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Support Animals: Veterans' Best Friends

The role of animals in supporting veterans' mental health.

Key points

  • Emotional support animals don't need special training. They provide comfort but lack public access rights.
  • Service dogs are extensively trained to perform specific tasks and can accompany their handlers in public.
  • Animal-assisted psychotherapy includes animals in planned interventions to improve clients’ mental health.
D-Keine/Getty Images Signature
Source: D-Keine/Getty Images Signature

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, as many as one-third of military veterans experience physical or psychiatric disabilities. Transitioning to civilian life can be difficult under any circumstances, and physical limitations or mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression can exacerbate the re-entry process.

In recent years, therapeutic engagement with domesticated animals—particularly dogs and horses—has gained significant attention as a means of helping veterans manage and overcome their challenges. This help comes in varied forms. Emotional support animals provide comfort and companionship, service dogs perform specific tasks to mitigate physical or psychiatric disabilities, and animal-assisted psychotherapy includes activities with animals to help clients achieve their counseling goals.

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals help people cope with their mental health challenges. They reduce feelings of loneliness and distress, provide companionship, and encourage attachment and emotional bonding. Dogs, cats, birds, and rabbits are the most common emotional support animals. However, exotic species such as snakes, pigs, and hedgehogs can also qualify.

The critical difference between a regular pet and an emotional support animal is that a licensed mental health provider must attest in writing that the animal helps their guardian-handler manage their psychiatric symptoms. Emotional support animals are not required to have any special training or perform specific tasks.

The Fair Housing Act requires most landlords to accommodate emotional support animals, even in pet-restricted housing. Otherwise, emotional support animals do not have public access rights or legal protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act. They are generally not allowed on mass transit systems like buses or trains. Similarly, a 2021 Air Carriers Access Act amendment states that emotional support animals are pets subject to transport fees and other restrictions when flying with their guardian-handlers.

Stern et al. (2022) found that a group of military veterans who adopted a companion dog for emotional support experienced reduced symptoms of depressed mood and posttraumatic stress. Although emotional support animals lack the legal protections of service dogs, they play a crucial role in improving their owners' mental well-being. They can be an excellent option for veterans who would benefit from the presence and comfort of an animal at home.

Service Dogs

Service dogs assist individuals with mobility, hearing, vision, neurological or psychiatric disabilities. They are specifically trained to perform at least one task that mitigates their guardian-handler’s disability, such as retrieving objects, guiding their handler, alerting to specific sounds, or providing grounding during anxiety attacks or flashbacks. As a result, they can significantly enhance their handler’s functional independence.

Service dogs are legally protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, allowing them to accompany their guardian-handlers in places of public accommodation, such as restaurants, stores, hotels, and mass transit systems, including airplanes. This legal status ensures service dogs can continuously support and accompany their guardian-handlers.

Psychiatric service dogs are trained to alert their handlers to impending panic attacks, wake them from nightmares, or maintain a perimeter around the handler to increase the handler’s sense of safety. This specialized assistance can be invaluable for military veterans dealing with symptoms of anxiety or posttraumatic stress.

Scotland-Coogan et al. (2020) found that military veterans with PTSD experienced significantly reduced symptoms after they were paired with psychiatric service dogs. In a personal interview, Scotland-Coogan reported,

“Veterans shared with me that their dogs helped them become more independent and leave their homes. They could go to the grocery store and feel safe. It appeared that their attachment styles started to heal; the consistency of the dogs’ responses and unconditional love most likely played a part in that.”

Service dogs require extensive training that typically takes months or even years to complete, and long waitlists are the norm for dogs from professional programs. While some organizations provide service dogs for military veterans with disabilities free or at reduced cost, the expense can still be significant, with training often reaching $15,000 or more.

Animal-Assisted Psychotherapy

Animal-assisted psychotherapy (AAP) is a form of counseling that incorporates animals in the therapeutic process to improve clients’ mental health and well-being. This approach involves registered therapy animals, such as dogs or horses, handled by the therapist to facilitate therapeutic goals.

According to Owen et al. (2016), canine-assisted therapy has been studied by both the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs as a complementary treatment for active duty and military veterans with traumatic brain injuries and PTSD. Multiple qualitative and quantitative research studies have demonstrated the intervention’s effectiveness.

Therapy animals can increase social interaction and participation in therapy, making sessions more enjoyable and less intimidating. Interaction with the animal can help create a calming environment, foster trust and attachment, and encourage engagement. This can be especially helpful for veterans who struggle with social withdrawal or reluctance to participate in conventional treatment.

Therapists who practice AAP have specialized training in animal-assisted therapy techniques. They ensure that the animals included in therapeutic activities are appropriate for the treatment setting. AAP can be used in individual, group, or family therapy and adapted to different therapeutic approaches and mental health concerns.


Engaging with animals offers a promising pathway for military veterans managing physical or mental health challenges. Emotional support animals provide comfort at home, service dogs offer task-based assistance and legal access to public spaces, and animal-assisted psychotherapy enhances treatment outcomes through planned interactions with animals. Weighing the benefits and limitations of each option can help veterans and their families find the best approach to support their well-being and ease the transition to civilian life.


Owen, R. P., Finton, B. J., Gibbons, S. W., & DeLeon, P. H. (2016). Canine-assisted adjunct therapy in the military: An intriguing alternative modality. The Journal for Nurse Practitioners, 12(2), 95–101.

Scotland-Coogan, D., Whitworth, J. D., & Wharton, T. (2020). Outcomes of participation in a service dog training program for veterans with PTSD. Society & Animals, 30(5-6), 547–568.

Stern, S. L., Finley, E. P., Mintz, J., Jeffreys, M. D., Beaver, B. V., Copeland, L. A., Seawell, M. D., Bridgeman, C. H., Hamilton, A. B., Mata-Galan, E. L., Young-McCaughan, S., Hatch, J. P., Allegretti, A. C., Hale, W. J., & Peterson, A. L. (2022). Adopting a companion dog helps veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder in a pilot randomized trial. Society & Animals, 32(2), 196–218.

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