Emotional Service Dogs Induce Calm by Lowering Cortisol Levels

emotional service dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • In children with autism, service dogs led to a significant decrease in levels of the stress hormone cortisol
  • Service dogs may lead to an 82 percent reduction in symptoms among trauma survivors, including those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • If you’re considering a service dog for yourself or a child, be aware that there is no mandatory federal process in the U.S. for screening the training or placement of service dogs with people who have disabilities

By Dr. Becker

Service dogs are traditionally viewed as a way to provide support to adults with physical disabilities, but in recent decades they've made the proverbial leap into helping people — children and adults alike — with emotional and mental problems as well. North Star Foundation is one of a growing number of organizations training dogs for this purpose. Based in Storrs, Connecticut, the organization has placed hundreds of dogs with children with autism or those struggling with trauma or grief.

Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have also benefitted from North Star dogs, which are specifically bred to have a wiliness to work, high social intelligence and ability to tolerate children. At North Star, the training and socialization process begins at birth, including teaching the dogs not to jump on their handlers, and dogs are carefully matched with the right person.

What's perhaps most intriguing is how the dogs seem to have an inherent knowledge of how to provide emotional support when their owner is in need.

Emotional Service Dogs Have an Inner Sense of How to Help

Gross used the example of Lilly, a service dog with a bit too much energy for children, who was placed with a veteran struggling with PTSD, including panic attacks and nightmares. She wasn't specifically trained on what to do in the event of such an attack, yet in the moment she knew just what to do.

Patty Dobbs Gross, founder and executive director of the North Star Foundation, explained to DVM360 that Lilly sensed when her owner's cortisol levels (the stress hormone) rose, signaling to her that he was in need of support. "But what would Lilly choose to do" in that moment, if the veteran awoke with a nightmare or suffered a daytime panic attack? DVM360 reported:1

"What Lilly did was keep her hind legs on the floor and lay her forelegs over the veteran to comfort him. 'The dog would not cloister the man but be partially on top of him, to assure him of her presence when the veteran awoke in panic,' Gross says. If a flashback occurred during the day, Gross continues, Lilly would respond similarly, nudging the man at the onset of the attack, when he started to 'zone out.'

'I did not train Lilly to do either of those things,' says Gross. 'Correctly bred and socialized dogs just seem to have an inner sense of naturally responding to people in times of emotional turmoil, likely responding to a rise in cortisol and a deep need to comfort a member of the pack.'"

Science Shows Service Dogs Help Reduce Cortisol Levels

It's long been known that the presence of a dog has a calming effect, but only more recently has research proven this to be the case, scientifically speaking. Among healthy adults, dogs act as a social catalyst, in part because they reduce stress hormone levels.

The same holds true among children with autism, who may have difficulty in social situations and also struggle with anxiety, which in turn increases cortisol levels. In a study published in 2010, researchers assessed the effects of service dogs on the basal salivary cortisol secretion of children with autism syndrome disorders (ASD).2

The salivary cortisol levels of 42 children with ASD were measured prior to the introduction of a service dog to their family, during the service dog's placement and after the dog was removed from their family. Noted effects on cortisol levels were observed. Specifically:

  • Before the service dogs were introduced, the children had a 58 percent increase in cortisol after awakening in the morning
  • While service dogs were present, morning cortisol levels increased just 10 percent after awakening
  • After the service dogs were removed, cortisol levels jumped back to 48 percent

Gross told DVM360, "Now that we know that point of fact, physiologically speaking, we can separate the autism field from the psychobabble … This study moves this neurological difference into a physiological light and shows how the assistance dog really helps."3

Benefits to veterans with PTSD have also been scientifically documented. In one study of 78 veterans with PTSD, service dogs were found to offer "feasible support," with the veterans reporting "the most important services performed were licking or nudging veterans to help them 'stay present,' preventing panic and putting space between veterans and strangers."4

Other research has shown that service dogs may lead to an 82 percent reduction in symptoms among trauma survivors, including those with PTSD. In one case, a person was able to cut their anxiety and sleep medications in half after interactive with a service dog for just one week.5

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Are You Considering a Service Dog?

There's no doubt that the right dog can provide enormous emotional and physical benefits to its owner. This doesn't necessarily have to be a trained service dog, either — even well-adjusted family pets can provide invaluable emotional support. This includes not only dogs but other animals (like guinea pigs and llamas) as well.

If, however, you're considering a service dog for yourself or a child, be aware that there is no mandatory federal process in the U.S. for screening the training or placement of service dogs with people who have disabilities.

The U.S. Department of the Army and the Veterans' Administration recommend dogs trained by an Assistance Dogs International (ADI) or International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF) accredited facility, however there are many non-accredited facilities also offering service dogs. Researchers wrote in Frontiers in Veterinary Science:6

"Currently, with minimal U.S. enforcement of guidelines regarding the training and placement of assistance dogs and their access to public areas, restaurants and airplanes, assistance dog facilities have already had a period of rapid growth."

In order to ensure the service dog you choose is not only adequately and humanely trained but also provides the right fit for your family, consider using ADI's programs search to search for accredited service dog programs.