Emotional Support Animals– The pros and cons by Martha Anderson

Most of us know what it is like to go through a bad patch in life when you feel really down-hearted and low in spirits. I experienced this quite recently as a result of an upset which caused me great sorrow and anxiety. During this time my three cats were quite a consoling presence and I even felt they sensed when I was crying and duly gathered around. Through my tears I got comfort from just stroking their soft fur.
I was reminded of the whole idea of Emotional Support Dogs, about whom I had heard but knew very little. So I decided to check it out. We are all of course familiar with guide dogs and the great work they do, not only from our own observance but also through Roy Keane and his efforts on their behalf.
Perhaps the main difference between an emotional support dog and other service dogs is that it is not obvious to the onlooker what the former are actually doing. In other words they are not actually seen to be performing any specific task. This is because they are providing companionship and unconditional love to a person so their presence is more in the nature of a therapeutic benefit. They do not have any special training and are not required to do so by law. They can assist with conditions such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, mood disorder, panic attacks, fears and phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts or tendencies. A doctor or therapist can determine that a person needs to have a comforting companion to help them cope when something triggers their particular condition.
Another interesting aspect is that emotional support can be provided by animals other than dogs whereas Service Animals are either dogs or mini horses. Unlike service dogs, emotional support animals do not have access to all public areas. Emotional support dogs and cats are allowed access to “no pets policy” housing and in the cabins of airplanes, but a letter is required from a doctor or mental health professional endorsing your need for an animal as a result of your disability. It is advised also to provide your dog with a vest, tag, harness, leash or patch which informs the public of their distinctive identity and could save embarrassing encounters and unnecessary challenges.
This brings us neatly into another dimension of this topic and a potentially disturbing one. Sadly there will always be people who abuse these services and incur the wrath and disapproval of others in the process. There are bound to be people who are cynical about the value of all this as well as others who have no empathy for animals or people. The person who mentioned this to me first raised her eyes to Heaven at such a concept. Their attitude is helped by those people who do not have a mental disability and who try to bring animals onto a plane, or into shops and other places of business, by passing them off as emotional support animals. Such individuals not only bring the service into disrepute, they also can incur problems for those who need and use true service animals. Unfortunately anyone can order a “service animal” vest online, even when they do not in fact have a legitimate service animal.
In all of this it is important to remember the welfare of the animals themselves. Those who are imposters are putting themselves first and can give little thought to what the consequences for the animal might be. There was an example of a bear cub who was presented on campus as an emotional support animal and bit someone. It was pointed out that none of this was the bear’s fault An emotional support animal may cause problems that a trained assistance dog may not. For example, due to the lack of training, an emotional support animal may bark at and smell other people, whereas service dogs are trained not to do so.
It has been noted that an awful lot of research has to be done into this whole area to determine what exactly are the benefits of an emotional support animal in concrete terms. Some have argued that there is a danger of the animal becoming something of a crutch that the owner depends upon to get them through. What happens if their animal dies? An analogy has been made between a small child who will not go anywhere without a blanket or a special toy. Are there other more long term solutions located in their own personal resources which might be ultimately more beneficial if properly developed? On the other hand how do you determine such ‘personal’ things. Anyone whose life has been greatly enhanced by their animal will not really care about the science behind it all.

How our pet helps us through our darkest days

How Pets can help us through dark days - Mental health

Getting you through: The comfort a pet can offer during dark times* – Mental Health and Pets

Written By Martha Anderson – Resident Blogger……….

Clara a woman I know lived with and took care of her invalid mother for many years and when she died, Clara was devastated and her mental health began to suffer.  A neighbour became very concerned as she feared she might be suicidal.  When she confided her fears to Clara’s cousin the cousin told her not to worry, this could never happen as Clara would not leave Rory her dog.

Sometime later Clara did say that it was Rory who helped her through the darkest days immediately after her bereavement when she had no wish to be in the house without her mother.  His presence made the place seem less empty.  Delighted to see her, he always had a welcome at the door, which helped her over her dread of returning home after she had been out shopping, or to church.  His love was unconditional but of course, he too had his needs, and this gave her a focus outside of herself. He provided a distraction and his antics would make her smile.  Watching him play brought her moments of joy at a time when she felt she might never laugh or smile again. This, of course, had also been the case when her mother was alive, but now the whole experience was different. Clara found she needed her dog in a way she had never done before.  She who had always helped and cared for him, from when he was a little puppy, found that now he was in some sense caring for her.  He had not changed but her whole life situation had.  Rory always enriched her life and suddenly he was to all intents and purposes enabling her to go on without her mother.

She was able to bestow affection on him and feeding him, even changing his litter box, were tasks that now could actually stop her thinking in a negative manner.  His daily demands became a means whereby she was almost forced to think positively and she tended to making life positive for him. Walking him in the park took on a new meaning and was even more of a welcome routine. Clara benefitted psychologically and physically from it at a time when she needed it most.  Exercise releases serotonin, the chemical which contributes to well-being and happiness.  Low serotonin levels have been linked to depression.  Her motivation was minimal as is often the case for people who are depressed but she would not deny her dog his exercise, so she forced herself to go out and to spend longer with him throwing his frisbee and ball.

It gave her a sense of purpose at a period when she felt anchorless in a world no longer inhabited by her mother, whom she had loved and cared for and who had been a friend as well as a parent. Rory needed her still and if she was not there who would care for him?  It has been proven that increased physical activity is associated with alleviating symptoms of depression and that petting an animal can actually reduce stress in humans.  Walking Rory in the neighborhood also helped her meet people at a time when social contact was more important than ever before.

Studies have indeed shown that dogs, in particular, are able to mimic the facial expressions of ‘their’ humans. This suggests that they have a capacity to empathise and can be a real comfort in times of sorrow. We often hear how actions speak louder than words; a presence or gesture can be more effective, for example, a hug. Rory provided this and more and he was also totally accepting of Clara even when she was at her lowest.  She could be in floods of tears feeling and looking in a bad way but his love for her was unconditional.  He took her at face value without expectations and lived in the moment with her, not asking questions just being ‘there’.

Clara said she had not wanted to keep going when her mother died.  While she had not ‘contemplated’ suicide as such, neither did she want to live.  Sadly there are people who in her situation have taken the decision to put an end to a misery they believe will not pass.  Having an animal in your life is not necessarily going to help prevent a person from this course of action.   However it would seem, and Clara’s story is an example, that pets can go a long way to keep us stable when the balance of our mind is disturbed.  They can make the road more than a little easier. At times when we may feel that we cannot continue on the journey, they are there by our side to give us constant affection, comfort and love; helping to dispel the darkness.

* I sought permission to tell this story and the names of my friend and her dog have been changed.