Comfort Animals and Mental Health

My English Lab, Asia, and Riddle, a beautiful Chesapeake Bay retriever, Washington, DC

In my profession, I sometimes get asked to write a prescription for someone to have a therapeutic dog/companion to help them with anxiety, depression, and other neurological and mental disorders.

Some of these dogs are trained to know when their owner is about to have an anxiety or panic attack, a post-traumatic stress disorder flashback, or another type of mental health issue. They are taught to make physical contact with their owner to interrupt their attack and distract them from their own issues. The dog can be trained to put pressure in certain areas of the body known to comfort them. In addition, certain dogs are able to go get help from someone when their owner needs assistance.

What Types of Conditions Are Treated with Therapy Dogs?
Only those with serious mental health disorders are able to get a therapy dog, and it has to be approved by a medical doctor to be covered by your insurance. Some of the criteria you need to meet to be eligible are the following:

  • Have a serious disability or illness that disrupts your daily life
  • Ability to care for and command the dog
  • Participation in your therapy dog’s training process
  • Have a stable home for you and your therapy dog
  • You also have to be diagnosed by a physician/psychologist with one of the following disorders:
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Fear/Phobia
  • Panic attack
  • Mood disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorder

How Did Therapy Dogs Get Started?
Therapy animals have been used since the1600s when an English Quaker health retreat had their mentally ill patients interact with the animals they kept at the retreat. The animals used were not just dogs. Even horses and pigs were found to be cathartic to those experiencing mental health disorders. In fact, Sigmund Freud brought his dog with him to psychoanalysis meetings with patients.

How Does Having a Therapy Dog Help?
My mentor, who has Parkinson’s, would not be functioning, if it were not for his dog. His Chesapeake Bay retriever literally pulls him out of bed when he can’t move.

My Asia, an English Lab, is certified to detect somebody starting to have a panic attack, and will nudge them to a sofa or chair and put her head in their lap. Sage, my Doberman, has calmly helped countless kid and adult patients with ADHD and anxiety disorders in my office crying and even screaming into her fur. She is a Buddha with fur.

Daily Schedules
Having a dog to take care of also gives the patient a daily schedule that they have to follow, which has been proven to be good for all mental health conditions. When an individual is depressed or anxious, they sometimes do not feel like there is any reason to get out of bed and do anything. However, if they have to get up to feed their dog or take their dog for a walk, they have no choice but to get up and do these things. The routine helps the patient stay on track and feel more stable.

Social Interactions
Having a dog means the patient will have to go outside at least sometimes to walk the dog, go to the dog park, or go see the veterinarian. This can encourage the patient to have social interaction with others even though they may not feel like doing so. In turn, this will help them feel more positive and social.

Health Benefits
According to research, having a dog not only makes the mind feel better but can also improve the patient’s physical health. Studies have found that dogs can lower your heart rate, decrease blood pressure, reduce stress, and boost endorphins. Those are the chemicals in the brain that make you feel good. One study even showed that dog owners slept better and got sick less often.
*Embolden Psychology is a dog friendly practice. We also have a separate suite for individuals with allergies.

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Embolden Psychology
Embolden

Embolden offers the ADOS-2, the gold standard assessment for kids on the spectrum.

Combined with psychoeducational testing, it helps provide comprehensive information and recommendations to help children and teens six and up.

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