Mental health problems are often misunderstood and underestimated. We may think that they only affect a few people, but in reality, mental health issues are much more common. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control around 50% of all Americans will develop some form of mental health issue at some point in their lives and 20% will struggle with one every year.
By Claire Szewczyk
This is no different for our veterans who are also susceptible to struggling with mental health conditions. Research shows that military service can be a catalyst for poor mental health. The two most common mental illnesses veterans tend to experience are depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Therapy dogs offer a therapeutic solution for veterans and other individuals struggling with mental health conditions by providing companionship and emotional support. Learning how to use a therapy dog to improve mental health could help you or a loved one enjoy a great asset that could ease mental health burdens.
Photo Credit: Hill & Ponton
What is a Therapy Dog?
Therapy dogs are pets that can provide comfort and mental health support for individuals who may be suffering from mental health conditions such as depression, PTSD, anxiety, bipolar disorder, etc.
They are not to be confused with service dogs which they are very distinct from, even though many people may use the terms interchangeably. But what is the difference?
- Therapy dogs: Therapy dogs are dogs that provide comfort to individuals struggling with mental health issues by providing unconditional love and companionship. By doing so, they give people positive outlets that lift the burden of mental health challenges.
- Service dogs: These are dogs that are trained to assist their handlers by performing specific tasks. This involves rigorous, specialized training that is unique to that individual that may include physical or mental needs. They are also protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Research shows that interactions with furry companions release mood-boosting hormones such as oxytocin and decrease stress-causing hormones such as cortisol. Any animal can be a therapy animal but many turn to dogs because of their inherent desire to bond with and please humans.
How to Use a Therapy Dog to Improve Veteran's Mental Health
While any breed of dog can be used as a therapy dog, some will tend to work better than others. Because they are meant to provide a calming and resolute presence in their owners’ lives, dogs with a more reserved demeanor tend to be better for the role.
These breeds will tend to skew towards more effectiveness as therapy dogs:
- Labrador retrievers
- Great Danes
- Golden Retrievers
- Mixed breed dogs
While breed can play a part in the efficacy of therapy dogs, ultimately their upbringing will determine how good they are at providing emotional support. While larger breeds are more common, smaller breeds can prove just as effective.
Regardless, an effective therapy dog is great at improving mental health because they:
- Assist in reducing the effects of oppressive mental states like anxiety.
- Provide mental support by offering a positive outlet for intense emotions.
- Give unconditional love and companionship.
- Compliment other forms of therapy.
- Provide social support and help individuals interact better with other humans.
- Help ground individuals in reality which is important for conditions such as PTSD.
As you can see, therapy dogs provide a wide range of advantages for those who are struggling with their mental health. Veterans and other individuals with mental health issues like PTSD may see dramatic gains in their lives thanks to the assistance of a therapy dog, whether it be for improved mental stability or to increase the power of therapy.
How Do I Get a Therapy Dog?
While it’s possible to go looking for dogs that have been bred specifically to provide therapy or emotional support, many people will opt to use existing dogs. There is no wrong path to obtaining or utilizing a therapy dog, so long as the therapy dog has the aforementioned characteristics necessary to provide support.
One of the most effective methods to ensure that a dog is a good candidate for the role is to adopt them as puppies. That way, they can be trained and brought up in a way that facilitates the development of positive therapy dog traits such as patience, affection, confidence, and a calm demeanor.
Because therapy dogs are not trained to help with specific tasks, they do not receive the same protections as service dogs such as a requirement to be allowed in establishments that otherwise would not allow pets.
However, therapy dogs do have some protections under the Fair Housing Act. Landlords are required to allow tenants to keep therapy dogs with them regardless of any pet or breed restrictions and cannot demand any additional charges from the owner such as pet deposits, fees, or pet rent.
About the Author
Claire Szewczyk is a Digital Content Coordinator for Hill & Ponton, PA in Florida. She was a former US Airforce civilian employee, who worked at Hill Air Force Base, in Layton, UT as a flight testing administrator. She has also spent several years working with the Department of Veterans Affairs audiology programs in Salt Lake City, UT and Pocatello, ID. She enjoys working with the Veteran population and keeping them up to date with the information they need the most.
Also view: Mental Health Benefits of Dogs