Service dogs or service animals are defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as "dogs (or other animal species) that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability." These disabilities range from such physical impairments as blindness, deafness, loss of limb and paralysis, to physical diseases such as epilepsy and diabetes. Service animals also lend a hand with emotional illnesses such as anxiety. These animals are called emotional support animals and work as a comforting companion to people suffering with emotional difficulties or mental illness.
What Do They Do?
Service animals are highly trained to perform certain aspects of life that a disabled person can’t. These include opening doors, retrieving clothing items and navigating geographical routes for people when traveling, either to the market or across the country. When dealing with seizures, diabetes, anxiety or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), the animals are trained to sense the onset of an episode and warn the person so that they can cut the incident off at the pass. This type of warning system usually results in dampening the effect of what is to come, or at the very least, alerting those around the person so that everyone is prepared to deal with the event.
Studies have shown that the companionship of an animal can have a calming effect and reduce stress as an added benefit not only for those living with a physical struggle but also with an emotional one. Emotional support animals do not have specialized training and are not required to be certified service animals. However, one court has said the animal must facilitate the person's ability to function in order to be recognized by public businesses and accommodations. Their ability to soothe the person needing emotional support is believed to be innate and has been demonstrated through scientific studies for two decades.
A Positive Influence in Recovery
Considering the job that these animals do for people with physical or emotional support, could this concept be the ticket to bridging the gap for people suffering with a substance use disorder? Could the constant and soothing companionship of a dog be the necessary element to stop the triggers that break the will of an addict to stay sober? Is it possible to train a dog to sense the onset of an anxiety attack or an OCD compulsion and alert the addict before they succumb to the trigger and use? Whether it be a trained service dog that senses the onset of these triggers or an emotional support animal that soothes the addict in times of need, both could be very beneficial to a person in recovery.
It’s very possible given the type of emotional stress an addict and especially a recovering addict has to deal with, that a service/emotional support animal could be just the thing he or she needs to make it through one day at a time. Addicts either never cultivated or have lost the coping skills necessary to deal with life's stresses and a service/emotional support animal can be the tool they need to learn or relearn these traits. Most importantly, most addicts have learned to live only for themselves. They manipulate and use people to get what they want. In recovery, having an animal who is not only helping to take care of them, but they are responsible for as well, could highly benefit a person in recovery.
To learn to connect and have a mutual respect for another living being is a huge part of integration back into civil society and one that is hugely overlooked. A person who has lived as an addict for many years has felt the sting of marginalization and suffered the self-imposed isolation from love and a "no strings attached" relationship. Having a companion who doesn't know your past or care can be the answer to a prayer for a person suffering with a substance use disorder and be the missing piece to their struggle with recovery.