Can a Service Dog Help with Your Anxiety?

Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PMHNP-BC, CTRS on April 28, 2016Written by Kathleen Pointer

What are service dogs?

Service dogs act as companions and aides to people who have a disability. Traditionally, this has included people with visual impairment, hearing impairments, or mobility impairments. Many people are familiar with this type of service animal.

These dogs can also assist people who have a condition that isn’t visible, such as diabetes. This is also true of mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety.

Service dogs differ from regular pets. To be legally recognized as a service animal, these dogs are trained to perform tasks that can help someone with a disability. Depending on the person’s needs, this can mean anything from bringing a person their medication during times of crisis to finding help during a medical emergency.

What are psychiatric service dogs?

Just like “standard” service dogs, psychiatric service dogs are trained to help a person accomplish necessary tasks and protect them from harm. Psychiatric service dogs typically assist people who have mental health conditions that interfere with their day-to-day lives.

A psychiatric service dog may help someone with anxiety by:

  • bringing medication, or water to help swallow medication, during an anxiety attack
  • bringing a phone over during an anxiety attack, which you can use to call your therapist or other support system
  • leading someone to you if you’re in crisis
  • providing tactile stimulation, such as licking your face, to help disrupt an emotional overload
  • providing pressure against your chest or abdomen to create a calming effect during moments of distress

Sometimes, people mistake emotional support dogs for psychiatric service dogs. An emotional support animal simply provides the owner with a therapeutic presence. These animals aren’t trained to perform any tasks. This is because their presence is meant to mitigate any psychological or emotional symptoms you may be experiencing.

How to get a service dog

You must meet several criteria to be eligible for a service dog. This may include:

  • having a physical disability or debilitating illness or disorder
  • being able to participate in the dog’s training process
  • being able to independently command and care for a service dog
  • having a stable home environment

Service dogs are trained to meet a person’s needs before they’re placed in someone’s home. A dog that has already served as a pet usually can’t be trained later as service dog.

To apply for a psychiatric service dog, you will need a recommendation from a medical doctor or licensed mental health professional.

About 18 percent of American adults experience some form of mental health disorder. Overall, about 4 percent of American adults experience a severe or debilitating mental health disorder. This means that only a fraction of people who have a mental health disorder are qualified for a psychiatric service dog.

People who have anxiety that isn’t as debilitating may benefit from an emotional support animal. These domestic animals aren’t limited to canines. They’re intended to provide comforting companionship.

Emotional support animals are still regarded as pets in most situations. This means they don’t have the same legal protections as service animals in public and private spaces. These animals are afforded a few of the same provisions, though. A person with an emotional support animal is still qualified for no-pet housing and may fly with the animal without paying an extra fee.

People who believe they will benefit from an emotional support animal also need a prescription letter from a mental health professional.

What are other ways to cope with anxiety?

Coping with anxiety varies from person to person, so it’s important to find what works for you. What you may need depends on how you’re feeling and what’s triggering your anxiety.

Some general tips include:

  • going for a walk
  • practicing mindfulness
  • performing breathing exercises
  • getting a full night’s sleep
  • exercising regularly

If you need help, reach out to your therapist or a mental health professional. If you don’t have one, the National Alliance on Mental Illness offers tips for how to find the right therapist or doctor for you. The organization also offers help in finding someone in your area. This can be done online or by calling 800-950-NAMI.

If you need immediate medical attention, you should call your local emergency services.

What you can do now

If you think that you would benefit from a service dog or emotional support animal, you should reach out to a therapist or another mental health professional. They can work with you to determine whether a service dog or emotional support animal is the best fit for you.

Keep reading: The best anxiety health blogs of the year »

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