An Interview with Dr. Jessica McCleese on the Benefits of Service Animals for Emotional Support
To the left is Dr. Jessica McCleese a psychologist specializing in marriage and relationships. Dr. McCleese completed her doctorate from Regent University in 2012 and now helps couples in the Hampton Roads area work through their relationship and intimacy issues.
Dr. McCleese and I recently discussed the benefits of service animals, therapy animals, and emotional support animals as well as the psychological connection people have with their pets. For more information on Dr. Jessica McCleese you can visit her at befullywell.com.
As a psychologist specializing in relationships I'd like to ask you what are the key emotions that connect people to their pets?
One of the amazing things about connection to pets is that we release the same hormones we release when connecting to humans, the #1 of those being oxytocin. Oxytocin is known as the "cuddle hormone" because it causes us to feel bonded to others. Since I work with marriages, I focus on how we can increase this hormone in our marriage, but, to a lesser degree, pets can release oxytocin. This is why people who have been diagnosed with certain mental health diagnoses, such as depression for example, can see positive results from spending time cuddling with their pets. Pets allow us to release oxytocin which helps us feel happier, reduces our stress, and even lowers heart rate and the stress hormone, cortisol. Cuddling up with your furry friend can also release dopamine (responsible for reducing depression and increasing pleasure) and serotonin (promotion of pleasure as well as stress reduction). All in all, cuddling with Fido or Whiskers can help you feel less anxious, less pain, less stress, and increased happiness.
Does the connection people share with pets contribute to their use as service animals, therapy animals, and emotional support animals?
Most certainly the connection matters greatly. For instance if someone is highly allergic to pet dander or if they have some type of aversion to animals in general, they will not derive much benefit from having or cuddling with their pets. But, for those that love snuggles with their fur babies, they will experience the benefits already mentioned.
What mental health concerns can service animals, emotional support animals, and therapy animals help with?
Pets with any of these designations have been shown as specifically helpful for those with depression, anxiety, or PTSD. Service animals are helpful for those with mental or physical disabilities and so they have a wider range of people they can help, such as providing vision or hearing for those that are impaired in these areas, or with mobility support for those that have trouble moving from one location to the next.
What breeds are best suited to be services animals, therapy animals, or emotion support animals?
Some of the breeds most commonly used as service animals are:
Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Standard Poodles, German Shepherds, Rottweilers, Doberman Pinchers, Newfoundlands, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Great Danes, Mastiffs, and those commonly knowns as "bully dogs."
For therapy dogs, these breeds are common: Chihuahua, Corgi, French bulldog, Pug, King Charles Spaniel, Dashund, Bichon Frise, Beagle, Yorkie Pommeranian, as well as larger dogs like the Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, German Shepherd, Greyhound, Rottweiler, St. Bernard, Poodle, Great Dane, Mastiff and Bernese Mountain Dog.
As for emotional support animals, the following are commonly used:
Labrador Retriever, Poodle, German Shepherd, Yorkshire Terrier, Beagle, Corgi, Pug, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Pomeranian, and Golden Retriever.
Can we get a little bit into the difference between a service animal, therapy animal, and emotional support animal?
There are three different ways that pets are often used to "help" out their humans. service animals, therapy animals, and emotional support animals.
A service animal is specifically for someone who is disabled to provide them with a service. For example, you may see a dog wearing a "service animal" vest and walking with someone who is vision-impaired. The dog's job is to make sure his human is safe by providing vision for him. Service animals need about 18-24 months of training before they qualify for this designation, but once they qualify, they are actually considered medical equipment. This means that they can be taken anywhere even when a sign says "no pets allowed." These animals greatly increase the quality of their human's lives by giving them some abilities they would not have on their own. Therapy animals take much less training and can typically be trained and registered within 8-12 weeks. If they have the right personalities, they'll qualify for this training and anyone can train their pet to be a therapy animal. Therapy animals are still legally considered pets, so they will not be allowed in any "pet-free" designated areas, but people with therapy animals can teach them really cool tricks to make them more comfortable. For instance, I once knew a man with social anxiety who had trained his dog to act like it needed to go to the restroom when his human was becoming to anxious. His sweet dog could pick up on his emotions and would insist on being taken out. This gave my friend the ability to take a needed break without causing the increased anxiety that can occur when someone who deals with anxiety needs to find a way to leave a situation. Therapy dogs can learn other cool tricks like making sure you take prescribed medications and bringing you medications or other items if you cannot get to them yourself.
Emotional support animals need little to no training at all. A mental health professional can determine if a human's pet meets the qualifications of an emotional support animal. Basically, this means that the animal helps his or her human live a more fulfilling life. With a designation as an emotional support animal, many people find a greater level of support in having their fur baby with them when it would otherwise not be allowed. However, emotional support animals are still legally pets and this means that an area that does not allow pets may still stick to that rule even if Fido has that designation.
Thank you very much Dr. McCleese for your time and for answering my questions. Again if anyone would like to know more about Dr. Jessica McCleese and the services she provides as a relationship counselor you can visit her at befullywell.com.