As a psychiatrist, Dr. Sehdev and the team at Aware Behavioral Health take a holistic approach to mental health. We can offer medication, and we can offer therapy, but we also look at behavioral and lifestyle choices that can contribute to better overall psychological wellbeing.
Psychiatry, more than perhaps any other mental health profession, cares about science. Recently, an article by the American Psychiatric Association looked at the ways that “therapy dogs” may benefit mental health. These are especially important here in the Dallas area, because we have a lot of veterans and a higher than average percentage of children and adult with anxiety and depression. You can read the article here, but to summarize, dogs are currently being used to help patients with:
Dogs can be included in existing therapy treatments, provided the right dog is matched with the right client (for example, the authors point out that a high energy and loud dog is not a good fit for a child with autism), and while they are not a replacement for therapy or psychiatric medication, they may have some benefit.
What Does the Science Say?
It’s difficult to study the benefits of service animals in therapy because there is a limited ability to control for different variables. For example, there is no “placebo” service dog, and without a control group that is not given access to a service dog, it can be difficult to measure the benefits over other mental health methods.
Still, while service dogs may not be easily compared to other psychiatric treatments, they are still believed to be beneficial when used properly by the psychologist or psychiatrist. For example:
- Dogs helped reduce anxiety in patients hospitalized with depression.
- Dogs appeared to create benefits similar to oxytocin in combat veterans with PTSD.
- Stress hormone levels decreased in children with Autism when given a service dog.
These are extremely promising studies. What these mean is that, while we should not see service dogs as a replacement for other mental health, there is reason to at least not reject them in the lives of our patients. Studies do seem to confirm that the right pets can help make someone’s life happier, and, of course, many people just love dogs.
Now, it should be noted that “service dogs” are a specific type of trained dogs. Not everyone that buys dog is going to find that raising a dog provides the same benefits. Some might, of course, but dogs are a lot of work. But if it makes sense to get a trained service dog, and you’re in a position where that might benefit you, it may make sense to give it a try.