4 min read

How Service Dogs Help Manage Depression and Anxiety


By hannah hollinger

Published: 06/12/2019, edited: 05/07/2024

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According to the World Health Organization, more than 300 million people around the world suffer from depression and anxiety disorders. Such mental illnesses can be debilitating and significantly limit a person’s ability to perform day-to-day tasks.

One of the most “pawpular” treatments for anxiety and depression is pet therapy. Service dogs, emotional support animals, and beloved pets all make great companion dogs for depression, anxiety, and other physical and mental illnesses.

Let's take a look at how a service dog can help! But first, what are the different kinds of helpful pups?

What’s the difference between emotional support animals, therapy dogs, and service dogs?

Emotional service animals (ESA) are usually beloved pets who provide emotional support to their owners, but are not specially trained to perform work tasks. ESAs are not classified as service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). However, ESAs receive some protection under federal law, including the Fair Housing Act.

Therapy dogs assist people in a clinical setting, such as a hospital, nursing home, or psychiatrist’s office. Special training may or may not be required, depending on the facility’s pet policies. At the very least, therapy pets must be socialized, obedient, and well-behaved in unfamiliar settings.

Service dogs, on the other paw, are working dogs who are trained to assist their handler by performing tasks directly related to their disability. These helpful pups are recognized by the ADA and can accompany their handler to any public space. Some state and local laws have a broader definition of “service animal” compared to the ADA. While some dog breeds are natural service pups, almost any dog with the right disposition and physical needs of their handler can be trained. 

Small gray and white dog snuggling in the arms of a military man

How service dogs help manage depression and anxiety

Service dogs for depression, anxiety, and other mental conditions are called psychiatric service dogs. For veterans dealing with symptoms of PTSD, a psychiatric service dog who can help them through episodes can be life-saving. According to the ADA, these dogs must be trained to perform at least one work task, which may include:

  • anticipating anxiety attacks and depressive episodes before they happen
  • comforting their owner through an episode using their weight and warmth (also known as deep pressure therapy)
  • reminding their handler to take their medication
  • bringing medication or water to their handler
  • checking rooms for safety
  • turning on lights for handlers with PTSD
  • preventing self-mutilation
  • protecting disoriented handlers from harm
  • seeking help for a handler in crisis

Woman with white service dog on park bench

How can I get a service dog for depression and anxiety?

There are many ways to acquire a service dog for anxiety or depression. You can train your own dog to perform work tasks with or without the help of a professional dog trainer. However, working with a professional trainer is recommended. 

In addition to purpose-driven training, service dogs are required to display good behavior and basic obedience, including house training and socialization skills.

Alternatively, you can apply for a fully trained service dog through a special program. However, programs for psychiatric service dogs are limited and typically very expensive.

To qualify for a psychiatric service dog, you must have a letter from a mental health professional confirming that your depression or anxiety impedes your ability to perform at least one major life task without assistance. You must also maintain control of your service dog at all times and be financially stable enough to cover their veterinary costs throughout their life.

Common misconceptions about service dogs and their federal rights

The ADA grants basic public access rights to service dogs, but state and local laws regarding service dogs may vary. Service dogs must comply with all local licensing, registration, and vaccination regulations.

Under the ADA, businesses cannot exclude service dogs or require handlers to produce:

  • documentation or confirmation of their disability
  • identification or training documentation for the dog
  • proof that the service dog can perform work or tasks

Individual organizations, however, may set their own community standards regarding service dogs. Certain entities, such as private housing authorities and airlines, may require a letter from your doctor confirming your disability and need for a service animal.

Contrary to popular belief, the ADA doesn’t require service dogs to wear special identification tags or vests. There’s also no official process in the United States for certifying or registering a dog as a service animal.

The U.S. Department of Justice also states that service animal registration kits sold by online retailers don’t certify an animal as a service dog or grant them any public access rights.

Additionally, federal agencies and airlines aren’t required to comply with the ADA. Different federal laws apply to these entities.

Man in wheelchair with English Golden Retriever dog

Benefits of having a dog for depression and anxiety

Even though pets and emotional support animals aren’t specially trained, they can still help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Studies show that interacting with dogs, especially your own pet, increases levels of oxytocin in the brain. Oxytocin, often called “the love hormone”, plays a vital role in social bonding and helps regulate stress levels. Pet owners experience stronger, longer lasting effects of this oxytocin boost.

A study which investigated the benefits of animal-assisted therapy for university students found that interacting with dogs, even for a short time, decreased negative self-beliefs, improved social connectedness, and increased overall life satisfaction.

Owning a dog can even help you live longer! According to a Swedish study, dog ownership reduces the risk of heart disease and improves sleep, social interaction, and overall well-being. Even your dog’s germs make you healthier, strengthening your immune system against foreign bacteria.

Suffice to say, the benefits of having a dog for depression, anxiety, and plain old companionship are backed by science! If you suffer from depression or anxiety and consider your pup an “impawtant” part of your treatment plan, contact your mental health professional or accredited dog trainer with any questions. 

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