Can those with psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disorder or depression benefit from interaction with animals? The answer is a resounding, YES! There are an increasing number of dogs being trained to assist individuals with a range of disabilities, including seizure disorders, Parkinson's disease, heart disease, and psychiatric disorders (Sachs-Ericsson et al, 2002). Not only can those with bipolar disorder benefit from the love of and for a pet, but they are also permitted under the Americans with Disabilities Act to employ the assistance of a service dog.
The Benefit of Animals
According to Dr. Aaron Katcher of the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Patricia Gosner of the University of Southern Alabama, animals offer benefits to those with mental illnesses through a number of venues (Lipton, 2001):
- Pet Ownership It is common knowledge, and supported by a large body of scientific research, that owning a pet is generally good for people. There are social and emotional benefits to loving and caring for another creature and having that affection returned.
- Animal-Assisted Activities Trained volunteers hold informal activities in institutional settings such as prisons, hospitals and nursing homes. These activities provide patients with the opportunity to hold, cuddle, pet and interact with animals such a rabbits or dogs or even pigs (Yes! Piggies! They are so adorable).
- Animal-Assisted Therapy This involves the use of animals in formal therapy sessions. The presence of a friendly animal helps to ease a patients anxiety. This involvement can also improve social interactions and decrease aggressive behaviors.
- Psychiatric Service Dogs As noted by Dr. Gosner, These dogs perform specific tasks that mitigate the negative effects of the persons mental illness (Lipton, 2001).
The Law Relating to Service Dogs
It is important to note that to qualify for the protections and allowances of the Americans with Disabilities Act, both the individual and the canine, must meet specific criteria. In short, an individual must have a disability and a service dog must be specifically trained to meet the needs of that disability.
- To be protected by the ADA, one must have a disability or have a relationship or association with an individual with a disability. An individual with a disability is defined by the ADA as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. The ADA does not specifically name all of the impairments that are covered. (Department of Justice, 2002).
- The ADA defines a service animal as any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. If they meet this definition, animals are considered service animals under the ADA regardless of whether they have been licensed or certified by a state or local government. (Department of Justice, 1996).
The Role of Service Dogs
Joan Froling, a trainer and consultant with Sterling Service Dogs, provides a detailed list of tasks for which service dogs are trained to assist those with psychiatric disabilities. A few of the overall tasks include
- Assistance in a Medical Crisis Service dogs are trained to retrieve medications, beverages and telephones. They can bark for help, answer a door bell, and even dial 911 on special K9 speaker telephones.
- Treatment Related Assistance These special animals can be trained to deliver messages, remind individuals to take medications as specific times, assist with walking as well as alerting sedated individuals to doorbells, phones or smoke detectors.
- Assistance Coping With Emotional Overload Service dogs can be taught to prevent others from crowding their owner. They can be taught to recognize a panic attack and nuzzle a distraught owner to help with calming.
- Security Enhancement Tasks These canines are often trained to check the house for intruders. They can turn on lights and open doors. They can assist with leaving a premises during an emergency.
In summation, service dogs are of considerable benefit to those with psychiatric disabilities. As noted in their study reviewing the benefits of assistant dogs, Natalie Sachs-Ericsson et al write, Through clinical observation, anecdotal reports, and retrospective and cross-sectional studies, preliminary support was found for the conclusion that ADs have a positive impact on individuals' health, psychological well-being, social interactions, performance of activities, and participation in various life roles at home and in the community (2002).
More on Service AnimalsService Animals
Service Animals and the ADA
How can pets help us reduce stress?
What types of animals can be service animals?
Department of Justice. (2002). A Guide to Disability Right Laws.
Department of Justice.(1996). Commonly asked questions about service animals in places of business.
Froling, J. (1998). Service Dog Tasks for Psychiatric Disabilities.
Sachs-Ericsson, N., Hansen, N.K., & Fitzgerald, S. (2002). Benefits of assistance dogs: A review. Rehabilitation Psychology, 42, 251-277.