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Never Underestimate the Influence of Animals on Mental Health

The connection between humans and animals, especially dogs, is one rooted in historical and cultural depth, stemming from the earliest uses of animals as a means of survival, transport, and sustenance, to (certain) animals evolving into valued members of our family.

Pets are a part of families all over the world, especially in the United States, where 77% of households own a dog or cat (Marx, 2014).

The value that many people place on the lives of their domestic animals is comparable to that of the love they have for their children. The strength of these relationships has become socially normalized in most of the world, and hey, who can blame them? Animals are the best. Don’t believe me? Check out Time’s list of the top 10 animals heroes, or watch the new season of Planet Earth.

The role that animals play in human lives is constantly changing, and the evolution of service animals has changed the lives of people with disabilities all over the world.

The newest role that has emerged is known as the emotional support animal, which has created a booming industry with obvious benefits, and some not as obvious issues. As said by Erin Ross:  "For many, animals provide a source of comfort and support that is different and in some ways deeper than what they receive from friends and family." (Ross, 2016).This can be said especially for the huge number of people dealing with mental health issues that impact their ability to socialize, work, or develop relationships.

The number of adults suffering from mental health issues in the US is extremely high. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, 1 in 25 adults “experience a serious mental illness in a given year which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities. In 2015, 18.1% of adults experienced an anxiety disorder like PTSD, and 6.9% dealt with a major depressive episode. Mental illness impacts youth in extremely high numbers, with 21.4% experiencing a serious mental illness between the ages of 13 and 18" (NAMI, 2016).

Unfortunately, despite its documented prevalence, treatment of mental health is nowhere near where it should be. Issues like stigmatization and a lack of funding mean that only around 41% of US adults and 50.6% of children aged 8-15 receive help for mental health conditions, leaving those in need of psychiatric and therapeutic help lost in patterns of homelessness, addiction, and imprisonment (NAMI, 2016).

  • If you are interested in learning more about mental health treatment, statistics, or ways that you can get involved, check out the resource section at the end of this article.

Besides psychiatric help, counseling, and medication, animals have been shown to improve the lives of those living with mental illness.

In Ross's recent NPR article, pet owners with mental illnesses discuss the ability of their animals to distract them from unhealthy thoughts and provide vital companionship. The responsibility that these individuals have for their pets might be able to reduce isolation, poor self care, and the potential for self harm or suicide (Ross, 2016).

Also, although still in the early years of research, there is growing scientific research on therapy animals, citing increases in oxytocin and reductions in blood pressure as several pieces of evidence of their benefits (Rovner, 2012).

These studies, as well as the personal stories of those with disabilities, show us that animals have a positive impact on their owners lives. Beyond pets, those with mental illnesses might benefit even more from the use of a licensed support animal. There are two options for potential animal support, emotional support animals and psychiatric service dogs.

Emotional Support Animals vs Psychiatric Service Dogs

Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) are classified as animals whose purpose is to “provide therapeutic benefit” to support the wellbeing of their owner (Wisch, 2015). They are not, however, trained to provide specific kinds of support, such as responding to panic attacks or alerting others if help is needed. ESAs are also not limited to dogs, and there seem to be few limits to the types of creatures some establishments will allow in after viewing a letter indicating emotional support verification.

  • See Patricia Marx's article, "Pets Allowed in The New Yorker", for a funny exploration of her experiences navigating restaurants, airplanes, and museums with a variety of outlandish emotional support animals."

Psychiatric Service Dogs are dogs which are trained to assist someone with psychiatric disabilities such as PTSD, anxiety disorders, or severe depression.The duties of these dogs include preventing self harm and guiding those with dissociative issues out of the path of moving vehicles; in other words, recognizing and responding to a psychiatric problem that the owner is experiencing. A Psychiatric Service Dog, like a service dog for physical disabilities, is protected under the ADA and is granted access to public spaces (Duffy, 2016).

So what does this all mean for someone with an Emotional Support Animal?

  • It means that legally, ESAs are not granted access to public places like restaurants, movie theatres, museums, yoga studios, nail salons, or the local swimming pool. An ESA is allowed on airlines, as dictated by the Air Carrier Access Act, and in housing which might does not generally permit animals (Duffy, 2016).

Exploiting the System

The line between “pet” and “service animal” has become blurred with the surge of emotional support animals, and the public privileges this classification allows for animals. The online industry for emotional support certification allows owners who are not likely in need of a support animal to slip through the system’s cracks. Obtaining this certification opens doors, literally and figuratively, for owners to bring their pets into public places which are unaware of the laws regarding emotional support animals.

This abuse and overuse of these certifications makes it more difficult for those with actual disabilities to use the resources available to them. Restaurants which have dealt with animals who have misbehaved, or who have felt forced into allowing ESAs onto their premises, may not respond as kindly to their next customer who has a Psychiatric Service Dog, or a dog for a physical disability. Those who truly rely on their animals for support may not be taken seriously when there are websites where a certification can be purchased for $50 after filling out a brief online survey.

Emotional Support Animals are a wonderful resource, and their use has the potential to change the lives of millions of children, teens, and adults with mental illnesses. Because the industry for ESAs is so new, it has problems which are beginning to become apparent. The abuse of certifications from those who may not truly need them can create an environment which is more difficult to navigate as a person with an actual disability or mental illness. Stricter regulations and better community education may reduce the overuse of these certifications, paving the way for a more organized industry to help those who need it.

Further Reading

Psychology Today - Mental Health Stigma

National Alliance on Mental Illness - Mental Health By the Numbers

National Institute of Mental Health - Statistics


7Cups of Tea - Free Online Counseling

Psychology Today - Find a Therapist

Suicide Prevention Resource Center

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline - 1 (800) 273–8255

Works Cited

Ross, Erin. “Pets Help People Manage the Pain of Serious Mental Illness. NPR. Web. 23 Dec. 2016.

Tips For Buying A Valuable Service Dog Harness

Now that you’ve found your new life partner and furry assistant, it’s time to outfit them with a practical harness to make both of your lives more comfortable and convenient. When looking for a harness, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the wealth of varieties available. Here are a few pointers to help you narrow these options down and better prepare you to make an important purchase.

1. Legal Requirements (or lack thereof)

Before purchasing equipment for you and your service dog, it is important to note that there are no specific legal requirements for what a harness should look like, or the information it should display. If there are vendors pushing you to buy specific harnesses or other gear for “legal” reasons, be skeptical. Your rights as the handler of a service dog are clear as listed by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act); no establishment is allowed to bar you entry based on your ownership of a service dog, with or without documentation/harnesses that illustrate that your dog is for a disability. Exceptions to this include if your dog is out of control (barking, jumping on people, etc) or if the dog is not housebroken (Brennan, 2014). For more information about your rights as the handler of a service animal, click here.

2. Type of Work Your Dog Will be Doing

Before making any decisions about harness design (color, style, material), the first step is to evaluate what needs your dog will be addressing.

Why do you have a service dog?

What will your dog be helping you with on a daily basis?

It might be helpful to make a list of each of the specific actions your dog may be performing to assist you on a day to day basis. This will narrow down the vast number of harnesses available to those that will provide your dog with the means to fully support you.

Here are a few of the most common types of service dog harnesses. Dozens of variations of each kind are available from a variety of vendors.

Saddlebag - These harnesses are best for those who need their service dog to carry medication, supplies, and other objects. They often have detachable parts which vary in size depending on what materials might be needed on a particular day.

Pull Harness - These harnesses are used for dogs who will be pulling a wheelchair or may need to open and move heavy things (Grace, 2016).

Great value on this no pull harness!

Mobility Support Harness - Also known as a brace, balance, walking assistance, or stability harness (Bold Lead Designs, 2014), this harness has a sturdy handle on top to allow the dog to support the owner.

Check out a great value on this harness!

  • It should be mentioned that dogs that provide balance and walking support should be at an age and size appropriate to support their handler

3. Size and Breed of Dog

These are both important aspects to consider when buying a harness, as certain brands and styles will work best for different types of dogs. Fit and comfort are very important when buying a potentially pricey harness that your dog will be wearing all day every day. Ensuring the health and happiness of your dog from the get go is an investment in the strength of your professional and personal relationship, and may prevent problems further down the line.

Make sure to measure your dog before ordering any harnesses, or consider buying a product that is custom made to ensure long lasting durability and comfort.

4. Your Home Environment

Besides size, breed, and your disability needs, the area you live should impact the products you buy. If your dog will be working in extreme weather, like rain, snow, high humidity, or very strong sunlight, then you should look into products built to withstand these conditions.

If your neighborhood is poorly lit, or if you will be spending a lot of time out with your animal in the evening, consider buying products with reflective material. This will ensure the safety of you and your animal at all times of the day and night.


Here are a few vendors to get you started in finding a harness that is long lasting and useful.

The vendors listed below are ones which were easily accessible, reviewed, and appeared reliable. However, before buying any products, we always recommend that you conduct your own extensive research on what will work best for you.

Before buying a harness for your service dog it is important to remember that you aren’t required to display any legal identification of your animal, although it might make it easier to deter eager children or dog loving adults from trying to pet or play with your dog. Making a list of the daily tasks your service dog will be doing can help you narrow down the types of harnesses available, as can looking for brands that are appropriate for the size and breed of your animal. Finally, consider your home environment, including weather patterns and visibility, to find harnesses with durable or reflective material. Best of luck finding the perfect harness for your service dog!

Ready to Check out Vests?

Peek our vest page to get recommendations on our three favorite vests.

Bold Lead Designs. “Mobility Support Harness”. Bold Lead Designs. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

Brennan, Jackie, et al. “Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals”. ADA National Network. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

Grace, Kea. “Types of Service Dog Gear: Vests, Jackets, and Harnesses”. AnythingPawsable. Web. 15 Dec. 2016. jackets-and-harnesses/#.WFKCCaIrKRs

Finding the Perfect Service Dog Online

It can be intimidating trying to find the right source for a service animal, especially when there are so many different resources online. This post will provide you with some advice to find websites and organizations that will ensure you find the best trained and supportive animal for your needs.

Pick a breed

Some organizations are strict about the type of breeds they provide for specific needs, but others are more flexible. Either way, it is a good idea to go into this process having done some research to narrow down what kind of dog will provide you the best support and whose health and training needs won’t break the bank for you. When choosing and researching a breed, try not to let your personal preferences cloud your judgment. The right dog for you might not be the type of dog you wanted when you were a child, or the dog you find the cutest. Making sure to remain unbiased in your choice is a good first step in choosing a dog that will make it through training successfully, and provide you with the support you need in your home, workplace, etc (Breed, 2016).

Check out this article for some useful information on selecting a dog breed, but stay flexible. A reliable organization may have different recommendations for you depending on your disability, personality, and location.

Set a budget

Since this fluffball is going to be your day to day best friend, confidante, and helper, you’re not going to want to pick one based simply on price. But it is still a good idea to know what you can afford, and what the price range is for your desired breed.

Service dogs generally run in price from $100 - $5,000 before training. After training, which can cost several thousand dollars, you should also factor in predicted medical fees, food, supplies, and transportation costs. This final number can be between $10,000 - $20,000 out of pocket.

If this is out of your price range, here are a few organizations to get you started in looking for scholarships or fundraising assistance.

Autism Service Dogs of America - This organization will “screen and evaluate each situation individually” to determine whether a service dog will benefit a child with autism.

Assistance Dog United Campaign - Assistance is provided in the form of vouchers, which are applied to the ADUC member provider program of the client’s choice.

Planet Dog Foundation - Besides service dogs, guide dogs, hearing dogs, and medical alert dogs, this organization also has resources for therapy dogs, police dogs, and search and rescue dogs.

Paws With a Cause - This organization cites themselves as “ideal for those with disabilities affecting one or more limbs”. They provide dogs free of charge to qualified clients, and fundraise through individual donors to pay for the costs.

Learn how to spot an unreliable service dog provider

Generally this can be done using common sense. Here are a few questions to ask yourself.

  • Does the website look legitimate? Are there clear explanations of the organization's goals? Are there reviews on the website/ Yelp?

    • Some organizations can be weeded out quickly by simply evaluating their online presence. A lack of reviews, shoddy website, lack of other references on the internet or information about their program are all warning signs about the quality of their work.

  • Does the organization respond to your questions adequately?

    • Providers should be willing to provide solid answers to any and all questions about the dog’s health, demeanor, and the resources they provide for clients. This includes providing medical and training records for the dog in questions, a visit to the facility or contact information with the trainer, as well as training support after placement (Service Dog Central, 2014).

  • Do you know anyone who can recommend a provider?

    • Referrals are one of the best ways to find resources for anything you might need. Ask your friends, family members, or any local organizations for recommended providers for service animals. Someone that you know and trust will likely provide a better recommendation that any online review.


Here are few websites and organizations, in addition to others listed above, that might prove useful for sourcing your new furry best friend and life assistant. Good luck in your search!

Resources for Veterans:

Warrior Canine Connection

Patriot Paws

Working Dogs for Vets

Pets for Vets

Assistance Dogs International - Establish standards of excellence in all areas of assistance dog acquisition, training and partnership”. This website provides a search tool for regional chapters around the world.

Medical Service Dogs

American Kennel Club - A list of therapy dog organizations certified by the AKC.

General Resources:

Service Dog Central - Forum for service dog related discussions

Psych Dog Partners - Information about getting a dog

Foundation for Service Dog Support - Resources for those interested in training dogs, certification for training teams, and canine safety training

How To Get A Fantastic Service Dog With Minimal Spending

Want to get a great service dog but don’t want to break the bank doing it?

I'm assuming you’ve already done the research and have watched the same video on your favorite breed a hundred times. You know the breed, age, and temperament you want in your perfect pup and now it’s time to find your best friend for the next decade.

This is a complete step-by-step guide to finding your ideal match.

Here's how from A - P

A) After you’ve finalized the plan with yourself it’s time to ask your medical team for advice. What kind of dog do they think would help you the most with your disabilities?

B) Write up a list of things you cannot do for yourself, then go down the list and make sure these are things that your future partner can help you with. Pick out the top three most important issues you want your dog to help you with. For example: If you have a history of seizures, you want your dog to be able to sense them before they happen (according to Dr. Robert Weilbacher a dog should be able to sense a seizure minutes before they happen.)

C) Remember that in order for the dog to be a service dog it must provide a service that you cannot do for yourself such as: protection, emotional support, or companionship. This is in accordance with ABA rules, so make sure your top three things you cannot do for yourself fall into these categories. Service dogs and training are not cheap, so make sure you actually want one before moving forward

D) Strategize on ways to save some $$...your dog will cost anywhere from $100 - $5000 before the training! Lucky you, many states offer scholarships on training, here are links to several that do:

The annual cost of keeping an Assistance Dog will be around $1500 per year, so it’s best to be financially capable to stomach that kind of dent. We have an upcoming article on financial aid options for service dogs, stay tuned for that. Another way to save money is to plan on training the dog yourself, or rescuing a dog from the shelter to eliminate the breeder fee. To see a complete list of the fees, psych dog partners has a fantastic article breaking this down. In review on this several ways to save money:

1) Adopt Dog

2) Train Yourself

3) Get Financial Aid For Adoption

E) Make a list of all the breeders who specifically breed and train service dogs in your area, chances are there won’t be too many. But just in case try and find a breeder locally, you don’t want to go gallivanting across the country and pay for a flight for no reason. Think about it, you may have to make multiple trips out to the vendor for adoption, training, and follow up. Limit your travel costs if at all possible. If you can’t limit travel costs there are several credit cards that will give you a free flight based on monthly spending, see million mile secrets here.

F) If you will need to travel make a list of all the national breeders that interest you on a quick google search, included below are some reputable breeders:

G) Go down the list of breeders and cross off the ones that don’t have a dog for your specific disability. For example, if you see a breeder doesn’t have dogs for autism then you won’t be getting the training that you need to have in for your companion. Best to call the breeder and find out what they specialize in beforehand.

H) Most important in choosing a breeder! Ask for recommendations from people who have gotten puppies from them and make sure to check Yelp, Google, Angie’s list and other review sites for good reviews. You can check to see how long a breeder has been in business by plugging their url into a domain checker here.

I) Ask the breeder how long they keep their pups in the litter before selling. If it is only 5 – 6 weeks of time with mother and her pack that is a bad sign. You are looking for a more socialized dog in the 8 – 12 week range.

J) Make sure you interview the breeder and the breeder interviews you back! That is a sign that the breeder cares about the puppies they are producing, and means they are likely to help you should you have issues in the future. More time with the breeder means more investment on their part

K) Pick a breeder. How to pick a breeder? For more information check out this great article here.

L) Do you want to train the dog yourself? Or will you stay onsite to have the breeder assist you with training? Decide and agree on a price. The training cost will be between 1000 - 2000 anything more is excessive and anything less you should be warry of the breeder.

M) Plan a time to fly out to the breeder and select your puppy with the breeder, not all service dogs make it into service so it’s best to give yours the best shot at success by controlling for the breed and age

  • When choosing a puppy look for the one that doesn't aggressively play or chase the toy. You want a puppy that has persistence but not so much that their impossible to train.

N) A rescue dog is the cheapest way to bring a dog into service most shelters will support you for a year of vaccinations and training and could save you close to $5000. Rescue dogs can become great service dogs and will immediately have a strong bond with their owner. However, a rescue dogs temperament can be volatile so investing in training upfront could benefit you in the long run.

O) Do not take home any dog until you have tested out several in the pack. You are going to have this dog for the rest of its life so take your time to pick out the one whose temperament you gel with the best.

P) Flying back home with your dog can be tricky. We’ve written an article on this subject. But here are the basics:

a. Call airline to check out their special requirements and tell them you have a dog

b. Get a dog vest and registration card

c. Be prepared to answer questions about your dog

d. Do not agree to any extra fees, an airline cannot legally charge you for having a service dog.

Follow these steps and checks and you will have a loving companion that improves your quality of life. The basics: strategize with your med team on the qualities you are looking for in your service dog, pick a cost-effective strategy with training, and look at reviews for a reputable breeder in your area.

Good luck and happy searching!

Want to tell us the story of how you found your dog? Email me here at

Great Danes As Service Dogs

While the lumbering giants are best known for their kind hearts and size, how would this beast work as a service dog?

Short answer, excellent! Comparatively, danes need very little exercise versus other breeds. They are content with one walk a day and then napping in the corner. Their short coat makes them a light shedder and mild manner easy to bring into public.

Service needs that a Great Dane provides:

  • Protection – You knew this one was coming. GD’s were originally bred to guard estates and carriages. They were also used as “sport” dogs and would frequently bring down wild boar.
  • Psychiatric Service Dog (PSDs) – GD’s are known for their gentle heart and will often try to imitate lapdogs with their owners.
  • Brace/Mobility Support Dogs (BMSD) - Due to their size Great Dane’s (GD’s) work as great BMSD buddies. Especially if their owner is larger than average and has balance issues due to a disability.

Great Danes are primarily used for Brace/Mobility Support Dogs (BMSD). They can accompany people with a variety of ailments including, Parkinson’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis etc..

What tasks will they perform?

  • Holding doors
  • Wearing a special harness and acting as a counter-balance. 
  • Picking up dropped objects, bringing crutches
  • Standing over a fallen handler so they are not stepped on
  • Pulling a wheelchair
  • Helping specific ailments for example: a Parkinson’s patient may experience “freezes.” Danes are taught to touch the foot or ankle of the person which will break the “freeze.” 

What size dog will I need for my mobility impairment?

A BMSD needs to be at least 45% of the persons height and 65% of the persons weight. For example a 6 foot tall man needs a 30” dog.

Service needs that would not be a great fit:

  • Visual Assistance Dogs – Danes are extremely willful and have a mind of their own. Many can be skittish and easily frightened. Shepards, labs, and goldens are a better fit in this department

As far as the breed goes GD’s are easygoing and mild-mannered. However, they can be some of the hardest dogs to train because of their size. What might be a warm welcome from a shitsu jumping on a stranger is dangerous from a GD. Therefore, it is recommended that owners of GDs have prior experience training dogs and are confident in there ability to curb bad behaviors early in development.


  • You do not have time to socialize them – danes need socialization when young and can often develop anxiety if left alone for too long. Danes love people and are always ready to welcome a stranger.
  • You do not have time to exercise them – Although, danes may take less walking then you think they need a minimum of one 20 minute walk a day. If given a yard danes will be much happier which can lead to evening temperament in other departments.
  • You are not experienced with dog training – danes are not starter dogs. All bad doggy issues are heightened because of the size. danes take a strong owner who is willing to invest the time and sweat into training a very large rambunctious puppy.
  • You need a travelling buddy – Pretty self-explanatory here. As was alluded to in our previous article: , size matters!
  • You can’t hand a little slobber! – There will be saliva on your furniture.

If you need a kind hearted gentle giant then the dane is for you! When well trained from a young age danes can grow to become excellent service/ family dogs and are among the gentlest breeds to children. danes are the #15 dog in terms of popularity and there are many websites where you can adopt one.

Need a guide for finding the perfect companion online? check out our buying guide