Louise Stanger is a speaker, educator, licensed clinician, social worker, certified daring way facilitator and interventionist who uses an invitational intervention approach to work with complicated mental health, substance abuse, chronic pain and process addiction clients.
Lyrics from Carol King’s song You’ve Got a Friend...
When you're down and troubled, And you need some love and care, And nothing, nothing is going right Close your eyes and think of me, And soon I will be there To brighten up even your darkest night. You just call out my name And you know wherever I am I'll come running to see you again Winter, spring, summer or fall All you have to do is call And I'll be there You've got a friend
They say dogs are loyal, a man’s best friend. Perhaps it goes deeper than that, feeding our emotional core.
In the movie Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, a professor’s relationship with his dog runs so deep, the dog waits for the professor to return from work every day at the train station. When the professor suddenly dies one day of a brain hemorrhage, still the dog waits each day at the train station for him to return. Years pass and the professor’s son relays the story of his father’s dog waiting at the train station to a classroom of children - a story of his personal hero. The dog eventually dies - found at the train station - still waiting for his beloved owner to come home.
Countless books, movies, TV and pop culture echo this sentiment - from Old Yeller and Lassie, to Frasier’s loyal companion, Marley & Me, 101 Dalmations, and even President Obama’s dog Bo. Dogs of all stripes tug at our heartstrings and feed our collective humanity.
I think of my own two dogs - Teddy and Coco - miniature doodles who won’t sit still until every inch of my face has been licked with kisses. It’s our morning routine. Teddy, like Hachi in the movie, senses when I travel for work. The moment I bring my travel bag downstairs, a sadness settles into Teddy’s bones, he retreats to a corner of my office to emote and wonder if I’ll ever return. And while I am gone he will spend hours by the front door listening and waiting for my return. Apparently attachment disorder runs rampant in the animal kingdom.
Perhaps the emotion dogs tickle the most in humans is happiness. According to recent findings in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health reported by Time, “people are motivated to walk their dogs when they believe it makes their pets happy, which in turn makes the owners happy.” It’s a symbiotic relationship of mutual positive regard.
This is not just emotional - medical research shows the presence of a canine companion can aid in physical healing. According to Paws for Healing, a non-profit organization that pairs dogs with patients and clients, dogs help lower blood pressure and slow pulse rates. They also help people who experience a heart attack bounce back with higher rates of survival and accelerate recovery from illness and surgery.
Regardless of the explanation for a dog’s inexplicable relationship to humans, clinicians, therapists and behavioral health specialists have observed the bonds formed between human and canine in countless research studies and use them as a pathway to healing. In fact, dogs have been used in aiding soldiers who return from battle recovering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), individuals who experience bipolar disorder, and as a deterrent for teens experimenting with alcohol and other substances, as well as teens diagnosed with tourette syndrome.
Moreover, the use of dogs as a positive healing tool in hospital settings is well documented. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2015), over 35 million people are hospitalized in the U.S. every year. Many hospitals across the country have incorporated animal programs, such as animal- assisted therapy (AAT), animal-assisted activities (AAA), animal-assisted interactions or interventions (AAI), resident animals, or pet visitation to give patients the opportunity to interact safely with dogs and to make the hospital environment more comfortable and less stressful. Research studies that looked at cardiac patients, young patients and patients who experience mental health disorders consistently find significant reductions in depression, anxiety, and pain when they experience animal-assisted therapy.
Additionally, behavioral Health Care facilities for alcohol and other drug addiction have varying degrees of animal assisted therapy depending on licensure. For examples, Capstone Treatment center gives a puppy to each new resident to aid in the recovery process. Still not all treatment centers are licensed for pets living on property or having clients bring their pets to treatment as that can be a distraction. What does seem to work is some integration of animal therapy or service work into treatment.
At Driftwood Recovery in Austin, TX, June, a yellow lab and Tucker, a Maltese, roam freely on the property intermingling with clients as does a feral cat who cozies up to you when you are feeling down. Milestones Ranch in Malibu, CA houses chicken coops and residents help collect eggs as does Alta Mira in San Francisco.
There are two types of animal care dogs: service dogs and emotional support dogs. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD, service dogs “are trained to do specific tasks for a person that he or she cannot do because of a disability.” Service dogs are trained to open doors, pick up and retrieve various objects, and be a guide for people with impaired vision. As such, they’re welcome in most public places and serve people with disabilities much the way a walker or a wheelchair aids those who are differently abled.
These types of service dogs also include psychiatric service dogs. Psychiatric service dogs are specifically trained in helping individuals with particular mental health disorders, writes the American Kennel Club. For example, a psychiatric dog might remind its owner to take their medication or clear the area of hazardous materials and provide safety and support when their owner is experiencing a seizure or dissociative episode.
Emotional support dogs, on the other hand, help a person who is experiencing a mental health disorder such as PTSD or bipolar disorder. Although emotional support dogs do not require special training, mental health providers can give a written letter assigning a dog to a client with a mental health disorder. Even general pets can take on the role of an emotional support animal. Why? Because these dogs help owners feel better and work through complex emotional responses to trauma by giving unconditional positive regard, or friendship and companionship.
Here are ways emotional support dogs can provide much needed companionship for mental health disorders (i.e. PTSD, bipolar disorder, etc.) or other emotional trauma:
- A dog is by your side. Similar to the way a soldier has his fellow man by his side, a dog can provide a sense of security and protection by checking rooms, parks and new places for any threats before you enter. If they sleep in your room at night, they can help differentiate between immediate threats from nightmares. Ultimately, the dog helps you feel like you are not alone.
- Dogs love unconditionally. For military personnel who return from battle, life in the civilian world can be difficult to adjust to as it is very different from life in a war zone. As the person recovering from PTSD acclimates to the change in scenery and culture, a dog will show unconditional love - a reminder that everything will be okay. Additionally, for the person who experiences bipolar disorder, a dog can be a sign that no matter how much fantasy and reality bleed together, the dog’s love is a touchstone of truth.
- Dogs rebuild trust. For people experiencing a mental health disorder or trauma, trust can be the first thing violated and lost in the aftermath. Dogs demonstrate the personality trait of loyalty, a consistent companion there for you night and day, trust can slowly be re-learned and returned to its rightful place as a value we hold dear.
In addition to emotional support, support dogs have been shown to help prevent teens and young adults from using alcohol and other substances. Inspired by Addiction Resource’s information on emotional support dogs, here are four ways a dog can help:
- Dogs teach responsibility. A dog is a living, breathing animal that requires attention, love and support, feeding, walking and rest time. All of these tasks requires the teen to take responsibility and take care of the animal. Owning a dog also teaches prioritizing responsibilities. If a teenager gets out of school and wants to meet his friends to hang out but he also needs to go home first and take the dog for a walk, the teenager learns the lesson of taking care of responsibilities first.
- Owning a dog builds confidence and self worth. The joy a teen gets from raising his or her dog gives them a boost of confidence and aids in feeling a sense of strong self-worth. When teens have a sturdy foundation of self-worth, they will not give into peer pressure to use alcohol and drugs.
- Dogs teach emotional intelligence. A dog is a sentient creature that responds to emotions like fear, anger, happiness and sadness. When a teenager interacts with their dog - taking cues from the dog’s emotional responses - teenagers learn how to adjust and react accordingly.
- Dogs provide a healthy emotional outlet for dealing with stress, anxiety and depression. Teenagers are new to life experiences and typically do not know how to manage and release emotions like stress, anxiety and depression. A dog can be a great sounding board for expressing these emotions in a non-judgmental setting where the teen will not feel embarrassed for showing their true emotions. And it’s a great alternative to escapist fare like drugs and alcohol.
As an interventionist, clinician and educator, I experience every day - on a personal and professional level - how dogs are a great balm for healing emotional wounds. There’s nothing like coming home to a furry little animal, a burst of sunshine that showers you with kisses and makes you feel right at home. Emotional support animals and service dogs can be that extra support who challenge us to rebuild and find hope and healing.
To learn more about Louise Stanger and her interventions and other resources, visit her website.