There is nothing better than coming home to the sight of a wagging tail, a huge toothy smile and the pitter-patter of little paws. That's right, I'm talking about dogs, and specifically service dogs (also known as therapy dogs or companion animals). There is an increasing global trend of mental health patients either being assigned a service dog, or requesting one.
The SCAS (Society for Companion Animal Studies), have been getting a huge increase in the number of enquiries from people suffering from mental health disorders about owning service dogs to help ease their anxiety or depression. Some countries even have service dog training programs as a result of increasing demand for trained therapy dogs. Much research is still being done on the long term benefits of having a service dog, but positive results in short term studies are already revealing many benefits, not just for those of us with anxiety or depression, but physical benefits are being seen as well for those with heart disease or high blood pressure.
Here are 5 reasons why service dogs can treat your anxiety disorder:
1. Reduction in Stress
Dogs don't judge you, they don't care how you look or what kind of illness you have. They love you all the same. When you've had a really bad day, they can lift your mood by licking your hand. If you have been crying, they somehow seem to know this and will sit close to you, and even put their head on your lap. If you had a stressful day, had a fight with a friend or family member, just stroking your dog can soothe you and help you to relax. Spending just a few minutes with your dog will make you feel at ease and reduce cortisol levels (a hormone linked to stress). Dogs are often used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder in war veterans and are amazing with cancer patients too.
2. Emotional Support
There are times when you might not be able to reach a friend or a family member for the support you need. Your canine friend is always available to you and can give you that support when you have no human company around. To me, my dogs are my best friends, and I see them as my little furry children. If I have been walking home and had a sudden onset of social phobia, I get home and immediately my dogs run down the stairs and jump all over me, wagging their tails and running around all over, and my mood just suddenly lifts. I've never seen someone not feel better when being greeted by their dog. A dog is there for you 24/7, always ready to provide mention support and comfort when needed.
3. Improvement in Overall Wellbeing: Mentally and Physically
Dogs need exercise and your companion dog will let you know when it's time for that daily walk. This is a great opportunity for you to join in the fun. Go to the park, throw the ball or go jogging with your dog. You can get some fresh air, a bit of sun and increase endorphin ("feel good hormone") levels. Improvement in physical wellbeing is also linked to feeling better mentally. Another example is getting a good night's rest. You'll sleep better knowing that your service dog is close by and keeping an "ear" out for anything strange. And we know how getting 8 hours of beauty sleep leads to an overall improvement in wellbeing the next day. Having a dog around just makes everything feel better in general.
4. Assistance with Panic Attacks
Dogs can be trained to fetch things for you in emergencies. They can also be trained to "dial" for help if needed. Most importantly, when you experience panic symptoms your dog can alert others to what is happening so that you can get support from a neighbour or friend. Dogs also can pick up on certain physical "cues" before the onset of an attack and will naturally try to comfort you. This kind of early symptom detection from a dog can be seen in people who suffer from strokes. At the time of a panic attack, your thoughts are all over the place, and its easy to become overwhelmed by the fear. A service dog can bring you back to the present moment through sense of touch and close contact.
5. Reduction of Social Phobia
If you suffer from social phobia, its a littler easier to get out there and face the world, just because you have your trusted furry companion with you. Also, you'll notice that people tend to acknowledge your dog rather than look straight at you, which really helps when you have a fear of people staring at you. On the flip side, it can also be a lot easier to make a friend, because a service dog is a great conversation starter. This may seem to be a negative, but most people tend to talk to the dog, rather than to you directly.
It's clear that there are many great benefits of having a service dog for anxiety and panic disorder sufferers, as well as sufferers of other mental health disorders. With the prevalence of anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social phobia, it seems that the demand for service dogs will rise over the coming years. But it's important to remember that a companion animal, or service dog, is not a means to an end, or just a therapy "tool". If you are serious about owning a dog to help ease your anxiety, make sure that you understand the responsibility involved in taking care of a dog. Most importantly, treat your dog with love and respect. After all, dogs are our best friend.
To read a more in depth article with lots of resources about service dogs for mental illness, please check out Little Dogs Rule.