In this day and age, it’s becoming harder and harder not to worry about the things happening in the world around us.
For those that have serious, medically-recognized levels of anxiety, it can all be a bit overwhelming. That’s where service animals might be able to help.
If you think that you could benefit from having such a companion, you may be wondering just how to train a dog to alert for panic attacks.
The answer is not as simple as you might think. While all dogs have a fantastic sense of smell, some dogs are more suited to being a service animal than others due to their innate personality, intelligence, trainability, and even breed.
Training a service dog by yourself will also depend on your own skills and the amount of time that you have to put in. All in all, it will take at least around two years to train a service dog on your own.
Though undoubtedly more expensive, it may be simpler to apply for a service dog from the various organizations across the US. This way, you will be able to attain canine help as soon as possible.
Dogs, unlike any other domesticated animals, are more connected to their owners- and can even read them in a way that other humans cannot. Your dog can easily tell when you have different emotions, and can react differently to each one of them.
But what about panic attacks? Is your dog able to tell (and maybe even help) when you are showing signs of anxiety or having a panic attack?
The answer to this is: Yes!
Dogs can indeed sense and help if you or a family member are having a panic attack. The intuitive connection of dogs to people allows them to detect changes in their owners in a very unique manner.
Besides, these wonderful pets also have a marvelous sense of smell and an innate ability to interpret facial expressions and body language, which are all important in detecting changes in rising anxiety.
If, for example, you suffer from anxiety and are becoming overwhelmed by a sense of fear, your body will naturally produce more sweat. This is something that your dog will easily detect through its strong sense of smell.
In such a case, in the absence of basic training how your dog responds will depend on its personality as well as breed. Some dogs will try to calm you, while others will become fearful as well. Some may even bark despite being required to remain calm in such a situation.
As a result of their ability to read body language and interpret facial expressions, dogs can also sense when you are sad. Inadvertently, you will change into a slouching posture, and your face will look forlorn.
When such situations arise, the majority of dogs will naturally try to comfort their owner through actions such as burying their head into your lap.
Even more surprisingly, dogs have the ability to tell when the brain chemicals that are responsible for regulating emotions are low or high. With this ability, it becomes possible for them to know when a person is getting anxious.
In addition, they will also notice increased sweat production, fearful facial expressions, and an increased heart rate, all of which are symptoms of anxiety.
As far as panic attacks are involved, the powerful sense of smell in dogs is the most important.
A pooch will have as many as 300 million olfactory receptors while you only have 6 million. That’s why a dog is able to detect smells that you would never be able to smell.
A good example is adrenaline, the fight-or-flight hormone. By being able to smell changes in the amount of adrenaline in your body, a specially trained dog can then act accordingly.
If a dog is specially trained to be a psychiatric service animal, it can provide emotional support to a patient with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. A psychiatric service dog is capable of sensing a panic attack before it even happens.
That way, such a pooch can help you make it through a panic attack with as little impact as possible. In some cases, the dog can provide special support to prevent the panic attack altogether.
When humans and dogs interact and are able to create a strong bond, both parties release a feel-good chemical known as oxytocin.
The chemical targets the brain and has the effect of an increased feeling of happiness and love. That explains why the bond between you and your dog gets stronger with time.
With an increase of feel-good chemicals in your body, you will experience fewer anxiety attacks whether or not you are in panic mode. As time goes by, your anxiety levels will go down significantly, and you will have fewer panic attacks.
The reaction of a pooch when they sense anxiety in the person that they are closely connected to will vary depending on the breed and personality of the dog.
If your dog is not a service dog and you show symptoms of anxiety for the first time while in its company, your fur baby will more than likely drift into fear mode.
Dogs that are more geared to become service dogs, however, will respond to anxiety by trying to calm you. They can do that by either trying to cuddle or comfort you depending on how they have been trained.
A dog that has been specially trained to be a service dog can do a lot more when it senses anxiety. The main things that a service dog can perform to be a good canine citizen after sensing anxiety include:
- Keeping strangers away from the person in distress
- Getting someone to help the victim of an anxiety attack
- Fetching water or medication in the event of an attack
- Reminding the person that they are supposed to take medication at designated times during the day
- Using deep pressure therapy to help the victim of an attack to relax
- Trying to calm the victim of anxiety through distractions such as providing a paw to hold or licking their face
- Retrieving a phone that the victim can use to call a therapist or other support system in the event of an anxiety attack
- Switching the lights on or doing a safety check of rooms for persons that are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Even if the dog is not trained to be a service dog, simply being around them can provide a feeling of comfort and happiness for people who suffer from anxiety.
As if that’s not enough, having a dog for company is associated with plenty of benefits such as exercise, stress relief, company, time outdoors, and playful moments while in the house.
Teaching your fur baby to respond to your anxiety attacks is a lot easier than you might think.
The first step is to get the dog to recognize whenever your behavior or state changes. To accomplish this here is what you should do:
- Whenever you sense an imminent anxiety attack, call your dog and give them their most favorite treats. If you repeat this for some time while rewarding your dog, they will soon learn to notice your times of high anxiety and will run to you on their own.
- Once your dog has learned to read your high anxiety times, you will want to train them on the actions that you would like them to do. Keep in mind however that dogs naturally offer behaviors on their own, and one of those behaviors is barking. Usually, barking has a more harmful than helpful effect. There are some offered behaviors that can be a lot more helpful, such as licking.
- If your dog’s offered behavior is helpful in your situation, keep it! If it’s not something you want, be sure to change it. For the best results, it’s best if you can teach your dog to respond with a behavior that you prefer. You can choose from a lick, touch, nudge, spinning in circles, or anything that works for you as a team.
- At first, train the behavior without associating it with anxiety, until your dog understands it completely. Then whenever you are anxious and your dog comes to you, delay giving them their favorite treats, and instead ask for the behavior. Once they perform the desired action, give them the treat!
- Keep practicing and helping your dog to associate your anxiety attacks with the behavior. Eventually, the dog will learn to do the behavior on its own, without you having to ask for it.
Here is a video that will be of great assistance if you want to learn more about how to train a dog to alert for panic attacks:
When your dog eventually learns to respond to your anxiety attacks with a preferred behavior, it will become easier for you to know what they are alerting about whenever they perform that specific action.
If you want to, you can also change the behavior that you want your dog to respond with whenever you have an anxiety attack.
To change the behavior, all you have to do is to teach your dog a preferred action that they don’t already associate with your anxiety attacks. After mastering the preferred behavior, let it be the one that you reward your dog for whenever they respond to an anxiety attack.
For this to happen, you will have to ask for the preferred behavior before the dog can do their offered behavior. If they do their offered behavior, delay the treats until the pooch performs the behavior that you ask them to do successfully.
With time, the dog will start focusing more on the rewarded behavior and slowly ditch their original offered behavior.
To get a service dog from specialist organizations, you will be required to meet certain criteria. Such criteria can include having:
- A love of dogs
- Patience and strong communication skills
- A stable home environment
- The capacity to routinely train and care for a service dog
- The financial ability to maintain and cater to a service dog for 12 years or more
- A debilitating psychiatric condition or a physical disability
- The capability to attend a handler training program
- A recommendation letter from a licensed mental health professional
With the different requirements that one has to meet, you may fail to qualify for getting a service dog for your anxiety problem.
That, however, does not limit you from getting an emotional support animal. An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is different from service dogs.
While service dogs are trained to handle specific tasks that the individual using the dogs would otherwise be incapable of performing, the law considers ESAs as pets. Despite that, you can still experience a lot of benefits from having an ESA in your house.
Keep in mind, however, that you will still require a letter from a licensed mental health professional to show that having the ESA improves at least one characteristic of your condition.
If your anxiety isn’t as debilitating, you can simply benefit from training your dog to be an emotional support animal with the assistance of a certified trainer.
If, however, your anxiety condition is serious to the extent of requiring a service dog, you can opt to acquire an already-trained dog.
Since this option is considerably expensive, you might think of training your fur baby into a certified service animal. Even though this option will be considerably less expensive compared to having to buy a service dog, it can still attract high costs.
You can also opt to research the internet for information about training a dog as a service dog, though such an approach will take a tremendous amount of time and effort.
If you are mostly in control of your anxiety attacks, you don’t have to put in the extra effort or deal with the great costs. You can simply opt to train your dog to alert you of an imminent attack through a specific behavior.
In the majority of cases this type of training is a lot easier to teach, and there are endless sources of information, resources, and videos online for self-education.
Training your dog as a service dog can take quite a large amount of time and can often vary depending on a number of factors.
Training a dog as a service dog on your own can take approximately two years to complete.
This varies of course, depending on different variables such as:
- Your experience
- The age of the dog
- The dog’s breed (Different breed have different traits that make them ideal for a specific kind of training)
- Your choice of rewards
- The speed and intensity of training
- Behavioral quality of the dog (it’s advisable not to train a dog with behavioral issues into a service dog)
It’s good to keep in mind that the duration and intensity of the training will have a direct impact on the outcome of the training on your dog. That’s considering that dogs, just like humans, can also become overwhelmed when too much training is imposed on them.
For this reason, it is highly recommended that you adjust the training depending on the response of the dog.
That way, the training sessions will not ruin your plan by inducing a fearful personality into the dog. You can come up with a reasonable schedule that you will use to train the dog, and if need be, change the schedule to accommodate the learning ability of the dog.
Hopefully after reading this article you’ve gained a better understanding on how to train a dog to alert for panic attacks.
It really is amazing how dogs are able to detect changes in your mental state through the analysis of scent and body language. The key is to train the dog so that they are able to alert you to these incoming changes before you are even aware of them!
Training a dog to be a certified service animal is no easy feat, however. It takes years of practice and discipline at minimum, and that’s provided that you have the appropriate skills and know-how.
However, it may be possible and simpler to train your dog to perform a specific action as an anxiety alert signal. Just like training any other behavior, this requires conditioning through the use of rewards until your pup recognizes what to look for.
Though it may be an arduous journey, it will be worth it at the end when you have a companion that can help you in your times of need!
Elena Gherman is a highly skilled and knowledgeable animal care expert. At the start of her career, she gained practical expertise with multiple animals. In addition to that, she works as a DVM veterinary editor for Joy Pet Products, which focuses on offering reliable information on pet health and wellbeing. She meticulously reviews each piece of writing before it is published to make sure pet owners get the most precise and updated information possible.