Celebrating Dogs as Emotional Support Animals

Dogs have been ‘man’s best friend’ for as long as anyone can remember. But they’re also increasingly being recognised as ‘man’s best therapist’ too. 

The very presence of a dog can be critical to people’s mental wellbeing, providing a soothing and distracting calm that can quell anxiety. 

There’s no question about the abundance of joy that owning a dog brings us. The intense bond and rush of positive feelings is like no other.

However, it’s only recently that research has actually scientifically proven the benefits of the relationship between humans and animals.

Studies have shown that pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression. They have lower blood pressure in stressful situations and playing with a dog physically raises our dopamine and serotonin levels – our happy hormones which calm and relax us. Pet owners have lower indicators of heart disease, heart attack patients with pets survive longer, and older pet owners visit the doctor significantly less. Wow. That’s quite a list. Who knew!

One powerful therapeutic benefit of our relationships with our pets is how they fulfil our basic human need for touch. Stroking a loving animal can quickly calm you when you’re feeling stressed or anxious.

Also, caring for our dogs – feeding, grooming, playing, walking – gives us a sense of purpose and takes us out of ourselves, giving us a welcome distraction from whatever is causing us anxiety.

Our furry friends may not be able to impart their wisdom in the shape of verbal advice, but they are excellent listeners. What a comfort to share our thoughts out loud with our canine loved ones, without being judged.

Dogs are intelligent creatures who have evolved to become in tune with humans’ behaviour and emotions. They instinctively interpret our body language, our gestures and our tone of voice.

They look into our eyes, trying to read our emotional state and understand what we’re thinking and feeling, with an innate urge to support and comfort us.

Just being in the presence of your dog can reduce anxiety, stress and depression and lessen the burden of loneliness.

And, of course, taking our dogs for daily walks is hugely beneficial. It gets us out of the house, into the fresh air, and at one with nature which be meditative and calming. And it definitely gives us mood-boosting exercise.

You may be thinking, what is the difference between a service dog and an emotional support dog?

A service dog is specifically trained to perform functions, like a seeing eye dog helping the blind to travel safely, or a dog trained to spot and respond to someone having an epileptic seizure, or a psychiatric service dog trained to remind someone with psychiatric episodes to take their medicine, or to turn on lights and do safety checks for people with PTSD. Service dogs are allowed to go virtually anywhere that members of the public can.

Emotional support dogs and therapy dogs are not classified as service dogs because they don’t have specific training to perform specific tasks assisting people with disabilities. 

They provide love and companionship, and are often taken into many settings, from hospitals to schools, bringing joy, comfort and calm to everyone they come into contact with.

We know countless moving stories about how dogs have dramatically changed people's lives, including Mei, 20, from Norwich. Her struggles with depression and crippling anxiety meant she couldn’t even leave her own home but, thanks to the support of her Golden Retriever, Koa, she is now able to live independently. They venture out on trips together, which was a huge step for Mei, and she hasn’t been hospitalised for two years. You can see their full story in the BBC documentary ‘My Life Saving Dog’, available on BBC iPlayer. 

There are some wonderful charities that help dogs to support people, like Pets as Therapy

This national charity enhances the health and wellbeing of thousands of people in communities across the UK, as they strive to ensure that everyone, whatever their circumstances, has access to the companionship of an animal.

Their volunteers take their temperament-assessed pets to visit establishments like care homes, hospitals, hospices, schools and prisons, bringing comfort and raising smiles wherever they go.

Another fantastic charity doing great work in this area is Dogs on the Streets. The comfort, company, happiness and sense of purpose that a dog gives a homeless person is priceless. But being on the streets can be harsh, and certainly lacking in resources. 

This is where Dogs on the Streets come in. They help to support the welfare of these dogs, with free food, harnesses, leads, training and grooming sessions. They also run a fully equipped mobile veterinary surgery vehicle. And, if their homeless owner is taken ill and can’t take care of their dog, a volunteer scoops them up and makes sure they are well cared for.

They have even successfully managed to get some homeless dogs and their owners off the streets for good. Amazing.

In a nutshell, dogs make people feel better. This is as true for anyone feeling a little down as it is for someone with a mental health condition.

So, what dog breeds provide the best emotional support? Most importantly, it’s all about the connection between the dog and their owner so the best emotional support dog is your dog! They already know you and you already have a strong bond. 

If you are looking to get a dog to give you emotional support, your connection will be the most important factor and any dog breed has the potential to be an excellent support dog.

However, calm dog breeds who have relaxed personalities, and breeds who have particularly loyal tendencies and never leave your side, are characteristics that are helpful for an emotional support dog. 

Such breeds include the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever, Corgi, Standard Poodle, Great Dane, Maltese, Havanese and the Yorkshire Terrier.

Let’s hear it for the dogs! They are all absolute stars.

This article is brought to you by Cherish Studios, passionate dog lovers sharing helpful tips and advice with our fellow dog lovers. For medical advice, please speak to a trained vet.

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