By Constance Ray, Guest Contributor
Most people are familiar with the notion of a service dog, the kind that helps the physically impaired get on with their daily lives. However, as a mental health epidemic rages in America, and therapy experts have established a positive link between pet ownership and successful mental health treatment, psychiatric service dogs are beginning to become more common.
Psychiatric service dogs assist people coping with a mental disorder in many ways. From fetching medication to keeping crowds at a safe distance, here are four ways a service dog specifically assists a mentally ill person.
Treating Panic Attacks and Reducing Anxiety
It’s been scientifically proven that the frequent petting of a cuddly dog or cat melts stress and anxiety away. In particular, dogs in public help alleviate social anxiety by being the focus of attention rather than the handler. A trained service dog, in turn, will go the extra mile by performing such tasks as automatically nudging and licking at signs of nervousness, halting panic attacks and holding back crowds.
A large service dog typically lies down in front of its handler to keep the crowds at bay, while smaller dogs firmly sit or stand. The latter may be immediately held by handlers to help them cope with a fit of the nerves while larger dogs will lick fingers or allow for petting. During panic attacks, all psychiatric service dogs will take advantage of their weight by partly lying on the chest or back of their handler to calm them down by reducing hyperventilation.
Working with Autistic Children
Some people may not know that autistic children can turn violent or exhibit signs of a sensory meltdown when they experience frustration over a caretaker’s inability to understand their requests. Often, families of a child with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) will isolate themselves in order to minimize the risk of a violent episode in public.
A psychiatric service dog can be harnessed to the autistic child for the latter’s own safety, by forcing the child to stay close to the animal. The presence of the animal calms the child, and also make events in public less stressful for the kid’s family. Similar to what was mentioned above, service dogs can also perceive an autistic meltdown and stop it by using their weight and/or other trained methods.
Keeping Addiction Relapse at Bay
Addicts who suffer from mental disorders greatly benefit from having a special psychiatric service dog. The animal not only helps cultivate a sense of responsibility in the recovering addict, it distracts the handler from thinking about abusing substances. Moreover, a service dog positively minimizes related issues linked to addiction such as depression and social isolation by demanding walks and playtime while providing constant unconditional love and affection.
Once the addict seeks to re-enter society, his or her service dog can help the sobered addict establish and deepen connections with people — both strangers and existing friends alike. The service animal allows for greater social opportunities that are so important to sobering addicts who need all the favorable human contact they can get to restore their damaged self-esteem and confidence.
Helping Sufferers of PTSD
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) commonly affects veterans and survivors of assault or abuse. Typical symptoms include nightmares, agitation, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks and hypervigilance, all of which can adversely affect getting on with daily life.
A service dog trained for the condition will know how to block crowds, help the handler find the nearest exit, disrupt nightmares, comfort the handler following a nightmare or negative memory flashback, and alert surrounding people of an episode. Such tasks make life significantly easier for PTSD sufferers.
People with mental disorders see vast improvements in their condition when they are paired with a trained therapy dog. The service animal’s general potential for love and loyalty make them the perfect companions to have when such sufferers still have to put up with the social stigmas over mental disorders in general. Their service dogs help them bond with other humans as well, and foster human understanding of their mental health problems. Such service animal/handler relationships truly constitute a win-win situation for all concerned.
Constance Ray started Recoverywell.org with the goal of creating a safe place for people to share how addiction has affected them, whether they are combating it themselves or watching someone they care about work to overcome it.