How Trained Canines Improve the Lives of the Mentally Ill

The practice of pairing the physically disabled with service dogs goes back hundreds of years, even thousands, and is a familiar sight to many people in America. But now, the loyal canines are being increasingly paired with people who suffer from mental disorders, or “invisible” disabilities, to assist in overcoming their mental conditions.

According to a University of California, Davis, study, psychiatric aid is the fourth common use of trained companion dogs in North America, behind helping the blind, the immobile, and the hearing-impaired, in this order. Trained canines are increasingly being trained to help autistic children, recovering addicts, sufferers of PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome) and individuals who experience seizures, and others.

The psychiatric service animals help their owners in many ways. Their tasks range from reminding their handlers to take medication to fetching objects for a person in a wheelchair to lying down on an autistic child when the latter is going through an emotional meltdown.

In addition to their trained tasks, the service animals help emotionally support the mentally ill who are sensitive to societal stigmas constantly levied on their kind.

Here are a few other reasons explaining how psychiatric service animals help their handlers:

 

Additional Exercise

Because dogs need constant playtime and walks, their need for exercise naturally encourages their owners to walk and be more fit themselves. The additional exercise releases endorphins in the human brain, which alleviates anxiety and depression and boosts physical fitness. Handlers have a hard time saying “no” to their dog begging for a walk, even if they’re having a bad day.

 

They Prevent Social Isolation

The support animals help their handlers interact socially more. People love having a dog in their company and will approach and converse with its handler, making her feel more socially connected. The companion animal also forces the mentally ill person to leave the house and engage with other people, which is healthy and good for her – she is more likely to break out of thinking too much about her problems, which causes depression.

 

They Make Outings in Public More Feasible

Psychiatric service dogs are trained to recognize when their handler is having an episode. In such cases, they either comfort the afflicted or lead her to a safer spot when in public. Such skills reassure the handler that they will have support when surrounded by unknown people, which comforts them and makes them more likely to go out in public.

 

They Contribute to Therapy Sessions

Recovering addicts and PTSD sufferers experience difficult times in therapy. They have to discuss their pains of the past, their often-terrible symptoms, and other tough topics. Having a loving, comforting dog present can make it easier for them to open up and talk about such painful subjects.

Taking care of such dogs is sometimes a part of professional treatment plans. Recovering addicts and PTSD sufferers may, for example, walk the dog to a new destination every week or have one-to-one time with the lovable canine during set hours.

The companion animals can also help the recovering addict and PTSD sufferer after treatment by encouraging the human handler to engage in healthy activities. At present, relapse rates for recovering addicts that don’t have trained canine support average between 40 and 60 percent.

 

The Takeaway

In the owner’s eyes, the value of guide dogs goes beyond the trained tasks they perform. The animals help promote self-esteem, self-confidence, a sense of safety, enhanced social interaction and greater independence. Even untrained dogs can offer these in good measure. They too, can give their owners the kind of unconditional love, exercise encouragement and assistance in social situations that paves the way for successful mental condition control and/or recovery.

Cindy is the creator of OurDogFriends.org, a website advocating for the love and ownership of dogs. She believes that dogs truly are our best friends and wants to see fewer dogs in shelters and more in loving homes.