Anyone who owns a dog knows the joy they bring to your life. From getting into mischief as a puppy to their senior years happily sitting with us on the sofa, dogs want nothing more than to love us and to be loved. And it’s this desire to be our friend that makes dogs such great assistants to those with disabilities, with specially trained service dogs. However, for those of us with mental health issues like anxiety, our four-legged friends are also proving to be fantastic ways to cope with psychological stress.
Through the use of alternative therapies involving canines and psychiatric service dogs, many are finding their anxiety issues severely lessened by their loving and calming nature.
What is Dog Therapy?
Put simply, dog therapy involves contact with dogs.
This interaction with our furry buddies can take many forms. It can be something as simple as petting a friend’s well-behaved golden retriever or as involved as adopting and caring for a dog of your own. It can also be structured, with dogs taken into places such as senior homes where anxiety is a growing concern.
While the benefits of befriending a dog have been known for millennia, the scientific study of why this is the case has only just begun. One of the pioneering studies into dog therapy was undertaken by Dr. Boris Levinson in the 1960s. He discovered that his young patients with mental impairments were a lot keener on his dog than on people. Latching onto this, Levinson kicked off the formal study of animal-assisted therapy.
What we now know through various other studies is that dogs are not just good company, but they are actually beneficial to our lives as a whole. Not only do they give us structure by requiring regular walks and care, but the science indicates owning a dog increases our self-esteem.
Methods of Dog Therapy
Dog therapy focuses primarily on the stimulation of the senses, with the comforting effect of a dog’s presence often enough to alleviate feelings of anxiety.
A recent study conducted by the University of Warwick had 82 students participate in an experiment where they would either watch videos of dogs or directly interact with one. In both cases, students found their exam-related anxiety reduced, with the participants who had hands-on contact with the dogs experiencing better results. While still classed as an alternative therapy, contact with dogs is becoming increasingly recommended by medical experts to treat anxiety and several other psyche-related illnesses.
While dog therapy tends to be tailored to the individual being treated, some broad patterns can be identified. The most basic form of dog therapy involves putting a dog in the same room as someone with anxiety. Senior homes, for example, are breeding grounds for anxiety, with health concerns a constant worry for the elderly. Similarly, those in hospital wards being treated for life-threatening illnesses find it difficult to manage the anxiety and stresses of fighting a disease.
Dog therapy allows people to divert their attention for a little while and form a bond with someone who will be their best friend for nothing more than a belly rub and an ear scratch. These regular visits from a therapy dog provide the chance for individuals to exercise empathy and feel comforted by a dog’s indiscriminate nature. People derive great satisfaction from building a bond, which carries through to the rest of the individual’s life, with their mental state improved.
Dog therapy is even being explored by the corporate world, where stress and anxiety are shortening many lives. While deadlines and quotas can sometimes feel like the most important things in the world, a regular 10-minute visit from a therapy dog to an office space can help keep things in perspective, alleviating anxiety tremendously.
Psychiatric Service Dogs
For those with extreme anxiety, a psychiatric service dog is sometimes provided to individuals. These dogs are different from dogs used for emotional therapy as they are classed as service dogs to help a person perform tasks they otherwise would not be able to, just as a seeing-eye dog helps a blind person.
These dogs help anxious individuals by recognizing the signs of an anxiety attack and assist wherever possible. This can be licking the hand of the person to encourage them to stroke the dog and disrupt the mental overload, resting against them to comfort them, or even bringing a phone or medication in the case of a severe panic attack.
Best Kind of Therapy Dog
While almost all dogs provide some respite from anxiety, some doggy personalities suit treatment better than others. A dog that repeatedly barks when excited, for example, may have the opposite effect when treating someone, causing some level of mental distress.
Fortunately, certain breeds are ideal for dog therapy. Golden Retrievers and our old friend the Labrador are particularly well suited to treat anxiety. Their gentle, quiet natures make them perfect for psychotherapeutic sessions, with their intelligence making them ideally suited to undergo the training necessary to be therapy dogs.
While anxiety can have a major effect on our lives, the battle is at least a little easier with a dog nearby.