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Around the world, 300 million people of all ages are suffering from depression or have suffered from a depressive episode at least once in their lives. Depression can be one of the most restrictive of mental health issues and creates problems for many people in their day to day lives. The good news is, more and more people are also finding new ways to cope with their depression, including using man’s best friend to provide stability, companionship, and comfort.
Small dogs excel at being what are known as “Emotional Support Animals” --pets that act as a comforting presence to people who deal with mental health issues--and can be a very practical solution for someone who finds themselves needing the comfort of their furry friend to get them through the day.
Not to be confused with service dogs--dogs that have been task trained and perform these tasks to assist their owners in their day to day lives, as well as being public access trained--emotional support animals only have access to privileges on airplanes and in housing, and often do not perform any tasks at all besides just being a comforting presence. They can, however, still be an invaluable resource.
Smaller dogs are the ideal emotional support companions, as they are often ready to leap into a waiting lap at any moment. It’s easy to teach them what to do when you require some assistance, as most comforting behavior comes naturally to a dog. With some time and knowledge of how to hone your small dog’s natural ability to be a lap warmer, you can have your new coping method be your best friend!
Your dog doesn’t need much to get ready to provide assistance with depression. If you require a smaller dog to hop up on furniture, you may need to offer him a small set of stairs or a ramp to prevent any injuries if his legs are a little shorter. Other than that, you can begin training as soon as your dog has enough patience to learn. In just a few weeks, he’ll be familiar enough with your routine to know when you require his assistance.
Get together a small bag of treats, if you’d like to use those as a reward, or a small chew toy to encourage the appropriate behavior. Avoid fetch toys or squeak toys, as those may rile your dog up instead of getting him to relax with you.
The Couch Method
Settle onto the couch
Get comfortable in your usual position on the couch. Be sure your lap has space for your small dog.
Call your dog
Pat your lap with your hands and call your dog’s name. Double check that your dog has safe access up and onto the couch with you.
Use a verbal command
Use something that can indicate that it’s time to settle down to help you relax. ‘Settle’ or ‘calm’ are both good words to use, but you can come up with something different, depending on your needs.
Lure your dog into your lap
Use a treat or toy to lure your dog over until he is either entirely on your lap or with his front paws on your lap and hindquarters on the couch next to you. Depending on your preference, reward for the right positioning.
Create a release word
You want your dog to hold that position for as long as you need for a depressive episode, but when you want to allow him to move again, you’ll want to come up with a release word. Using ‘OK’ or ‘all done’ can both be beneficial. Use these words while you gently move him away so that you can stand up will help him recognize that he can move.
Practice with, then without, reward
Use plenty of rewards at the beginning of your training and slowly wean your dog off of them. However, if you plan on utilizing your dog’s comfort at home, you can choose to use treats as often as you’d like.
The Bed Method
Rest on your bed
This is best done in a half sitting, half lying down position so that your dog has access to your lap.
Pat the bed to call your dog
Once you’re sure your dog has access to your bed in a safe manner, call her with her name and a verbal cue like ‘come’ or something else of your choosing.
Guide your dog to your lap or side
Depending on how you prefer your dog to comfort you, guide her into the appropriate position either in your lap or at your side. Lure her into a down position next to you.
Reward for longer periods of time
Reward your dog for remaining in place and extend the length of time you require her to lay down before rewarding as you go along.
Just petting your dog can provide a calming sensation, so share some simple and positive affection with your dog when she is next to you on the bed. This will encourage her to stay with you and stay relatively calm as you sit together.
The Crisis Method
Find a position on the floor
A crisis mode is helpful for when you really can’t get up from where you are and need comfort and assistance in a safe place on the floor. Lay down on your back to provide your dog a cue for later on.
Call your dog
While patting either your chest or your legs, call your dog in an enthusiastic voice. This is necessary for the learning stages, but he will pick up on what you want without the proper tone eventually.
Reward for positioning
Using a treat or a toy to guide him, bring your dog to where you’d like him to be during moments of crisis and place him into a 'down' position so that he is lying on his belly with either his whole body or his front paws on your chest or legs. Reward when he is in the right spot.
Reward your dog when he remains laying on you for any sort of extended periods of time, withholding the treat for longer and longer until he can reliably stay with you for as long as you need.
Create a signal for release
When you no longer need your dog’s assistance, sit upright and move away from the spot while simultaneously giving a release word or phrase like ‘all done’ or ‘all better’.
While you may not often find yourself in need of your dog’s comfort during a crisis moment, you will need to practice very often just in case you do. The more you practice this task, the better prepared your dog will be when the right time comes.
By TJ Trevino
Published: 01/17/2018, edited: 01/08/2021