Obtaining a psychiatric service dog for anxiety and depression can provide invaluable support for its owner. Additionally, they can offer relief and practical skills for distress tolerance.
Anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental illnesses in the country. Research shows that approximately 40 million US adults struggle with anxiety, and 16 million struggle with depression. Problems with mental health often impact one’s relationships, job, self-esteem, and physical health. And if left untreated, these conditions tend to progress and worsen.
It’s no surprise that dogs already provide unconditional love and undeniable comfort. After all, we don’t call them man’s best friend for no reason! However, their numerous benefits extend beyond the cuddles and playing fetch. Let’s get into what you need to know.
Benefits Of A Psychiatric Service Dog For Anxiety
There are several types of anxiety disorders, but the most common ones are:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder: persistent and chronic worry over a variety of situations
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): recurring anxious and intrusive thoughts (obsessions) mitigated by repetitive, rigid behaviors (compulsions)
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): intense anxiety that can occur after enduring a traumatic, life-threatening event
- Panic Disorder: Experiencing frequent panic attacks
- Social Anxiety Disorder: Experiencing immense distress in social situations
All anxiety conditions exist on a spectrum. Some people may struggle with a few mild symptoms but can otherwise function well. Others have debilitating anxiety that affects everything they do.
Regardless of your circumstances, psychiatric service dogs can help ease symptoms of anxiety. They can also improve your emotional regulation and offer a sense of calm to their owners.
Psychiatric Service Dog Tasks For Anxiety
In addition to providing emotional support, dogs can offer specific anxiety-related tasks to their owners. These include:
- Detecting panic attack symptoms
- Retrieving water, medication, or cell phone during an attack
- Bringing a care person to the owner
- Blocking strangers from approaching the owner during times of distress
- Providing comfort cues (snuggling, licking the face)
- Reminding the owner to take medication
- Interrupting flashbacks or nightmares to ground the owner back into reality
Depending on your particular needs, you may benefit from one, some, or all of these tasks. With that in mind, the appropriate training offers tremendous peace of mind.
Deep Pressure Therapy to Calm Anxiety
Trained psychiatric dogs can provide deep pressure therapy (DPT) as a means of treating anxiety symptoms. In DPT, dogs use their weight and warmth to help alleviate distress.
The premise is simple. The dog applies pressure to the owner’s body in places that trigger calming effects. Typically, the dog will lie on the individual’s lap or chest when the owner sits or lies down.
DPT provides an immediate sense of relief when feeling panicked. Research suggests that DPT releases the feel-good hormones, serotonin, and dopamine. Likewise, it helps decrease the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone closely associated with anxiety. Your dog essentially reminds you that you are safe. You have the opportunity to regroup, reassess, and eventually reintegrate back into the world.
How To Train A Psychiatric Service Dog For Anxiety
All dog training requires step-by-step progression. In other words, you must master the basics before advancing onto other techniques.
The training first begins with choosing the right dog. While any breed can become a psychiatric service dog, some temperaments are better suited than others. You want a dog that is social, eager to please, and generally alert.
After selecting your dog, you’ll want to work on basic socialization and training skills. Dogs need to be well-mannered and appropriate across all settings. A violent or aggressive animal cannot qualify as a psychiatric service dog for anxiety. Basic command skills include sitting, staying, heeling, dropping, leaving, and coming. Your dog needs to master these essential commands before moving onto more layered techniques.
Typically, the work starts by reinforcing your dog adapting to your body language or social cues. For example, you’ll associate your medication with a treat and the command “bring it” to bringing medication. Or, you’ll train the cue, “rest” for the dog to provide DPT if you’re struggling with a panic attack.
Many owners train their dogs by themselves. However, you can work with a professional dog trainer if you need additional guidance.
Benefits Of A Psychiatric Service Dog For Depression
Depression is a persistent mood disorder that can impact all areas of one’s functioning. The common symptoms of depression include:
- Chronic feelings of sadness and despair
- Excess irritability or frustration
- Lack of pleasure in usual interests, hobbies, or relationships
- Fatigue and general lack of energy
- Appetite disturbances
- Sleep problems
- Slowed body movements, thinking, or speaking
- Excess feelings of guilt or worthlessness
- Difficulty with concentration and focus
- Unexplained physical problems like stomach aches, headaches, or body tension
- Suicidal thoughts or behavior
Depression doesn’t discriminate- it impacts people of all ages and demographics. Moreover, it can be incredibly difficult and defeating.
Even without training, dogs can provide excellent support for people struggling with depression. For example, they require inherent responsibility. Dogs must be fed, walked, groomed, and entertained- which keeps owners busy even when they lack motivation. But beyond these inherent responsibilities, psychiatric service dogs for depression can also provide emotional and practical support.
Psychiatric Service Dog Tasks For Depression
Depression-specific tasks include:
- Offering medication reminders and obtaining the medication
- Providing tactile grounding and comfort through nuzzling, snuggling, or licking
- Offering support during episodes of rage or other intense emotions
- Interrupting episodes of self-harm
- Waking up and alerting owners during nightmares
- Retrieving a phone when the owner needs support
You may need different tasks at different times. Fortunately, well-trained dogs can adapt to a variety of commands and techniques.
How To Train A Psychiatric Service Dog For Depression
As mentioned, you must adhere to step-by-step progressions when training your dog. With depression, selecting the right breed is essential. Many owners benefit from having an active dog that requires more exercise than usual. The increase in activity helps motivate owners to get moving and get outdoors- which are two natural safeguards against depression.
All training should include healthy amounts of praise and positive reinforcement with high-value treats. Dogs can lose focus and interest quickly in training. Keep sessions short and productive, and engage in them several times a day.
When you have a psychiatric service dog for anxiety or depression, you have both a companion, resource, and source of support rolled into one, furry friend. While they don’t “cure” mental illness, they can make symptoms far more manageable.
We already know dogs lack negative judgment. They offer unconditional love, and they’re eager to please their owners. And with the right training, you can notice a significant difference in your quality of life.
Nicol Arzt LMFT
Nicole Arzt is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in substance use disorders, depression and anxiety, and complex trauma. A professional content writer, she is passionate about teaching through the written word and providing dynamic mental health advocacy. Nicole lives in Southern California with her husband and son.