Tag Archives: therapy dogs

Dogs and Stress

We’ve known for a while that dogs can be trained to sniff out seizures, infections, diabetes, extremely elevated blood pressure, and sometimes even cancer. Therapy dogs and service dogs can be trained to help people with movement and balance problems, panic attacks, PTSD, cognitive fogginess, (including getting up and going in the morning), poor attention and concentration, and executive functioning and memory loss.

A series of recent studies indicated that dogs are also responsive to the release of cortisol and adrenaline in humans, using their exceptional sense of smell, the human stress hormones. If you have a dog that is very attentive, or at least stays near you when you are not feeling well or having a bad day, they are not only showing the affection and loyalty they have for you, they FEEL you.

One patient who has a rigorous job with deadlines throughout the week reported that she can be sitting tensely in her home office and will look up to see her dog staring at her. Instead of sleeping, he monitors her. When she’s not doing well, suddenly, her dog will start panting I have heard this phenomenon from dozens of patients.

Dogs can smell your stress. And they know something is wrong.
Also read: Mindfulness in Fur.

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.

Mental health and companion animals

One of the founders of psychology, Sigmund Freud, elucidated the idea that talking about your feelings, experiences, and emotional states is mentally therapeutic. But who should you talk to? Often it is a therapist, friend, parent, teacher, or minister. According to Freud, just letting it out, ventilating emotion, has a therapeutic effect. In my practice, I have observed that talking to a companion animal may help deal with stress, anxiety, and depression. In my office, I have two highly trained dogs, and on many occasions, adults and children who had difficulty opening up can often speak more freely with my dogs, or their own, by their side. I have one room in my suite of offices, that is completely pet friendly, and others for those who have allergies.

While some folks have family members who are understanding and trusted enough to confide in when they have emotional trouble, others can have difficulty venting feelings. Proponents of animal-assisted therapy suggest that your confidant in times of stress does not have to be human, and that a dog could serve some of the same function as a therapist or sympathetic family member if they allow you to open up and discuss your feelings. I have several clients and friends who have confided in me that their companion animal, usually a dog or a cat, helps them get up in the morning, even if they don’t want to get out of bed, or they are having a bad day.

I recently came across two empirical studies which suggest that we do tend to talk to our dogs when we are emotionally stressed, and that some individuals may actually prefer to confide in pets rather than humans who may be family members.

One study comes from Cambridge University. The researchers analyzed data from a 10-year longitudinal study of children’s social and emotional development, led by Dr. Claire Hughes at the Center for Family Research. The research study found that children who suffered from stressful events in their lives, such as bereavement, divorce, instability, financial hardship,and physical illness were more likely to have stronger relationships with their dogs or other pets than with their peers. What was most interesting is that girls were more likely than boys to talk to their pets and confide in them about their problems.

In a second study, Dr. Aislinn Evans-Wilday at the University of Lincoln, England, looked at adults’ relationship to their dogs. The survey targeted eight different emotions. One interesting finding was that the data again confirmed the gender difference. Female participants in this study were much more likely to talk about their emotional state to companion animals. In general, women were more willing to confide in a pet about feelings of depression, jealousy, sadness, disappointment, and apathy. Overall, the data from these studies seem to reach similar conclusions: When adults and children experience negative emotions, they may tend to seek comfort by confiding in their companion animals, and this effect seems to be stronger for females than for males.

Pets are therapy.

Comfort Animals and Therapy Dogs

Some of my colleagues don’t believe in comfort animals or therapy dogs.

That is BS. My mentor, who has Parkinson’s, would not be alive today if it were not for his dog. His Chesapeake retriever literally pulls him out of bed when he can’t move. 

My Asia is certified to detect somebody who’s going to have a seizure and will nudge them to a sofa. She has kept people from falling down, and kept them safe. Sage, my Doberman, has calmly had countless kid and adult patients with ADHD and anxiety disorders in my office crying and screaming into her fur. She is Buddha with fur.

Never make fun of anyone who has a therapy animal. It can be life or death.

Embolden Psychology

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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