Psychiatric Assistance Dog Use for People With Mental Health Disorders
Dogs and other animals have been assisting people with physical disabilities and providing emotional support for centuries. Assistance dogs (service dogs) are trained to perform various tasks for their owners relating to physical, psychiatric and intellectual disabilities that the owner might have. A Psychiatric Assistance Dog (PAD) is a special type of service dog that is trained to help its owner who has been diagnosed with a mental health condition such as PTSD, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder. PAD’s are different from emotional support dogs (ESDs or therapy dogs) in that an ESD provides emotional support to a person to help relieve a disabling condition, but the animal is not specifically trained to do so, whereas a PAD is trained to do so.
PAD’s can be any size or breed of dog, and they assist people in accessing public places, travelling on public transport or taking part in various social activities. They can be trained by the person who will be their handler or in combination with a qualified trainer. In Australia, anyone diagnosed with a mental health condition is eligible to apply to accredit such a dog.
PAD owners registered with mindDog, a non profit organization in Australia that helps to source, train and accredit PAD’s, and undertook an anonymous online survey. All active clients registered in February 2018 were invited to participate in the survey. The results of the survey were as follows:
- One third of eligible people completed the survey. The median age was 47 years, and ranged from 10 to 75 years. Majority of participants were female and most lived in suburban areas.
- Mental health conditions identified were mainly depression (84%), anxiety (social 61%, generalized 60%), PTSD (62%) and panic attacks (57%). Other conditions which were noted were OCD, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and eating disorders.
- Breeds of dog were varied and the age of the dog ranged from 1 to more than 10 years. Most dogs were acquired from a registered breeder (47%), followed by an animal shelter (21%) and non-registered breeders (16%). The reasons to choose a dog to be a PAD was temperament (60%) followed by size/weight (48%) and 15% choosing the dog based on its physical appearance. 48% of dogs had been acquired to be specifically trained as a PAD whilst the rest were pets. All dogs were trained by either the owner or a combination of the owner and a qualified trainer. PAD’s come in many shapes and sizes, so they can look different to other service dogs such as Labradors or Golden Retrievers which are used as guide dogs. Over a fifth (21%) of dogs were acquired from an animal shelter indicating that rescue dogs can be an important source of successful PADs and are beneficial in reducing the space in existing shelters.
- Common tasks performed by the dogs included reducing anxiety through tactile stimulation (94%), nudging or pawing the person to bring them back to the present (71%), interrupting an undesirable behavioural stated (51%), constant body contact (50%), deep pressure stimulation (45%) and blocking contact from other people (42%). Other tasks included ensuring the owner leaves their house or bed, reminding the owner to take their medication, keeping the owner safe, assisting in sensing their owner’s emotions and behaviours and providing a reality check from anxiety or dissociation.
- The use of PAD decreased the use of health care services (46%) mainly due to reduced suicide attempts, less need for hospitalization and requirements for medication. The use of PAD also increased use of health care services (30%) due to owners being able to attend appointments and having increased confidence both in going out and interacting with others.
- The relationship between owner and dog indicated a positive partnership.
These results of this study highlight that PAD’s assist people of all ages, including children with a range of mental health conditions. Whilst PAD owners may have differing mental health diagnoses, their dogs perform different functional tasks that assist them in their daily life. Every participant described their relationship with their PAD as positive, and that a successful working relationship does not require the dog to have been bred or raised specifically for that role.
There is a growing need for PAD’s in assisting people who have been diagnosed with psychiatric disabilities. It is important in light of this, to ensure the well-being of both dogs and handlers is taken into consideration, and to encourage responsible pet ownership. Owners need to understand how animals communicate and learn, and to research pet care basics before acquiring any new pet. The key to a successful relationship between owner and PAD pivots on the human-animal bond.
Link to full original research article:
Front. Vet. Sci., 6 June 2019