8 Ways a Service Dog Can Help Improve Life with OCD
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can be an extremely lonely condition. Many times, the only companions that an OCD sufferer has are shame and guilt. It is common for people with this condition to hide it from others out of fear of being judged, criticized, or unfairly labeled as “crazy.” How do these individuals deal with these intrusive thoughts, repetitive behaviors, and unsettling emotions? By self-isolating or withdrawing from the world around them. For some, the fear of being “found out” becomes another obsession.
This obsession centers on preventing people from learning about their obsessions and/or compulsions by avoiding them. The problem is isolation can and often does lead to worsening OCD symptoms. So, although many OCD sufferers believe that withdrawing from others will ultimately improve their symptoms, this reprieve is only temporary. In other words, while avoidance behaviors can temporarily relieve the intrusive thoughts and/or behaviors, eventually they return often in full force. Feeling alone and spending most of your time alone can be even more stressful, anxiety-provoking, and depressing.
At the end of the day, the only things that will truly ease OCD symptoms are treatment and support. Contrary to popular belief, support does not have to always involve attending support groups or talking to a psychologist or friend, sometimes it can come in the form of a four-legged furry friend. When coupled with an OCD treatment plan, an OCD recovery treatment program, like Impulse Therapy, medication, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or exposure-response prevention (ERP) therapy, and/or other OCD coping strategies, a service dog can make living with OCD a little bit better.
If you are wondering how having a service dog can improve your life with OCD, look no more because this article will provide you with 8 benefits of having a service dog if you have OCD.
What is OCD?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by non-stop, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and/or repetitive behaviors (compulsions). Contrary to popular belief, OCD comes in many different forms, ranging from hoarding OCD and reading OCD to harm OCD and existential OCD. Some OCD sufferers suffer from just obsessions or compulsions, while others suffer from both obsessions and compulsions. It just depends on the individual. OCD usually manifests in a person’s teens or young adult years, however, it also can arise earlier or later than this timeframe.
Even though OCD is a common mental health condition, it can be scary and very lonely, especially when you do not have support. Even though OCD is highly treatable with psychotherapy and medication, like SSRI antidepressants, it can still wreak havoc on your self-esteem and self-confidence, and relationships, leaving you craving social experiences and intimacy but being too afraid of rejection to seek it. People are social beings who are not meant to live a life of solitude, however, people with OCD grapple with this conundrum daily.
With more and more people turning to natural and holistic options as primary or secondary treatments, it makes sense that people with OCD are doing the same. Popular natural remedies used to treat OCD include mindfulness meditation, crystal therapy, and acupuncture. However, one alternative treatment that has proven extremely beneficial for OCD is service dogs.
What is a Service Dog?
From the beginning of time, dogs have helped us survive. Dogs guided our way when we were lost, saved us from harmful and life-threatening situations, and provided us with companionship on those long lonely days. Even today, dogs play a significant role in not only our happiness and peace of mind but our safety and security. Dogs really are our best friends.
But unlike in the past, some dogs have become “employees.” Dogs in the modern world play a variety of important roles in our lives and the world around us, such as aiding in rescue operations, discovering illegal contraband (i.e., drugs, people, etc.), providing safety, security, and emotional support, helping the police recover people who have passed and those who are evading them, and alerting others of medical emergencies.
The “unofficially” employed dogs are referred to as “service dogs.” Service dogs are essentially dogs that have “jobs.” These animals are trained to help disabled or chronically ill individuals. To become a service dog, the dog must be friendly, easy-going, have a calm demeanor, and have the ability to follow instructions and pay close attention to their handler’s verbal and non-verbal cues, gestures, and needs.
While a dog that helps people in an official capacity is called a “service dog,” a person who uses the dog is called a “service dog handler.” Contrary to popular belief, service dogs do not just help people with physical challenges, they can also be extremely beneficial for people who struggle with anxiety conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) due to their patience, keep perceptiveness, supportive nature, easygoingness, friendliness, and quick actions. When a service dog is used to help someone with a mental illness, like OCD, it is referred to as a psychiatric service dog (PSD).
Can Service Dogs Improve The Lives of People With OCD?
Psychiatric service dogs (PSD) are trained to detect the emotional and physical cues that signal that something is happening with an OCD sufferer. Each PSD has a specific way it approaches a person who is experiencing an OCD event. For instance, a PSD may use its nose to nudge you and help you refocus when it senses that you are caught up in an OCD cycle, or it may climb onto your lap or cuddle up next to you to provide you with comfort when it senses that you are experiencing stress, anxiety, or emotional distress.
A PSD may jump around or lick your face to motivate you to start moving or provide you with companionship, run around in circles, place its paw on your arm or leg, or turn toward you to let you know that it cares and is listening to you. This is important because OCD is often a lonely and hidden condition, so it can help to feel as if you have support – even if it is with your loyal PSD.
Understand that dogs can be just as emotional and thoughtful as humans. However, the way they show their love, compassion, and support is through their non-verbal gestures – i.e., attentiveness, friendliness, compliance, and helpfulness. They can also show these things through the pitch of their voices – i.e., barks, whines, etc.
For instance, a PSD may wag its tail when happy, widen its eyes in surprise or amazement, sniff and lick things to see if they are safe for you, pull at your clothes to alert you of something, guide your way, or get your attention. All of these PSD behaviors can reduce or stop unwanted and intrusive thoughts, sensations, emotions, urges, visions, fears (obsessions), and/or rituals or routines (compulsions).
8 Ways a Service Dog Can Improve the Life of Someone With OCD
A psychiatric service animal (PSD) is a great “assistant” for individuals struggling with a variety of mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic attacks, social anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), depression, and OCD.
Listed below are 8 ways that a service dog can help improve an OCD sufferer’s quality of life:
- Help You Refocus
OCD is so powerful that it can consume your life and prevent you from engaging in activities and completing tasks. One benefit of a service dog is that it has been trained to identify positive behaviors from negative ones, so it can tell if and when you begin to ruminate or obsess over something. It can also tell when you start to engage in repetitive behaviors or compulsions (i.e., rituals or routines). For instance, if you become caught up in an OCD cycle, losing track of time, deadlines, appointments, etc., your service dog will help bring you back to reality.
In other words, service dogs know when their OCD handlers have become fixated on something and will nudge, paw, or bark at you to get your attention and help you “snap out of it.” Although this may feel “aggressive” to some people with OCD, it is often necessary to help them be more aware and productive in life. It is not uncommon for an OCD sufferer to be in the middle of a test, meeting, or conversation, and become fixated on the wrinkle in the test paper, a piece of food in a presenter’s teeth, or the squeakiness or tone of a person’s voice.
The purpose of your service dog is to prevent or stop you from becoming distracted by things and help you refocus on the task at hand. While this may seem like a temporary interference in a person’s day, when it occurs repeatedly throughout the day, a service dog can and often is a blessing when it comes to meeting deadlines and completing tasks.
- Provide Companionship & Comfort
People with severe OCD typically experience high levels of stress and anxiety. Service dogs can provide companionship and comfort to these individuals. When you become stressed or anxious, your service dog can be a source of comfort for you. It does not matter what is upsetting or scaring you, your dog will be there to comfort you.
If you are lonely because OCD can be very lonely at times, your service dog can be your companion. In other words, it can make you feel less alone, and provide you with a lifelong friend to do things with. Your dog can bring you joy, cheer you with a wagging tail and excited bark when you take positive steps toward improving your life, and be a shoulder to cry on when things do not go your way or when your anxiety and stress get the best of you.
When you become inundated with intrusive thoughts, urges, visions, emotions, or fears, your service dog can provide you with relief in the form of compression. A service dog can be your biggest cheerleader and your constant companion. The best part about it is a service dog does not require much and can make your life so much better!
- Be Your Protector
Crowds, public spaces, and large venues can be stressful and overwhelming for people who suffer from an anxiety condition like OCD. A service dog can act as your “protector” by placing its body between you and others. In other words, it can become a barricade between you and the outside world. Your dog can prevent strangers from approaching you and invading your personal space. The result? Increased personal space and a greater sense of safety and peace.
- Help You Relax & “Let Loose”
A service dog can help you relax and “let loose.” More specifically, your service dog can alleviate your OCD symptoms by helping you to de-stress. Stress and anxiety are often precursors to obsessions and compulsions, so when stress and anxiety levels are low, the risk of OCD symptoms is also low.
A service dog can keep these levels low so you are not bombarded with these symptoms. A service dog can also add a little unpredictability to your life so you do not get bogged down in non-stop routines and rituals. Service dogs can be blessings when life becomes overwhelming and you just need a way to unwind.
- Get You Up & Moving
Although prescription medications, like SSRI antidepressants, can ease intrusive thoughts and behaviors, making it easier to get up and move, they often come with a host of unpleasant side effects. A service dog can be just as effective without those complications.
If you are prone to periods of inactivity due to your OCD symptoms, your service dog can inspire you to move. And, if your OCD symptoms make you feel unsteady, a service dog can provide mobility assistance by pressing its body against you, so you feel more stable. Even more amazing, your service dog can help you find a place to rest when you become weary.
- Boost Your Self-Esteem & Self-Confidence
Another great thing about service dogs is that they can boost your self-esteem and self-confidence. People who struggle with OCD tend to have low self-esteem and self-confidence due to unfair and demeaning labels, critiques, and judgments based on inaccurate portrayals from television shows and movies.
As a result, it is common to engage in avoidance behaviors when it comes to socializing and making friends, spending time with loved ones, dating, or even getting a job for fear of how others will treat them once they find out that they have OCD. However, having a service dog by your side can help you feel supported, which in turn can boost your self-esteem and self-confidence. Feeling like your dog cares for you can be empowering, causing you to take steps toward improving your life.
- Stimulate You
A service dog can provide stimulation, especially if you are prone to experiencing OCD symptoms when bored. Tactical stimulation from a service dog feels like a deep-pressure therapy massage in that it can be extremely soothing and grounding. This type of stimulation is especially beneficial for OCD sufferers because it can help disrupt and redirect your attention away from your OCD symptoms and toward your dog. One way that your service dog could accomplish this feat is by licking your face or nudging you to get your attention.
- Become Your Personal Nurse
When you become gripped with stress, anxiety, or OCD symptoms, a service dog can become your very own personal nurse. More specifically, it can grab your medication and bring it to you, alert family members and providers that something is wrong so you get the help you need, and resume your life.
Service dogs, also referred to as psychiatric service dogs (PSD), when assigned to some grappling with a mental health condition, can improve an OCD sufferer’s life in many ways. They can act as an “assistant” to their handlers or an “aid” to an OCD treatment program. Service dogs can become your best friend, confidant, supporter, cheerleader, protector, companion, and so much more. These animals can share in your happiness and be there for the hard times, offering love, support, and help when you need it most. Service dogs can also distract you and provide a much-needed light at the end of the tunnel of continuous highs and lows, and obsessions and compulsions. Thus, they can make a world of difference in your life.
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- Lloyd, J., Johnston, L., & Lewis, J. (2019). Psychiatric assistance dog use for people living with mental health disorders. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 6. 166. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/334095423_Psychiatric_Assistance_Dog_Use_for_People_Living_With_Mental_Health_Disorders
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