Mental Health Matters: Mental Health Service Dogs

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Service dogs have been a great contribution to individuals with disabilities, physical health problems, and illnesses that limit participation in daily life. Often, we observe service dogs in public settings that act as seeing-eye dogs for the blind or providing assistance to those with hearing and/or speech impairments. In addition to these contributions, service dogs can be trained to assist individuals with management and improvement of mental health.

According to Heeling Allies (2014), mental health service dogs are trained to help individuals diagnosed with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Acute Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Agoraphobia, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorders, Mood Disorders, Asperger’s Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and other mental health disorders.

An important task for the dogs is to assist those experiencing distress or trauma by “bringing them to the present” and providing a sense of support and safety (2014). For example, a veteran who is having flashbacks from a traumatic experience can be reminded by the dog that they are in the “here and now” and redirect focus to the present time.

Another important task for the dogs is the benefit of their presence as a “protective shield for security and comfort” (2014). The dogs can be trained to stand near a person to increase feelings of security, reduce hyper-vigilance, provide a physical boundary in crowded areas, and decrease the chance of being startled by another person coming up behind them. Also, the dog can be trained to remind individuals when it is time to take their medication by bringing the pill bottle or pillbox to them at the designated time. This task is especially helpful if the person is asleep as the dog can wake them up with a gentle bark or paw.

Furthermore, the dogs can promote wellness by increasing social interactions, exercise, self-esteem, confidence, structure, and reduction of symptoms and signs of mental illness. The contributions of mental health service dogs assist individuals in multiple ways. The relationship that is formed with the dog can help improve a person’s quality of life through enhancement of mental health.

By: James Kwasneski, MSW

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