The therapeutic power of pets is widely known, and for many decades dogs have been used to guide people with visual impairment. Service dogs for anxiety and emotional support may be provided if qualified.
More recently, they have supported people with other physical disabilities, such as hearing impairments, including protecting their owner from harm and letting them know when to answer the door or telephone.
Use of dogs to provide such services led to the discovery that they could be trained to be alert to chemical changes in people who suffer from life-threatening seizures and other conditions. When trained to spot invisible cues, dogs can warn their owners that an episode is imminent, even before the individual has registered the symptoms themselves.
This incredible bond between dogs and their owners, and the way in which canine companions can provide medical support, is only just being fully studying and understood.
There is an increasing appreciation that they can be used to great effect in supporting people with a range of mental health disorders, such as anxiety.
Approximately 18% of adults in the USA experience a mental health disorder of some kind. Of those, around 4% are severe enough to be debilitating – preventing them from living a “normal” life.
Only this relatively small percentage of people with a “disability” resulting from anxiety could potentially qualify for support from a service dog. There are, however, opportunities to get an emotional support animal.
Just as with other service dogs, it has been proven that four-legged friends can be trained to provide active support for people with mental illnesses. In effect, these are working dogs.
The level of support a dog provides to someone with anxiety depends on what they are trained to do.
A properly trained psychiatric service dogs provides pre-established practical help, including picking up “tells” which pre-empt an anxiety attack. Sometimes dogs can pick up signs that human observers can miss.
The service dog can also be trained to bring you your medication and a bottle of water to help you to take your tablets, when an anxiety attack is beginning.
They may also know to bring you your phone at these moments, so you can ring for help. Or they can alert your immediate caregivers to your dilemma.
In a crisis, your service dog could even bring someone to help you.
Some people who suffer from anxiety have found that a service dog can physically assist them in dealing with an attack too. This includes licking the individuals face to distract and sooth them, or even laying across them on the floor, providing pressure that can be reassuring and calming.
In other cases, a person with a diagnosis of anxiety may simply find great comfort from having a dog around.
Carefully chosen breeds and specific animals can emotionally stabilize someone who has anxiety. These loyal, affectionate and quiet creatures provide consistent and unconditional support.
They make people feel less alone, particularly at night when fears can overwhelm someone with anxiety. They offer a very tactile kind of solace too, with their warm bodies, soft fur and velvety ears to touch.
Walking and caring for a dog offers a routine, and a structured day can sometimes help someone with anxiety to feel more in control of their life. The simple, unchallenging tasks involved in looking after a dog can help someone with anxiety to feel more connected to the outside world, counterbalancing the isolation that emotional turmoil can sometimes engender.
If you want a trained service dog that provides active care, rather than an animal for emotional support, you may have to prove that your anxiety is putting you in harm’s way and that it is severe enough to seriously impact on your daily life.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states “Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” Disabilities include anxiety caused by PTSD. The act also says that dogs providing comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals.
If you do meet the required criteria, you would then need to be very involved in training your specific service dog, as each animal is developed to provide a very individual level of awareness and care. The providers of such animals would need to assess the suitability of your home, and your ability to care for the dog consistently.
The starting point of the assessment and the subsequent training would be a recommendation from your physician or a mental health professional who has worked with you.
Emotional support dogs are more readily available than those trained to provide services to individuals with anxiety. Medical recommendation is still advisable if you want one that is specially chosen for this role.
The good news is that if your service dog for anxiety has been provided through medical channels, you can benefit from the some of the same privileges afforded to service dogs. This includes still being eligible to live in “no pet” accommodation and not always having to pay extra when your dog travels with you.
An important side note, emotional support for anxiety doesn’t just have to be from a dog. Some individuals prefer other pets, for example cats, and find them to be a source of comfort and a calming influence.