Dogs are commonly called “man’s best friend.” The four-legged canines have a remarkable ability to ease tension, provide instant love, give support, and remind us that no matter how imperfect we think we are, we will always be loved and appreciated.

Service dogs can lower anxiety, reduce medication costs, and provide comfort and security. Dogs are less threatening than people, and they can sense when someone is struggling and immediately give the person unconditional love and support.

A pilot project that used service dogs in a substance use rehabilitation program proved to help clients open up about their history, family, substance use, violence in their lives, and other personal factors.

The project ran for 23 weeks. The project’s leaders hoped that the service dogs would help to identify and intervene with self-defeating thought patterns, actions, and feelings, and more so those thoughts and actions that could lead to relapse.

Sixty-four percent of the clients chose to participate in the program. Fifty-six percent of these people revealed significant aspects of their histories, especially related to self-esteem, violence, family dynamics, and drug and alcohol use. The service dogs were beneficial in helping clients who had trust issues related to authority figures.

The most notable result from this project was the way clients learned how to communicate with positive body language, which ultimately results in assisting clients who attend 12-step meetings.

The unconditional love a dog gives can be a panacea for people fighting substance use. Keep reading to find out how.

How Service Dogs Can Help With Co-Occurring Disorders

If you are someone with co-occurring disorders, such as depression and substance use, a service dog might be particularly helpful. Service Dogs of America states that service dogs are trained to deal with mental health disorder challenges, like anxiety, depression, panic attacks, or PTSD.

Service dogs can:

  • Alleviate anxiety by pawing, leaning, and nudging you when they sense you are in distress
  • Lead you to an exit if you have a panic attack
  • Distract you from a specific behavior or event by licking, pawing, and nudging you
  • Assist by waking you from nightmares or night terrors
  • Create a personal space for you by standing in front of you or circling you in crowded areas

Keep in mind that service dogs are specifically trained for these situations compared to support dogs.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 defines a service dog as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”

Service dogs can be useful by keeping you focused on creating and maintaining healthy habits. They can help you relearn responsibility, keep anxiety at bay, and give you a renewed sense of purpose in sobriety. They can improve your quality of life and may even keep you on your path to recovery.

Specific Advantages of Service Dogs

After you have completed rehab, service dogs can help you transition back into your daily life by offering stability, developing and maintaining daily routines (walking, feeding, cleaning up after the dog), and giving needed comfort.

The National Institutes of Health states that interacting with animals has shown:

  • A decrease in levels of cortisol (the stress-related hormone)
  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Managing pain
  • Teaching mindfulness and awareness
  • Increasing feelings of social support and boosting mood

You might know that the powerful pleasure and reward neurotransmitter dopamine is constantly flooding the brain when a person is in active addiction. When rehab is complete, a service dog can have the same effect. Interaction with a service dog can also release dopamine everywhere you go. When dopamine is released, it may boost your self-confidence, happiness, reduce loneliness, and prevent relapse.

A study from the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) found that companion dogs play an indirect role as catalysts in creating friendships, introducing people, and helping those form social support networks, which are valuable to a person fighting substance use.

Service Dogs For People in Recovery

A service dog can be your coping mechanism by providing you with alternative means of using substances. A canine friend can keep your mind occupied with healthier activities, such as walking, bathing, grooming, and playing with it. It can also encourage you to be more active and social. Dogs are usually open and friendly with people and compel some people to greet you and the dog.

The dog could prevent you from self-isolating on the basis of just needing to go for a walk. They can prevent you from becoming depressed and self-medicating to deal with depression. Most importantly, a service dog can help you prevent relapse. When your service dog is counting on you for its health and overall well-being, a relapse into substance use can be detrimental to the dog.

Trained service dogs usually wear a vest stating they are service-related. Most people know to ask the owner before approaching a service dog.

How a Service Dog Can Help You Fight Substance Use

Fighting substance use is not easy. It can be fraught with many difficulties, both physically and mentally. Many people feel alone and isolated during this trying time in their life. Cravings for the substance can be potent and hard to overcome. Emotional and situational triggers can be present, and the urge to use the substance can be mighty hard to resist.

A substance use disorder (otherwise known as addiction) is defined by the National Institute on Drug Abuse as “a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking, continued use despite harmful consequences, and long-lasting changes in the brain.”

Chronic disease is especially challenging to manage or overcome. Service animals have been advantageous for those struggling with chronic disease since the 18th century.

Service dogs were first put into use in 1860 by Florence Nightingale, who recorded that “small pets were good companions, especially for the chronically ill,” as noted in this article.  Dogs have also been noted in the reduction of pain symptoms.

Do You Want a Service Dog?

If you feel that a service dog will help you fight substance use, there are some pertinent questions to ask yourself and your health care provider. They are:

  • Can I financially afford to care for a dog?
  • Do I have the space for a service dog in my home?
  • Do I want to keep a service dog for life?
  • Who will pay for the dog’s training?
  • What happens if I no longer need or want the service dog? Who can I call? Where will it go?
  • Can I bring the service dog to my therapy sessions?
  • Can I bring the service dog to 12-step meetings?
  • Do I have the time and patience to bond with the service dog?
  • Can I handle comments from loved ones, friends, and strangers about having a service dog?

Once you have answered all of the questions and are positive you want or need a service dog, The Dog People has compiled a robust list of organizations that can assist you in starting the process of obtaining a service dog.

If your healthcare provider does not recommend a service dog, The Palm Beach Institute has a long history of substance use treatment and recovery success. Our many treatment options, therapies, and programs have helped countless individuals struggling with substance use overcome addiction and live a life free from drugs or alcohol.

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