From depression to PTSD, dogs are helping humans cope with a wide range of mental health issues.
When we think of dogs-with-jobs our minds tend to go straight to police, search and rescue, drug-sniffing and guide dogs. But therapy dogs are the unsung heroes of the working dog world! These four-legged therapists undergo detailed training to help comfort, support and encourage people suffering from a variety of mental health issues. They work in all kinds of conditions — from hospitals to group homes — to bring their special brand of assistance to those who need it most. Let’s take a closer look at how these four-legged heroes are helping humans.
Depression rates across the world are climbing, as are, accordingly, prescription rates of antidepressants. Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) represents a powerful, non-medicinal alternative or complement to drugs that can help improve and manage depressive symptoms.
In one study published in the scientific journal Anthrozoös, two groups of participants were asked to write essays about their traumatic experiences. One group did so with a therapy dog present, the other without. Researchers found that while both groups produced essays equally negative in content and tone, the group with the therapy dog present showed significant decreases in depressive symptoms afterwards. This study indicates that not only do therapy dogs provide comfort to humans, but they can also help us process difficult emotions while keeping us grounded.
Alzheimer’s and dementia
While Alzheimer’s, dementia and other degenerative neurological disorders don’t have cures, they can be both prevented and treated, and therapy dogs can help!
According to the Mayo Clinic, studies show that “people who are physically active are less likely to experience a decline in their mental function, have a lowered risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, and possibly have improved thinking among people with vascular cognitive impairment.”
Regular walking, hiking, playing with, caring for and grooming a dog could provide both the mental and physical stimulation that would aid in disease prevention. Indeed, studies show that, in addition to lowered blood pressure, reduced cholesterol levels, and higher self-esteem, dog ownership is associated with increased physical activity. In fact, one 2019 study involving hundreds of British households showed that dog owners are about four times more likely than other people to meet today’s physical activity guidelines.
For those already experiencing Alzheimer’s and dementia, social isolation is a major risk factor. One way to promote social interactions in the nursing home is through animal-assisted therapy, which involves interaction with a trained animal facilitated by a human handler. Outcomes of AAT include providing relaxation and pleasure and assisting with rehabilitation.
Studies also show that dogs help decrease the stress hormone, cortisol, and boost levels of the happy hormone, serotonin. Since individuals with Alzheimer’s or dementia often experience stress, AAT can also help mitigate this issue as well.
For those experiencing the mental decline associated with Alzheimer’s and dementia, and who are still living on their own, trained service dogs can prove invaluable. They can be taught to protect the safety of their humans, by making sure doors are locked and stoves are off, and can get help should an accident occur that requires medical attention.
Even patients experiencing the advanced stages of degenerative neurological diseases can benefit from therapy animals. Studies show decreased depression, aggression and agitation and increased rates of social interactions and physical activity in nursing home residents who attended animal-assisted therapy. Interactions with therapy dogs can even slow the progression of their neuropsychiatric symptoms, and increase patients’ nutrition levels by decreasing their mental distress, allowing them to resume regular eating patterns.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for military personnel
Veterans returning from combat with PTSD often struggle to find programs or treatments that alleviate their stress. Fortunately, several programs now exist to help match traumatized soldiers with psychiatric service dogs.
According to research, therapy dogs can help reduce PTSD symptoms such as flashbacks, depression, anxiety and anger in combat veterans. In fact, when directly compared, studies show that animal-assisted therapy is much more effective for veterans with PTSD than traditional therapy methods such as talk therapy or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), with animal-based methods better at reducing symptoms across the board even after relatively short interactions.
Trained animals can also help veterans deal with physical symptoms or disabilities that may have occurred during their service.
For veterans lacking other forms of social support, therapy dogs can help them feel more connected to the world and help “nudge them back to reality”, as one researcher explained. For those experiencing both combat and non-combat related forms of PTSD, the unconditional friendship offered by therapy dogs helps rebuild trust with others.
Anxiety can simplistically be divided into two different types: state anxiety, or anxiousness related to a particular event or situation; and trait anxiety, or anxiousness that is continuous and unrelated to a particular thing. While animal-assisted therapy can help with both kinds, it can be particularly useful for individuals experiencing state anxiety.
In studies, therapy dogs can significantly reduce the anxiety felt by hospitalized patients of all ages, as well as students with emotion regulation disorders in classroom settings. One study by researchers at the University of Queensland looked at helping calm children with either therapy dogs or toys, and found the dogs much more effective at reducing anxiety and improving positive behaviours such as smiling, laughing and interacting with others. Therapy animals may help reduce the distress felt by those who undergo frequent medical procedures, especially children, and even decrease the amounts of medication needed to help them deal with anxiety and pain.
While therapy animals shine when helping with state anxiety, they can be quite useful for those experiencing trait anxiety too. Studies have shown significant reductions in depression levels among long-term care residents who receive canine visitors. And employees who are allowed to bring their dogs to work with them perceive their days as significantly less stressful than when they’re forced to leave their furry friends at home.
Post-traumatic stress disorder for survivors
While trust is essential to any patient-healthcare provider relationship, it is especially crucial for survivors of abuse or assault. This is made more complicated since individuals suffering from PTSD due to the traumatic events they’ve experienced often have serious trust issues.
That’s where therapy dogs come in. These four-legged professionals can help rebuild a patient’s ability to trust, since a dog’s unconditional love provides a safe, reliable and secure relationship that fosters confidence. Childhood sexual assault survivors may have a particularly difficult time engaging openly and honestly with adult humans but may react well to animal-based therapies, since they are able to focus on the dog rather than the therapist.
Studies examining the efficacy of animal-assisted therapies have found them quite successful. One 2016 study in the Journal of Evidence-Informed Social Work noted an 82% reduction in symptoms, while another found that therapy dogs helped significantly decrease patients’ depression, anger, anxiety and physiologic markers of distress.
While animal-assisted therapies aren’t the right fit for all survivors, they can be a particularly powerful tool for those who have tried other therapeutic methods without success.
Schizophrenia is a very complex mood disorder characterized by a number of symptoms, including delusions or hallucinations, reduced social engagement, anxiety, depression, and lack of motivation. Those who suffer from it often have trouble finding joy in pleasurable activities.
Treatment options that incorporate animals can be especially useful for patients as a complement to other forms of therapy, as studies have shown that including animals in meetings increases attendance rates and participation levels. While those with schizophrenia often have difficulty with self-motivation, a positive interaction with an animal can serve both as a reward for attending and engaging in therapy, as well as motivation to attend and engage again.
In one 2001 study examining 20 elderly patients with schizophrenia living in a care home, those who interacted with therapy dogs showed improvements in daily living activities, such as bathing, grooming, cleaning and eating, after one year of engaging with the animals. The researchers noted that the dogs served as a model of sorts, with the importance of their care and individual needs highlighted to patients. This demonstrates how the non-judgmental, patient and neutral natures of dogs can help patients deal with not only their emotional needs but their physical ones as well.
In many ways, those seeking treatment for substance use disorders can benefit from animal-assisted therapy in the same ways as those seeking treatment for other mental health issues. Studies have shown that incorporating dogs into therapy sessions, whether individual or group, can provide participants with a neutral external focus, rather than their own fears, anxieties or problems. Positive interactions with dogs — like petting or playing fetch — can bring comfort when dealing with difficult emotions, and help relieve anxiety.
The benefits of a therapy dog’s presence aren’t limited to mental effects. In 2013, South African researchers found that after interacting with a dog, participants displayed lowered blood pressure, heart rates and stress levels. They also reported a higher sense of well-being.
Many people with a substance use disorder talk about how animals anchor them to reality and serve as a motivating factor in wanting to work through the disorder. While improving their relationships with family or bettering their lives may be the ultimate objectives, distinct and practical responsibilities like having to feed, water and care for a dog can motivate an individual to continue managing the substance use, and garner positive feedback for doing so.
Therapy dogs can be especially useful for inpatient programs and group therapy sessions, where they can mediate interactions between patients by helping diffuse tense or anger-infused situations, as well as provide a shared area of interest to bond over.
Support for medical professionals
One of the biggest challenges facing medical professionals, including counsellors, doctors, nurses and veterinarians, is burnout. While an unmeasurable number of things contribute to the stress, anxiety and depression experienced by medical professionals, some major factors include long and irregular hours, the high stakes of their performance, and the high pressure nature of their careers. Many healthcare providers facing mental health challenges have relatively few options for help. But the integration of therapy dogs into healthcare settings may offer one solution.
While studies have not generally focused on investigating the effects of animal therapy on medical professionals, several have noted how the positive effects seen in patients receiving animal therapy extend to the counsellors, nurses or researchers facilitating the study. One researcher noted in a paper from the Journal of Addictions Nursing how her own stress levels diminished with the addition of dogs to group therapy sessions. She stated that she felt less physically exhausted after each session and that, while her patients described more personal, difficult and sad experiences when a dog was present, the tones in which they were described were more hopeful than usual, which lessened her own distress.
The potential benefits to both patients and healthcare providers could help offset the time and money costs associated with setting up animal therapy in healthcare facilities. Having trained dogs available to support both medical professionals and their patients could help combat the rising rates of burnout and create a better mental health experience for everyone involved in the medical system.
Ada McVean has a BSc from McGill University, and is working on a MSc in nucleotide chemistry. She has been writing for the McGill Office for Science and Society since 2016 and spends her spare time cleaning up after her guinea pigs and gecko.