Therapy Dogs, Addiction, and Mental Health

1 min read · 2 sections

Full of unconditional love, dogs really can be man’s best friend. Humans have long realized the ways in which dogs can be helpful. Even from the earliest interactions, humans and dogs shared common goals, including avoiding predators and finding food. More recently, dogs have taken on important roles in therapeutic and educational settings.1 And dogs are increasingly being used to support mental well-being and augment mental health treatment for disorders such as extreme anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, and depression.2

Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs, and Emotional Support Dogs: What’s the Difference?

A service dog is trained to complete tasks that help their handler’s impairments. As a team, the service dog supports their owner’s independence and helps them to be safe. And according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the rights of individuals with impairments accompanied with a service dog in public settings is protected. This includes locations such as grocery stores, hotels, and restaurants. The focus is on taking care of their handler, and many owners discourage others from petting their service dogs.

Like service dogs, therapy dogs also receive training. However, their responsibilities are distinct. They provide physiological or psychological therapy to not only their handlers, but to others as well. They tend to visit hospices, hospitals, nursing homes, daycares, group homes, schools, and rehabilitation centers. They’re friendly, their temperaments are stable, and they are encouraged to interact with different people even while with their handler.

Additionally, therapy dogs require a certification, and their disposition needs to be gentle, friendly, at ease, and patient in all situations. This is because they are constantly in contact with a variety of people, and with certainty, they must be comfortable with the amount of human interaction required of them.

Emotional support animals (ESAs) (usually dogs) can be used as part of a medical treatment plan. They may offer companionship and support for individuals with depression and anxiety. However, they are not trained to complete tasks for individuals with impairments and they are not considered service animals under the American Disabilities Act.

Possible Health Effects Provided By These Animals

Studies indicate that interacting with animals has shown to decrease the levels of cortisol, a stress-related hormone, and lower blood pressure. And other research shows evidence of animals reducing feelings of loneliness, increasing feelings of social support, and boosting individuals’ moods.3

If you struggle with a co-occurring substance use and mental health disorder, treatment can help. If animal companionship is important to you during your treatment and recovery, call facilities and inquire about their policy of letting you bring your pet to treatment, or how they may incorporate therapy animals into their therapies and interventions.

At American Addiction Centers (AAC), service and emotional support dogs are welcome on a case-by-case basis. Call today, and speak to one of our compassionate and knowledgeable admissions navigators who can listen to your story, answer your questions, explain your options, and help you get started on the path to recovery.

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