Service Dogs for Anxiety and Depression

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Service dogs are specially trained to assist people with mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Anxiety and depression have reached near-epidemic levels. 

In the United States alone, over 48 million adults experience an anxiety disorder each year.

Depression affects 20 million adults, and nearly half of them also have an anxiety disorder.

It’s been proven that dogs add to our overall happiness and positively affect our mental health.

This is especially true for those suffering from anxiety or depression.

Some of the key ways that dogs help are by increasing mood-boosting brain chemicals, decreasing the stress hormone cortisol, and by providing opportunities for exercise and socialization. 

The mental health benefits of having a pet dog are pretty impressive, but service dogs are trained to do even more.

Types of Service Dogs for Anxiety and Depression

Terms like service dog and therapy dog are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing.

Consider these various options for canine help for your anxiety or depression.

Service Dogs

Service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks for a person with a disability such as hearing loss or sight impairment.

But these dogs can also assist people with a mental health condition such as anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), here are the classifications of recognized service dogs: 

  • guide dog or seeing eye dog
  • hearing or signal dog
  • psychiatric service dog
  • seizure response dog
  • sensory signal dogs (for autism)

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Service dogs are allowed everywhere you go, such as restaurants or retail stores.

Service dogs are allowed to live with you in any residence, even those that typically don’t allow dogs.

They’re trained to support one specific person.

Service dogs are not required to wear a vest, although they often do.

In some countries, identifying documentation is issued to professionally trained service dogs who have demonstrated the ability to behave in public.

There is no formal certification system that is required or approved by the US ADA. 

However, each state has its own requirements regarding certification, licensing, and training requirements.

You can learn about the requirements in your state at this Table of State Service Animal Laws compiled by Michigan State University’s Animal and Legal Historical Center.

Psychiatric Service Dogs

Psychiatric service dogs are a specific type of service dog.

To qualify for a psychiatric service dog, a person must receive a diagnosis of mental illness by a mental health professional.

These dogs are trained to help people with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

" A review of 69 studies confirmed what animal lovers already know — that regular interaction with animals reduces many stress-related parameters. 

A psychiatric service dog is trained to assist someone whose mental health condition prevents them from performing tasks.

Tasks they can help you with might be bringing medicine during an anxiety attack, leading somebody to help you, and applying pressure on you to calm you down. 

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These dogs are able to sense changes in your body when you are about to have a panic attack.

The dog will paw at your leg and interrupt what would be destructive behavior so that you refocus on him.

For someone who suffers from claustrophobia, the dog can be trained to stand in between them and other people to help them gain more control of their personal space.

For the above reasons, many organizations try to place psychiatric support dogs with returning veterans who suffer from PTSD.

Emotional Support Dogs

An emotional support dog is not trained to physically help with day-to-day actions, but instead calms its owner just by its presence.

Unlike service dogs, emotional support dogs don’t require a specific type of training.

Emotional support dogs are mostly regarded as pets, meaning they aren’t allowed everywhere that service dogs are.

Emotional support dogs are helpful with disabilities such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, phobias, and panic attacks.

These dogs can also be of great benefit for both children and adults on the autism spectrum.

To obtain an emotional support dog, you must present a letter from a appropriate mental health care professional.

Therapy Dogs

The term therapy dog is often generically used to describe all kinds of service dogs, but, in fact, they have a very distinct role.

Therapy dogs go with their owners to volunteer in settings such as schools, hospitals, and nursing homes.

These dogs need to have a calm demeanor and get along with all people, but they are not considered service dogs and do not have the same rights and privileges.

Therapy dogs can bring great comfort to those with anxiety, depression, or PTSD.

They can help ease the loneliness experienced by seniors.

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One study found that Alzheimer’s patients who spent time with therapy dogs experienced a better quality of life and spent more time recounting memories. 

This chart sums up the similarities and differences between the three main types of assistance animals.

chart comparing three main types of assistance animals
The three main types of assistance animals. (Image courtesy of ServiceDogCertifications.org)

How Service Dogs Help Anxiety and Depression

The symptoms of depression can include disinterest in daily life and favorite activities, periods of self-isolation, and trouble getting out of bed and caring for yourself.

Some symptoms of anxiety can include difficulty working from outside the house, reduced social contact due to feeling overwhelmed, anxiety attacks, and issues with fear.

The presence of a service dog can help on all fronts.

Here are some of the many ways service dogs work their magic.

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1. Dogs Ensure That You’ll Get Exercise

Dogs need exercise, and you’ll be getting a lot of exercise right along with them.

Dog owners walk significantly more and are more active overall than those without dogs. 

It’s been repeatedly shown that exercise helps a wide range of mental health disorders including anxiety disorders, depression, ADHD, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder

A landmark Duke University study found that exercise worked even better for depression than the popular antidepressant Zoloft. 

Some of the ways exercise improves mental health is by increasing circulation to the brain and raising levels of feel-good brain chemicals such as endorphins, norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine. 

Walking your dog ensures that you’ll get outside, and simply spending time in nature can boost mood and calm anxiety.

And while you’re outside in sunny weather, you have the opportunity to create vitamin D, an essential nutrient with many antidepressant properties.

2. Dogs Ward Off Loneliness

An affectionate dog provides unconditional love and friendship.

Walking your dog can help you feel less isolated because you’ll meet other people on your walks.

Don’t be surprised if people stop to admire your dog or ask you questions about her.

Interestingly, a dog can provide the same emotional benefits as having friends of the human variety.

Your relationship with your dog can also improve your existing relationships with other people.

3. Dogs Provide a Sense of Purpose

If you are feeling down, having a dog gives you a sense of purpose, a reason to get up and face the day.

They also provide you with much-needed daily structure.

Dogs need to be regularly fed and walked and are very good at reminding you if you are falling behind schedule.

Even though dogs are a lot of work, being responsible for them promotes mental health by building your self-esteem.

When you learn that you’re capable of taking care of another life, you start to realize that you are capable of taking care of yourself.

Learning to focus on something other than yourself tends to reduce your symptoms of anxiety and depression.

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4. Dogs Reduce Stress

Dogs create a sense of calm and confidence and, amazingly, can even warn you of an oncoming anxiety attack.

Spending time with a beloved pet can reduce fear, stress, and anxiety, and make you generally happier. 

A review of 69 studies confirmed what animal lovers already know — that regular interaction with animals reduces many stress-related parameters. 

Spending time with your dog increases oxytocin levels in both you and your pet.

One study found that owning a pet dog can reduce stress even better than a close friend

Stress has often been described as “time traveling” — worrying about the future and ruminating about the past.

But your dog’s presence can work like meditation to keep you fully in the present moment.

How to Get a Service Dog for Anxiety or Depression (or train your own)

If you believe that a service dog could benefit you, there are a few things you must know.

Not everyone qualifies for a service dog and, even if you do, it can be quite expensive and is not covered by insurance or Medicaid.

Service dogs are a big responsibility in both time and money.

And you have to go through training with them to learn how to successfully work together.

The dog has to learn your commands and you have to practice together every day.

A great resource is Rover.com’s Ultimate Guide to Getting a Service Dog where you’ll find lists of organizations that can help guide you through the process.

If you would like to train your pet dog to become your service dog, you can learn what is required in Rover’s How to Train Your Own Service Dog.

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Emotional Support Dog vs Service Dog

Lastly, not everyone with anxiety or depression needs a service dog.

You may already have a beloved pet that brings you a lot of comfort or you may consider getting a pet dog if you don’t already have one.

You can also train your pet dog to be an emotional support dog which does not have to be as highly trained as a service dog.

While any breed can be an emotional support dog, some breeds are easier to work with than others.

Golden retrievers, labs, and labradoodles (or other types of doodles) are considered good choices due to their intelligence and calmness.

Service Dogs for Anxiety and Depression: Take the Next Step

Dogs of all kinds can provide many emotional benefits.

Service dogs are trained to help their humans with specific needs.

Service dogs can ease symptoms of depression and anxiety through exercise and routine, while also providing calmness and comfort.

They learn to be attuned to their owner’s needs and provide friendship and unconditional love.

But not everyone requires a service dog.

For many, an emotional support dog will suffice.

And for those who don’t require a specially trained animal, a family pet makes a wonderful addition to everyone’s mental health and happiness.