An improved understanding of the needs of individuals living with mental health disorders, along with the relationship between the owners of psychiatric assistance dogs and their pets, will help to improve the appropriate choice of dog, training, and use of assistance dogs in people with schizophrenia and other serious mental illnesses. An online survey was conducted among psychiatric assistance dog owners in Australia who were registered with the not-for-profit “mindDog” organization, to better comprehend the human-animal bond. Results of this analysis were published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science.

The investigators sought to gain an improved understanding of the relationship between psychiatric assistance dogs and their owners who have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, such as schizophrenia, posttraumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, depression, or anxiety. A total of 600 active clients who were registered with mindDog in February 2018 were invited to participate in an anonymous survey using SurveyMonkey cloud-based software. The questions included forced-choice, multiple-choice, other (in which free text could be inserted), and binary (yes or no responses) types. Overall, 33% (199 of 600) of the eligible participants completed the survey.

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Median participant age at the time of data collection was 47 years (range, 10 to 75 years). The majority of the participants (77%) identified as female; 58% of the sample lived in suburban areas. Overall, 37% of the study participants had learned about psychiatric assistance dogs from the internet, 32% from their healthcare providers, and 30% from family/friends.

Most of the dogs had been obtained from a registered breeder (48%), which was followed by an animal shelter (21%), and a nonregistered breeder (16%). The reasons most commonly provided for selecting a dog to be a psychiatric assistance dog included temperament (60%), followed by size/weight (48%); only 15% of the participants reported that they selected their dog based on its physical appearance. All psychiatric assistance dogs were trained by either the owner or a combination of the owner and a qualified trainer. The dogs in the sample were of varying breed, gender, and age.

Psychiatric service dogs perform tasks cited as ranging from reminding the owner to take medication to providing a reality check from dissociation or hallucination. The most common tasks performed by the dogs for their owners included

  • reducing anxiety through tactile stimulation (94%),
  • nudging or pawing the owner to bring him or her back to the present (71%),
  • interrupting an undesirable behavioral state (51%),
  • constant body contact (50%),
  • deep pressure stimulation (45%), and
  • blocking contact from other individuals (42%).

The use of psychiatric assistance dogs decreased the use of psychiatric or other healthcare services in 46% of participants, increased the use in 30% of participants, and did not change the use in 24% of participants. Decreases in the use of psychiatric healthcare services were mainly because of fewer suicide attempts and fewer requirements for hospitalizations and nonadherence with medication. In contrast, increased usage of psychiatric services was mainly the result of participants’ enhanced ability to attend appointments.

The results of this study showed that owners of psychiatric assistance dogs have varying mental health diagnoses, and their dogs perform different tasks to support them in their daily lives. All of the participants described their relationship with their service dog as positive, thus implying that a successful working partnership does not require that a dog has been bred or trained specifically for the role. The investigators concluded that a better understanding of the population of individuals with mental health disorders and the person-dog relationship will help to inform the appropriate choice, training, and use of psychiatric assistance dogs among individuals who are living with mental health issues, including patients with schizophrenia, thus better supporting the needs of both the patient and the animal.

Reference

Lloyd J, Johnston L, Lewis J. Psychiatric assistance dog use for people living with mental health disorders. Front Vet Sci. 2019;6:166.