Service Dogs for Depression

By Elle Di Jensen

Pet parents know that living with an animal is good for mental health. According to WebMD, many therapists recommend interacting with animals by prescribing pets, including dogs, to help manage depression. In general, petting a dog and just being with him has a calming effect, but service dogs are more than pets. They are working dogs who have been trained to help their humans live a normal life.

More Than Companions

Because they are dogs first, psychiatric service dogs are capable of providing a calming, comforting presence for people with depression, just as any companion dog might do. However, the element that distinguishes a service dog from a companion dog is their training. The Department of Justice's definition of service animal is "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." While a companion dog may have a natural talent for lifting your spirits and calming anxiety, the psychiatric service dog has learned to recognize certain qualities of a depressed person's demeanor, as well as what to do to help correct the situation.

Duties for Coping With Depression

All service dogs have training that allows the human handler to function as normally as possible and live a fairly ordinary life. The service dog training organization Dog Wish says that psychiatric service dogs perform more specialized tasks than other types of service dogs and are trained to protect their handlers from negative energy and from themselves. When paired with a depression patient, some of the duties a psychiatric service dog is trained to handle include:

  • Detecting unusual smells from the handler's body, which may signal a neurological change in the handler
  • Detecting irregular psychological and neurological behavior in the handler
  • Perceiving and alerting to inappropriate intentions of the handler
  • Preventing the handler from taking dangerous or injurious actions

Benefits of a Psychiatric Service Dog

The most important duty a psychiatric service dog provides for his handler is to help his depressed human balance mental and emotional behaviors, and it's a task that the dog is attending to almost every minute of the day. Their training provides the dogs with the skills to enhance their natural tendency to respond to the handler and be a comforting presence. Psychiatric service dogs allow their handlers to feel less stress and frustration, make it easier for handlers to function rationally and communicate and concentrate better.

Choosing a Dog for Depression

Service dogs can be any breed or a mixture of breeds. Even the right rescue dog from an animal shelter can be trained to be a valuable service dog. The president of Psychiatric Service Dog Partners, Dr. Veronica Morris, encourages patients who are looking for a psychiatric service dog to remember that they're not shopping for a pet. Treat the endeavor more like you would if you were hiring an employee, because that's essentially what you're doing. You want to find the dog who can best help you cope with your depression. Know what duties you need your psychiatric service dog to perform, and consider dogs who fit the description where size, temperament, intelligence and willingness to work are concerned.