than 80% of individuals diagnosed with PTSD, panic and anxiety, and depression reported a decrease in the mental health symptoms they experienced. Specifically, more than 84% reported a decrease in symptoms as a result of assistance dog intervention. Some people with agoraphobia report that they are no longer housebound because of such contact, and post-traumatic stress disorder can likewise be alleviated.

There are also proven medical advantages. Patients who have interacted with dogs have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and in many cases require less medication than before.The action of stroking an animal, particularly a familiar one, has repeatedly been shown to result in lower blood pressure and/or heart rate. The mere presence of a companion animal can also offer short-term health benefits, helping to lower autonomic responses to conditions of moderate stress.  Having a support animal in this context serves as a buffer or distraction to the stressful situation.

Recognising the fact that having a dog in particular boosts psychological well-being has resulted in their wide-spread use in therapeutic settings and more recently campaigns have called for assistance dogs supporting those with mental health issues to be granted the same rights as those such as guide dogs. Interest in this area started in the 1960s, when Boris Levinson, a child psychologist, noted that his patients developed a rapport with his dog, and were more inclined to respond positively to therapy in its presence.

Mental  health wellbeing is also facilitated by dogs, through the facilitation of social contacts with other people. Studies have shown that walking a dog significantly increases the number of chance conversations with complete strangers than walking alone. The socialising role of dogs is perhaps most apparent for people with such disabilities. Studies have repeatedly shown that the presence of a service dog encourages more approaches and positive acknowledgements from both friends and strangers. In this context, the dog has the ability to serve a normalising role, enhancing the self-esteem and confidence of people who might otherwise feel overlooked or alienated.  Having a mental health assistance dog enables individuals to re-engage in many life tasks that their symptoms previously prevented them from participating in, such as work, school, and socializing with family and friends.  People who are supported with their mental health through the use of an assistance dog tend to rely on medication less, thus not having to endure the side effects of medication which has also previously been a barrier to them functioning with everyday life.

Studies suggest that assistance dogs are effective for those suffering with mental health issues especially PTSD because they help to address biological, psychological, and social aspects of PTSD symptoms. On a biological level, when individuals interact with dogs, their stress levels reduce, as evidenced by a decrease in cardiac reactivity and cortisol. These responses are associated with reductions in hyper arousal, social isolation, and pain and sleep disturbances, which are important indicators that PTSD symptoms are becoming less severe. Evolutionary theory suggests that humans intrinsically find other living things comforting, which can lead to the calming of aroused physiological states. Research suggests that when humans interact with animals, the physiological stress reaction is reduced, as evidenced by lower heart rates and cortisol levels. Data suggest that increases in oxytocin and dopamine, as well as a reduction in cortisol, result in this calming response for individuals who interact with dogs. Oxytocin is a stress-reducing hormone, and interactions with dogs have been found to increase this neurochemical. Calming interactions with dogs, including petting and quietly talking to them, have been shown to result in a physiological stress reduction response. These interactions may even serve as grounding exercises, which are coping skills that many individuals with mental ill health can be taught to aid them in the management of their symptoms and conditions.
On a social level, it has been shown that individuals with an assistance dog have felt less isolated socially and felt more comfortable when initiating social interactions with others. Having an assistance dog fosters feelings of self-worth, as well as nurturance, and a consistent source of support. One study found that disabled individuals experienced reduced feelings of loneliness after being paired with their service dogs.  In addition, disabled individuals also stated that they felt an increased sense of security once being paired with their service dog because of the acquired emotional support gained from the dog (Winkle et al., 2012).

Further information about assistance dog/service dog programmes for emotional wellbeing:


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