Your question: Can a service dog help me with my anxiety?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy.

Anxiety is a universal phenomenon that affects people differently. Feeling anxiety in small doses is necessary, as it is a natural response of our body to a potential threat, which demands a response on our part to protect ourselves.

However, anxiety can become recurrent, intense and appear for no apparent reason, which causes deterioration in people’s quality of life. Just as everyone experiences anxiety differently, each person may need different treatments to reduce anxiety symptoms.

Some people are helped by exercise, others by yoga and deep breathing, and still others may require other types of help. Service dogs, also known as psychiatric service dogs, have become popular in recent years as a four-legged aid for people with various emotional problems.

Service dogs are dogs trained to provide emotional assistance and companionship to people with diagnosed emotional problems, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and schizophrenia. They have been shown to be effective in reducing anxiety-related complications, and in particular, they significantly reduce the risk of suicide in patients with a psychiatric diagnosis (1). 

If you have anxiety and are wondering if an assistance dog will help you feel better, the answer is not so simple. Yes, assistance dogs are a great help, but they are not a magic bullet to make anxiety go away. As anxiety is a persistent problem since we cannot get rid of it completely, it requires multiple strategies to alleviate its symptoms.

Therefore, although you can request a service dog to help you relieve your anxiety, you must complement the emotional assistance provided by the dog with strategies to regulate your anxiety symptoms and improve your quality of life.

Before I introduce you to complementary strategies to address your anxiety and explain how you can apply for a service dog in your country, I would like to walk you through the benefits of having an assistance dog, as well as the explanation behind why they are helpful for people with anxiety.

What benefits can an assistance dog give you?

Assistance dogs do much more than just give their owner a sense of peace of mind, as they are dogs specially trained to perform tasks that benefit the person with anxiety. Some tasks that assistance dogs perform that are beneficial to people with anxiety are:

  • Detecting physical symptoms of anxiety before an episode occurs.
  • Getting help from another person in case their owner suffers an anxiety or panic attack.
  • Find their owner’s anxiety medication or phone in case of an emergency.
  • Reassure through physical contact.
  • Encourage their owner to be physically active and socialize.
  • Reduce the risk of suicide.

How can an assistance dog help you with your anxiety?

To understand the reasons why assistance dogs help people emotionally, we have to go back to the most primitive stages of mankind, since people and dogs created connections. For as long as they have existed, dogs have served as an aid to people, whether as domestic and emotional companionship or as an aid to economic activities such as hunting.

We have a particular relationship with dogs, as they are the animals we have most strongly incorporated into our social dynamics, to the point of considering them members of the family. Therefore, in a natural way, dogs evoke a sense of wholeness, security and tranquility in many people.

Assistance dogs are specially trained to provide their owners with security and protection in times of emotional crisis. This is accomplished through professional training, instructing the dog to act in a certain way in crisis situations.

Research has shown that service dogs improve the mood of people with physical or mental health problems, as they often have to function alone and independently through life, and their assistance dog is the only companion they have (2).

How can an assistance dog help you with your anxiety?

Assistance dogs have a cost that varies from country to country. This is necessary to cover the cost of training and to ensure that your dog will be in the best condition to provide you with assistance. It is necessary to understand that an assistance dog is NOT just a pet, it is a necessary emotional support to help you during your anxiety crisis.

Each country has different statutes to be able to opt for an assistance dog. In general, they all agree that you must have a psychiatric diagnosis to be eligible for a service dog, as well as rule out possible allergies to dogs. In addition to your assistance dog, the institutions in charge must give you legal documents so that you can have your dog in public spaces such as airplanes or restaurants.

In the US, there are different associations in charge of providing assistance dogs to people with anxiety. One of the most popular is USA Service Dogs. You can go to their website here and contact them:

In the UK, Assistance Dogs UK is in charge of appointing assistance dogs to people with emotional problems of all kinds. You can access their website here:

In Australia, Assistance Dogs Australia is in charge of this service, you can also make donations that go towards the care and breeding of assistance dogs. You can visit their website here:

For the rest of the countries in the world, you can search on the internet the “name of your country + service dogs”. You can also ask at your local mental health institutions.

What else can you do?

In a complementary way there are strategies you can do to alleviate your anxiety symptoms, even if you have an assistance dog. Remember the importance of professional help. An assistance dog is not a magic solution to all your problems: you should continue to see your trusted therapist and psychiatrist on a regular basis.

Breathing and relaxation

Inhale through your nose for three seconds, exhale through your mouth for another three seconds. This while you close your eyes and feel how slowly the tension in your body decreases. You can apply this exercise for at least 10 minutes a day at different times, and just after experiencing an episode of anxiety.

5, 4, 3, 2, 1

This technique consists of using your senses to dissuade emotional discomfort at a given moment. It is useful when you experience a lot of physical agitation or when you feel you have a lot of unpleasant thoughts, and you find it difficult to control your emotions. Wherever you are, you will focus on identifying 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. This will allow you to focus your attention on specific things during the period of anxiety, and slowly, the feeling of intense worry will diminish.

Connect with yourself

Anxiety can greatly affect your relationship with yourself and your self-esteem. Therefore, moments of solitude doing activities that you enjoy are very effective in reducing anxiety symptoms. Whether it is writing, going to museums or movie theaters, walking around monuments in your city, dedicating moments of the week to a personal activity that you enjoy doing, will bring you benefits.

In my experience…

Getting an assistance dog is a good option to reduce your anxiety symptoms. It won’t just be a pet and a companion, it can be a lifesaver that can give you the help you need in a moment of crisis. An assistance dog can also help you get to know yourself better and identify the situations that trigger your anxiety, as well as encourage you to exercise more, even if it’s just going for a walk in the park.

However, assistance dogs are not a magic wand to make anxiety disappear. Yes, they are cuddly, they will give you affection and protection, but at the end of the day, your anxiety is still present, and it is your responsibility to cope with it at your own pace. Don’t neglect care with your trusted doctors, and of course, don’t neglect yourself. Keep constantly watching your emotional state, identifying when your anxiety is getting out of control.

I believe you have the ability to improve and heal these feelings of discomfort you are experiencing now. The fact that you are seeking professional help through this medium proves it to me, and I applaud you for making that decision and being on track to improve your mental health and overall, your physical health.

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