Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on January 26, 2021 From the WebMD Archives
For as long as she can remember, 22-year-old Molly Wilson has been calmed by horses. So when she was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 16, after years of hearing voices and other hallucinations, her parents, Greg and Melanie, automatically thought of horse therapy.
“We quickly learned that her hallucinations disappeared around them,” Greg Wilson says. The Wilsons ended up buying their daughter a horse: Gracie, who was housed in a barn about 5 minutes from their house in North Carolina. Molly visited Gracie regularly and would also venture out to see her when she felt symptoms coming on.
But the Wilsons noticed something else: Molly was also calmed by their then-2-year-old Labrador retriever mix, Hank. “Anytime she began to feel threatened by hallucinations, she would lock herself in her room with him,” Greg Wilson recalls.
The Wilsons decided to take the next step and formally train Hank as a psychiatric service dog. He did 5 months of intense training. The main thing he learned was how to “guard” Molly. “He was taught basic commands like side guard, front guard, and back guard, where he could position himself beside Molly on command if she experienced a hallucination coming towards her,” Greg Wilson explains.
When hallucinations turned violent and Molly heard voices that urged her to cut herself, Hank would put his paws on the sharp object and nudge it away. He also gave her “hugs” when she was panicked, putting his paws on her shoulders and licking her face until she calmed down.
The Wilsons sold Gracie a couple years ago, when they moved to Daytona Beach, FL. Hank also “retired” last year at the age of 7 due to bone cancer, but he still lives with them as a beloved pet. “Even today, he relaxes her,” Melanie Wilson says of Molly. Now, the family has a 5-month-old Great Dane they’re training to act as Molly’s new therapy dog.
Animals like Hank and Gracie are on the new frontier of therapy to help people with severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, manage their symptoms. One 2019 study surveyed almost 200 people with mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia who had a psychiatric assistance dog and found that these animals eased symptoms, lowered hospitalizations, and made people more likely to stick with their treatment.
How Animals Can Help
In the study, people reported that their trained service dogs were able to reduce anxiety by nudging or pawing at them, as well as by providing reality checks. “Some dogs, for example, are trained to turn on a light to ‘check out’ a room and signal to the owner that it is ‘safe’ to enter,” says study author Janice Lloyd, an associate professor in the College of Public Health, Medical & Vet Sciences at James Cook University in Australia.
A 2016 study found that people who lived in mental health institutions because of schizophrenia had much lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol after they spent an hour with a therapy dog.
But any animal — not just a trained service dog — may be able to help a person with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, says Leanne Nieforth, a PhD candidate at the Center for the Human Animal Bond at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine in Indiana. “It’s due to something known as the ‘biophilia hypothesis,’ or the idea that people are instinctively drawn to connect with other living things,” she explains. “As a result, deep bonds between humans and animals are created, and a person benefits from the companionship as well as the nonjudgmental social support.” This is especially true for people with mental illness, who may struggle to connect with others, she notes.
An animal can also be a social catalyst, encouraging a person with schizophrenia to interact with the outside world. “If you walk your dog around the neighborhood, you’re more likely to talk to people than if you’re alone,” Nieforth points out. “Even small amounts of social interactions can help improve symptoms of depression and anxiety.”
The 2019 study also found that trained psychiatric service dogs were helpful in urging people to keep to a daily routine by “making” them leave their house and “reminding” them to take their medication. “We found that owners were more able to attend appointments, and the presence of the dog increased their confidence so that they could venture outdoors and interact socially with others,” Lloyd says.
Is a Therapy Dog or Emotional Support Animal Right for You?
If you’re considering some sort of animal companion, either for yourself or for a loved one with schizophrenia, there are some things to think about.
Know the classifications. Not all support animals are the same.
- Service dog. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service dog as one that has been individually trained to perform tasks that assist a person with a disability. They have very specialized and intensive training. These dogs are allowed in public places where other pets are not, like stores and restaurants. A psychiatric service dog falls into this category.
- Therapy dog. These are animals, often a person’s pet, who are certified through a therapy dog organization to visit places like hospitals, schools, and nursing homes.
- Emotional support animal. These pets provide comfort to a person with schizophrenia just by being there. They don’t have any special training and aren’t allowed in public places where pets are banned.
People with schizophrenia must meet certain criteria to get a service dog, says Eva M Rudisile, CPDT-KA, MT-BC, director of client services at Medical Mutts Inc., a nonprofit service dog training organization in Indianapolis. “If they experience symptoms such as hallucinations, it doesn’t automatically exclude them, but we have to be very careful,” she says.
Recently, the organization placed a service dog with a woman with schizophrenia who is able to tell her hallucinations from reality. “In this case, she knows she is hearing voices, and she has a specific action plan to deal with it,” Rudisile says. “But if someone can’t differentiate, there is a very real risk that they’ll get so anxious that they will hurt the dog.”
Make sure you have a care plan in place. Though many people with schizophrenia are up for the day-to-day tasks of pet ownership, such as walking, feeding, and grooming, there must be plans in place in case they are unable to do so for a time (for example, if they need to stay in the hospital). It’s good to have someone else help, as they can recognize signs of stress in an animal and have realistic expectations, Lloyd says.
Pick the right pet. If you or your loved one with schizophrenia is simply looking for companionship, friendship, and affection, any sort of animal is probably fine as long as they have the right temperament, Lloyd says. One way to make sure is to have a potential pet’s temperament checked for qualities such as calmness and the ability to focus on a task and ignore distractions. You can often find a professional to do this through groups such as the American Kennel Club’s (AKC) Canine Good Citizen (CGC) program and the national Pet Partners program.