Mental Health

The Role of Dogs in Mental Health Therapy

Animal Mental Health

In the complex realms of mental health therapy, the use of dogs as therapeutic agents has gained considerable recognition and validation. Known for their unwavering loyalty, unconditional love, and the innate ability to bond with humans, dogs are invaluable allies in addressing various psychological conditions. 

Their roles extend far beyond companionship, as they offer tangible psychological benefits, help with therapy and rehabilitation, and essentially, improve the overall quality of life for many individuals dealing with mental health issues.

The History and Development of Canine-Assisted Therapy

Therapy dogs, sometimes referred to as “comfort dogs,” have been at the heart of a therapeutic approach known as Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT). The earliest recorded therapeutic use of dogs dates back to the end of World War II, where they were used to comfort wounded soldiers. The practice gained significant recognition in the 1960s, championed by American psychologist Boris Levinson. He observed his patients responding positively to his dog, Jingles, and suggested incorporating pets into therapy.

Over the decades, mental health professionals have recognized the efficacy of using dogs in therapy, helping patients cope with disorders like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), autism, and more.

The Training of Therapy Dogs

The journey of transforming a regular canine companion into a professional therapy dog requires extensive training, patience, and dedication. It’s crucial to mention that not all dogs are suited for therapy work. Certain qualities like calm demeanour, friendliness, patience, and the ability to learn and follow commands are essential.

The training process varies depending on the intended therapy role. For instance, dogs intended to work with people with anxiety disorders might undergo desensitisation training to ensure they remain calm in different environments and situations. Those intended for work with autistic individuals may be trained to recognize and respond to specific behaviours or emotional cues.

Regardless of the role, most therapy dogs undergo basic obedience training, followed by specific task-based training related to their therapeutic role. They must also pass the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen test, or an equivalent examination in their country, to prove they can behave gently and predictably with humans.

Psychological Benefits of Canine-Assisted Therapy

Emotional Well-being and Stress Reduction

Several studies have demonstrated that interaction with dogs can induce a relaxation response, decrease blood pressure, and reduce the levels of stress hormones. They provide comfort, reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, and enhance overall mood. Dogs can be particularly effective in reducing anxiety, as their predictable and controllable nature provides a non-threatening presence so obtaining one from a local reputable dog breeder is important.

PTSD Management

Therapy dogs have been shown to be highly beneficial for veterans or others suffering from PTSD. They can be trained to recognize signs of anxiety, distress, or panic attacks and perform tasks to alleviate these symptoms. This may include providing tactile stimulation (like nudging or pawing) to distract their handler during a panic attack or waking up someone experiencing a nightmare.

Social Skills and Communication

Dogs can help individuals, particularly children with autism spectrum disorders, develop social and communication skills. They can act as social lubricants, fostering interaction and communication. In the case of non-verbal individuals, the presence of a dog can help them express their feelings or needs indirectly.

Empathy and Self-Esteem

Caring for a dog can help individuals cultivate feelings of empathy and boost self-esteem. For those struggling with mental health issues, this responsibility can foster a sense of purpose and achievement. This experience can enhance their self-worth and help them build better relationships with others.

Challenges and Considerations in Canine-Assisted Therapy

Despite the multiple benefits, it’s crucial to consider potential limitations and risks of canine-assisted therapy. For example, some individuals might be allergic to dogs or fearful due to past traumatic experiences. Moreover, it’s essential to ensure the welfare of therapy dogs, as they too can experience stress or exhaustion.

Additionally, like any other therapeutic intervention, canine-assisted therapy should not be seen as a “one-size-fits-all” solution. It should be tailored to individual needs and used in conjunction with other therapeutic strategies for maximum efficacy.


The role of dogs in mental health therapy continues to develop as psychologists explore the potential for patient relief with the help of animals. Therapy dogs provide unconditional love, companionship, emotional support, and can actively participate in therapeutic strategies, all contributing to the overall well-being of individuals dealing with mental health issues.

However, their role should not be taken lightly. The training, use, and care of therapy dogs require dedication, respect for their well-being, and the understanding that their therapeutic role is only a part of a broader, more comprehensive approach to mental health care.

In the continued quest to better understand and address mental health issues, the boundless love and empathy a dog can offer makes them a remarkably effective companion and healer. As we broaden our understanding and research into canine-assisted therapy, we can continue to harness this relationship for the greater good of mental health care.

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