Service Dogs for Mental Health

Many of us may have heard of or seen service animals working with people to help them do the things they need to accomplish in their day. Most often, we see service dogs with people who have a visual impairment, helping them to navigate their environment and make difficult tasks easier to manage. What we may not have heard about before are service dogs for people who have a mental illness. It had never crossed my mind until I learned that a colleague of mine has a service dog. At this point I was wondering what a service dog could do for someone who has issues with their mental health. You may also be wondering the same thing, as this is not something we may come across frequently. Fortunately, I was able to connect with Emily Wright, an early childhood educator who has a mental health support dog, to conduct an online interview. She provided me with some insight about how a service dog can help someone with symptoms related to their mental illness and some of the issues people with service dogs may face at work.

Service dogs can help people who have a mental illness with medication management, dealing with panic attacks, reducing depressive symptoms, and many other ways. If people are able to bring service dogs with them to work, they can continue to perform at their best, rather than pressing pause on optimal functioning for a whole work day. Read on in the interview below to learn about how service dogs can help people with a mental illness and to understand some of the reasons why we may never have seen a service dog in the workplace. Thank you Emily Wright for sharing your experiences with us!

Q: How can service dogs help people who have a mental illness? 

Emily: Service dogs are highly trained to assist their handlers in their everyday life.  For someone with mental illness, this means that the animal is trained to assist the individual in their specific mental health needs.  For me, that means that my SD (service dog) is trained to NOT only wake me up in the morning, and remind me to take my medications, but she can alert me to oncoming anxiety and panic (about 30 seconds prior to when the physical symptoms I can identify begin), increase my recovery time from a panic attack by giving me a hug (this is my small dog for deep pressure therapy –even mild pressure to my chest helps me get my breathing back to normal), and tactile stimulation (petting her and her licking my face). For post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, Kailey [my dog] is able to block me when I am out shopping or in public places so people don’t get too close to me physically, she is able to pick up on when I dissociate and paws at me until I recognize her, bringing me out of the dissociative episode. When I am in a social situation and have anxiety, Kailey can provide me with a way to escape the situation by bothering me until I take her for a trip outside, and can also provide a way for me to break the ice by allowing her to play or say hello to someone to assist in reducing my anxiety. For depression, she also assists me with the responsibility of having to get out of bed, no matter what, to walk her, which in turn reduces my depressive symptoms. 

 Q: What are the barriers to having a service dog in the workplace?

Emily: There are many barriers present which I will elaborate on:

1) Lack of understanding and awareness

  • Lack of understanding that a SD is a piece of medical equipment and should be granted access whether someone is in a wheelchair or has diabetes or has a mental health condition.
  • Lack of awareness that an SD is working and that distracting an SD (petting, touching, talking to, making kissing noises, feeding) means that the dog is not focusing on their handler who may need assistance at that specific time.  
  • Lack of awareness that not all SD’s are Labs or German Sheppards, and that SD can come in all types of breeds and sizes.  The size of the dog depends on the disability. For example, someone who needs a guide dog needs a large breed so they are able to be physically guided, someone who needs a mobility dog to push their wheelchair or help with counter balance needs a dog that weighs enough to physically assist, while someone with a diabetic alert dog, hearing dog, or mental health dog can have one any size depending on the handlers preference.  
  • Lack of understanding that someone with an SD is not someone trying to bring a pet everywhere with them, but that they require assistance from that SD to live their daily life.
  • The actual accommodation process is long, tiring, and overwhelming.

2) Poor workplace legislation around Services Animals

  • Employers seem to think they are above the law and that they can create their own laws and regulations about SD that to not adhere to the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Accessibility for Ontarian's with Disabilities Act. They claim that they are allowed to because it affects the health and safety of their environment or for liability reasons. The truth is: they are not. The only area an SD is not allowed is in a kitchen that prepares food for the public or a sterile environment such as an operating room of a hospital.  Also, if you work in the private home of someone you would also have an issue as someone with an SD has to ask the person with the private home if they can have their SD with them (Private residences are not covered under laws). 

3) Workplace Discrimination

  • If you have an SD it may be harder to get a promotion, because of judgment by others or not being taken seriously.

4) Accessibility

  • For example, not having space for a crate for SD in the workplace, no grass close to the building for the dog to go to the bathroom, no disabled bathroom stall availability makes it hard for people with large service dogs to go the washroom without their service dog sticking out of the door.

Q: Can you share something about your personal experiences around how your service dog has helped you with your work/daily living?

Emily: Kailey is my lifeline and she provides me with the courage to get out of bed each day.  She not only assists me on a daily basis with the tasks I listed in question 1, she also has provided me with the ability to pay more attention to my own emotions and symptoms. It is because of her that I know I have up to six panic attacks a day.  She has provided me with more awareness about my own mental health and some of the techniques that assist me in recovery.  

In November 2014, Kailey started to alert me more than she usually does after meal times. I couldn’t figure out why she was bugging me as it was not anxiety related and after about a month of the same behaviour, I went to the doctor only to learn that I had diabetes.  Kailey had been alerting me to my blood sugar changes and provided me with enough alerts for me to know there was something wrong with me.  She was the reason I was able to get the help I needed with my diabetes, because I wasn’t even aware I had it. 

I do still face judgment, stigma and discrimination on a daily basis, but I have already decided I was put on this earth to make a difference. Here I am paving the way for others with mental health service animals.


Have you ever experienced SD users at work? Do you think knowing someone had a SD for mental illness would affect your perception of them? Please let us know in the comments below.

Thank you to Emily for her valuable input!