Plenty of anecdotal and medical research indicates that dogs can be therapeutic for people suffering from depression. Psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) have special training to help you with specific aspects of your depression, while emotional support animals (ESAs) provide crucial affection and comfort. A third category, therapy dogs, may work with mental health professionals. The type of dog you need depends on your symptoms and their severity.
Therapy dogs are pets with special training and registration that enable them to comfort people, ease anxiety, soothe pain and provide other emotional support. Volunteers may bring therapy dogs to hospitals, retirement homes or hospices to cheer patients. Some psychiatrists and psychologists also use them in sessions with clients. If you're depressed, a therapy dog can help ground you, calm the anxiety that often accompanies depression and provide unconditional love. In addition, they actually can improve communication between you and your doctor by helping you open up emotionally.
Psychiatric Service Dogs
To qualify for a PSD, you must be diagnosed with a disability covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Both major depression and bipolar disorder can qualify if they're so debilitating that they keep you from functioning. Psychiatrists use the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, to diagnose these conditions and their severity. If your doctor agrees that you're disabled, she can provide the paperwork you need to acquire a service animal. PSDs differ from therapy dogs because they're trained to perform tasks you can't do yourself. If you have a service dog, he legally can accompany you everywhere you normally go. Many PSD trainers require you to attend sessions with your dog to cement your bond and ensure a good working relationship.
Emotional Support Animals
An ESA, as the name implies, provides affection, snuggles with you, lets you pet him and gives you emotional support and stability. Legally, ESAs occupy a position between therapy dogs and service dogs. On commercial flights, federal regulations allow them to travel with you, and they can live with you in housing that normally prohibits pets. To enjoy these rights, you need a letter from your psychologist or psychiatrist stating that you have an emotional disability and prescribing the assistance of an ESA.
A PSD is trained to help you cope with the specific symptoms of your depression. For example, if the depression or meds cause serious dizzy spells, she can help you balance. If you suffer from hypersomnia -- sleeping too much and being unable to wake up -- your dog can learn to rouse you. If severe panic attacks accompany your depression, she can steer you out of a crowd and to a safe place. If you suffer from disorientation and get lost, she can guide you home. Beyond performing her tasks, though, a service dog -- like an ESA, a therapy dog or even an untrained pet -- can provide a routine, responsibility and love, which all can ameliorate symptoms of depression.
By Anne Woods
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance: Psychiatric Service Dogs (PSDs)
Invisible Disabilities Association: More Than Just a Pet
National Service Animal Registry: Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)
International Association of Assistance Dog Partners: Service Dog Tasks for Psychiatric Disabilities
Pawsitivity Service Dogs: Psychiatric Service Dogs
Therapy and Service K-9s - T.A.S.K.: Therapy and Service Dogs
Esperanza: The Power of Pets: In Wondrous Ways, Pets Make Us Feel Better
About the Author
Anne Woods holds a master's degree in literature from the Pennsylvania State University. She has more than a decade of professional experience writing for newspapers, magazines, corporate communications offices, and websites, with specialties in pets, travel and literature.