It may seem unlikely that people with a mental illness as serious as bipolar disorder could be positively affected by trained therapy or service dogs and pets. But there’s a large body of evidence which indicates that dogs can help improve mental patients’ physical and psychological health, enhance their ability to interact socially and perform activities of daily living. In fact, relationships between dogs and mental patients have proven so successful that service and therapy dogs are more in evidence than ever; a form of alternative treatment that can help mental patients function in society in ways that might otherwise have been impossible. Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), therapy dogs can enter public buildings, which means patients benefit from the physical assistance of a trained companion as well as the emotional support and reassurance of their friend’s presence. This relationship illustrates the ways in which therapy dogs can benefit mental patients.

Emotional support
People who suffer from mental disorders often feel overwhelmed by tasks and situations that are sometimes more than they can emotionally handle. Therapy dogs can be trained to perform tasks that help patients function effectively in social settings and among crowds that would normally be too much for them. For example, service dogs can help keep strangers from getting too close to their owner, a major source of anxiety. They can even be trained to recognize when their owner is nearing a panic attack or some emotional breakdown, and can intervene by licking or nuzzling their owner as a comforting sign that all is well. In extreme cases, a service dog can even help prevent an individual from harming himself by inserting his nose between his owner’s hands. As such, a therapeutic service dog is often defined as one specifically trained to help its owner avoid a debilitating emotional episode.

Personal assistance
People who suffer from mental disorders often have a hard time keeping up with their medications, and may easily become confused as to when and how much. Therapy dogs can be trained to remind their owner when it’s time for their next dose. Sometimes, individuals may have difficulty functioning after taking medication intended to help them keep emotions and physical reactions under control. Service dogs can help patients stay balanced, and prevent accidents that may result from their prescriptions.

Crisis response
Therapeutic service dogs are also capable of helping their owners survive a medical crisis. For instance, they can be trained to fetch medications when needed, and to help their owners get water or some other liquid for swallowing pills. In especially dire circumstances, service dogs can even call 911 through specially designed speaker phones, or respond to a doorbell once emergency personnel arrive on the scene. They can even be trained to intervene with an owner who’s clearly exhibiting signs of inebriation while driving, the dog prompting his owner to slow down or pull over and stop.

Mental benefits
Not only do dogs keep mental patients calm, they’re capable of helping Alzheimer’s patients, for instance, regain self-confidence and reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness. Interacting with Alzheimer’s patients has shown that the comforting presence of therapy dogs can help improve memory and a sense of well-being in Alzheimer’s patients. Dogs can also help us cope with stress in a healthy way, which is particularly important for those recovering from addiction.

Mental patients and therapeutic service dogs forge remarkable, long-lasting relationships that help individuals maintain control in stressful social settings. Dogs can also be trained to help protect their owners from mental breakdowns and dangerous physical reactions to their condition. In many cases, service dogs make it possible for people with mental disorders to enjoy the healthiest and most beneficial relationships of which they are capable.

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Guest blog by Jessica Brody