Therapy Dogs And Mental Health Support

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant
Updated February 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Psychiatric assistance dogs (PADs), also known as therapy dogs, are used to help people with mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and others to manage symptoms and handle other associated challenges. Therapy dogs are professionally trained by a dog handler and certified to provide therapy sessions, comfort, and support as well as to perform other helpful tasks (i.e., retrieving medication for anxiety attacks, distracting the individual from damaging behaviors, etc.). 

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What is the history of therapy animals?

Therapy dogs and other therapy animals have been used at least since the 1600s, when the staff at an English Quaker health retreat encouraged their patients with mental health conditions to interact with the animals they kept there. Interacting with dogs, cats, horses, and pigs, even for just a few minutes, was found to be cathartic to the individuals at this retreat who were experiencing mental health concerns. 

Which conditions might someone have a service dog or animal for?

Typically, only humans with serious mental health disorders can qualify for a service dog, sometimes called therapy dogs. These service animals need to be approved by a medical doctor to be covered by insurance. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, bipolar, autism, agoraphobia, and anxiety are just a few examples of the kind of mental health conditions that a patient with a therapy dog may have. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines service dogs as: “service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” These service animals need to be approved by a medical doctor to be covered by insurance.

What are some different kinds of animal-assisted therapy?

There are several different kinds of animal-assisted therapy that patients can choose from if having an individually trained service dog or therapy dog is not an option. Some trained dogs accompany their handlers to nursing homes, hospitals, schools, and therapy sessions to provide emotional support to patients. These dogs are called “comfort dogs”. 

The difference between a therapy dog and an emotional support animal is how many people they work with. An emotional support animal typically helps one individual, whereas a therapy dog works with multiple people in different settings such as in hospitals, schools (especially during stressful times, such as finals week), or disaster areas. The Alliance of Therapy Dogs is a certification program for pets. The benefits of therapy dogs may include improved mood, increased self-esteem, and decreased depression.

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How psychiatric assistance animals can help

Psychiatric assistance animals may have many positive effects on the well being of their owners. A good therapy dog may be able to drastically improve the quality of life for someone living with a mental health condition. The therapeutic benefits of PAGs are still being studied, but here are a few of the suspected health benefits of psychiatric assistance animals:

  • Perform room searches and safety checks
  • Remind handler to take medication
  • Interrupt acts of self-harm
  • Turn lights off and on
  • Protect disoriented individuals from dangers
  • Distract handler during moments of anxiety
  • Alert others for help
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Other ways to get support for mental health conditions

Therapy dogs may not be an option for everyone. Not all individuals can afford, accommodate, or care for a new therapy dog or its training. In addition, the symptoms of some mental health conditions may not be meaningfully improved by the presence of a pet, even a trained therapy pet. That said, there are other ways to receive helpful mental healthcare. Meeting with a qualified mental health professional in therapy is one that’s both common and highly effective, and is typically recommended even for those who also have a PAD.

Research suggests that speaking with a therapist online can offer similar benefits to speaking with a therapist in person in many cases. One study found that online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) “allows treatment of patients with many different psychiatric conditions at a lower cost than traditional CBT”. Online therapy also represents a more available option for those who aren’t able to locate a provider in their local area or who have trouble getting to therapy sessions regularly for any reason. For those interested in virtual therapy, a platform like BetterHelp may be worth considering. You can get matched with a licensed therapist whom you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or online chat to address the mental health challenges you may be facing. See below for client reviews of BetterHelp therapists.

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Takeaway

Psychiatric assistance dogs may be helpful to people with certain mental health conditions in certain situations. Seeking the support of a qualified therapist in therapy is another way to address mental health conditions.

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