Post-COVID demand high for emotional support animals

Most support animals are dogs.
Published: Mar. 27, 2023 at 8:49 PM CDT
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ROCKFORD, Ill. (WIFR) - Although it’s been three years since Illinois was under a stay-at-home order, stateline residents are still working through mental health issues associated with COVID-related isolation.

Therapists say it is common these days for their clients to utilize emotional support animals for comfort while working on their mental health. In turn, the demand for therapy dogs and cats is as high as it’s ever been.

“COVID was a wakeup call for a lot us,” said Nicole Didier, a therapist with Forest City Counseling. “Once we were at home and more isolated than we ever have been, there was something stirring in all of us of just that reminder of desiring and wanting connection.”

According to the National Service Animal Registry, in 2019, there were approximately 200,000 service animals in the United States. Since the pandemic, that number has more than doubled. Mental health professionals say the influx is attributed to a unique connection animals have with people and their innate ability to sense human emotion.

“They love and have relationships with people in ways that we will never understand, especially that unconditional love,” Didier said.

Erin Rabon runs Circle of Change, a local nonprofit that helps at-risk individuals with emotional support dogs. She says the bonds between her clients and the animals in the program are life changing.

“Mental health is becoming more on the forefront of people’s minds,” Rabon said. “People are noticing more, and they are giving more value to making sure somebody is mentally well.”

Experts say teaching a dog the basics of serving as an emotional support animal can be done in as little as a few weeks. Full service-dog or therapy-animal certification training can take between one and three years, depending on the animal.