Squirrel!! Using Dogs for ADHD

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As an adult with ADHD, living with the disorder impacts my daily life. I avoid starting tasks, struggle sitting still, have trouble falling asleep, and fall behind in all of my work, especially long-term projects. I frequently feel not present in conversations and often leave class lectures with nothing more than a date written in my notes. I’ve tried various medications before finding the least harmful one for me. Still, I experience many negative side effects with my current medication.* While it helps my attention, it worsens my insomnia, anxiety, nervousness, agitation, and it causes appetite loss and chest palpitations. Due to these side effects, I’ve begun looking into alternative non-medication treatments for ADHD. This research led me to ADHD specialists, therapy, and the use of Emotional Support Animals or ESAs to help treat ADHD. So how can having a dog improve the quality of life of a person with ADHD?

*2020 update: my doctor and I finally found a combination of medications that works for me! Also, I adopted a dog to be my ESA and he has dramatically helped to improve my health.

Understanding ADHD

In order to understand how dogs can help those with ADHD, it is important to understand what ADHD is and how it affects the lives of those who live with it. ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. There are three types of ADHD: inattentive type, hyperactive type, and combination type. The DSM-5 ( Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition) describes symptoms of ADHD as the following:

Symptoms of inattention:

  • Often fails to give close attention to detail or makes mistakes
  • Often has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or activities
  • Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly
  • Often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork or workplace duties
  • Often has difficulty organizing tasks and activities
  • Often avoids, dislikes or is reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort
  • Often loses things necessary for tasks or activities
  • Is easily distracted by extraneous stimuli
  • Is often forgetful in daily activities
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Symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity:

  • Often fidgets with or taps hands and feet, or squirms in seat
  • Often leaves seat in situations when remaining seated is expected
  • Often runs and climbs in situations where it is inappropriate (in adolescents or adults, may be limited to feeling restless)
  • Often unable to play or engage in leisure activities quietly
  • Is often ‘on the go’, acting as if ‘driven by a motor’
  • Often talks excessively
  • Often blurts out answers before a question has been completed
  • Often has difficulty waiting their turn
  • Often interrupts or intrudes on others
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These symptoms can be managed with medications, but the mental and emotional effects of ADHD often go beyond what medicine can treat. That’s where dogs come into the picture. Pets provide emotional support for every owner, but those with disabilities or disorders may qualify for an Emotional Support Animal or ESA. In order to qualify for an ESA, one must be diagnosed with a mental disability or disorder classified by the DSM-5. Some of these conditions include anxiety disorders, depression, learning disorders, intellectual disorders, and ADHD.

In order to get an ESA, one must have a letter written by a physician or mental health professional that defines the patient’s medical need for an Emotional Support Animal and requests reasonable housing and travel accommodations for these pets. These accommodations help those whose pets provide them crucial comfort in their homes or on flights. It’s important to note that Emotional Support Animals do not have public access rights like service dogs, or dogs who are highly trained to perform a specific task for its handler. Although an Emotional Support Animal can’t accompany its owner to the grocery store or work, ESAs get fair housing even in no-pet residencies. Read more about the protected accessibility for ESAs here.

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Emotional Support Dogs for ADHD

Many of the responsibilities of dog ownership help people with ADHD and improves their quality of life. Some ways dogs are great for those with ADHD are:

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Routine. Having and maintaining a routine is a task people with ADHD struggle with more than anything, or at least I do. Having a dog requires owners to have a schedule for when to feed, take outside to potty, and exercise the dog. It can be easy to fall behind on schedule tasks like doing homework and getting up early enough to start the day, but when a dog’s needs are left unattended to, the consequences are much more immediate and palpable than a large deadline approaching. Having the responsibility of a dog helps ADHDers stay on track with their daily school or work responsibilities.

Exercise. Most dogs have loads of energy. Even the lazy fluffers appreciate frequent activity. Walks, hikes, playing fetch, or even learning new tricks are great ways to get some of that energy out. Instead of lazy days inside, dogs encourage owners to get up and get active. The consequences of not giving a dog a proper outlet to get that energy out are immediate and impossible to ignore. Unless you want to buy a new couch, you better take that pup on a walk! Dog owners tend to be healthier and more active than those without canine companions. Regular exercise is crucial for overall health but it even helps treat many symptoms of ADHD. Increased dopamine can boost attention and endorphins work as an antidepressant. More information on the ways exercise can benefit those with ADHD can be accessed on WebMD.

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Anxiety and depression. Dogs are known to relieve stress, reduce blood pressure, and provide therapy for people just by being their happy selves. While separate disorders, anxiety and depression can frequently result from ADHD symptoms and add even more mental stress to those with ADHD. Starting an assignment can feel like moving a mountain with the performance anxiety of knowing you won’t be able to give the task your full attention. Falling behind in assignments and feeling disconnected in conversations can feel extremely isolating. Having a dog can help people with ADHD endure the times when the ADHD symptoms become unmanageable just by providing comfort and warmth. Read more about how dogs help relieve anxiety and depression.

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Healthy distraction. Dogs can be distracting too, but they’re a good distraction! If there is a dog on my lap while I’m studying for my classes, I will pet it many times when the work can get overwhelming. However, petting a dog for a few minutes is much better than grabbing my phone and scrolling through twitter for an hour! Petting an animal increases many feel good chemicals in the brain and relieves stress. Dogs provide a healthy outlet for burning out energy or taking a short break to recharge attention.

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Social skills. Even conversations and talking to people can be something those with ADHD struggle with. It can be easier to not have a conversation rather than feel disrespectful for zoning out a few times or itching to blurt something out. ADHD can make approaching conversations harder. With a dog, people approach you all the time! Dogs provide a sense of community with trips to the dog park, joining a local agility class, and finding friends to go on hikes with. Although your dog will always be your best friend, it’ll help you make more friends along the way together.

Talk to your doctor to see if an ESA is right for your ADHD treatment.

Only a medical professional can diagnose ADHD or other disabilities and disorders that qualify for getting an Emotional Support Animal. It can take many different medications and methods to find the right ADHD treatment for you. A dog can help you along the way in your journey to live a happy, healthy life, despite ADHD.

Watch this video to learn more.