Jan 8, 2018 | By Natasha Smith

Recovery from Substance Abuse: Dogs & the Path to Freedom


If recovery were easy, we wouldn’t need help. If it were simple, we wouldn’t wonder what to do next. While there are many guideposts on the path, there’s no magic solution that provides instant relief. One thing that helps is having a non-judgmental, supportive friend at our side–and no one is more reliable, present, and loving than a dog.

Whether or not you grew up with pets, have you ever considered to take on such a responsibility? Don’t dogs need a lot of time, commitment, and stability? The prospect of devoting your energy and resources toward a pet can be daunting, to say the least. But the truth is, you don’t actually have to own an animal to reap many of the benefits they provide. And if you do choose to adopt a pup, you won’t be alone: There’s a world of people ready and willing to help.

How Dogs Help with Recovery

It is said that dog owners live longer and happier lives. Researchers have consistently found that pets improve our mental and physical health through a number of factors. A few minutes in the presence of a dog can decrease stress and increase dopamine–the same neuro-chemical that we seek to stimulate through addictive substances.

Rehab centers are incorporating therapy dogs into treatment protocols and seeing improved outcomes, and the long-term relationship between owner and pet can have an even more profound effect.

The daily routines that help dogs thrive are the same rhythms that are associated with recovery. Regulating your sleep and exercise in order to accommodate your dog’s daily needs is easier than imposing such a schedule on yourself. When you have someone to take care of, there’s a part of you that simply steps up to the plate in ways you don’t always expect. Taking your dog on daily walks quickly becomes a habit, and one you’re not likely to break. As your life becomes infused with a sense of purpose, you may also find that your pet’s unconditional love helps you grow more compassionate toward yourself, further aiding your journey to wellness.

Play is another piece of the puzzle. Dogs help us let our guards down and embrace our silliest selves. Few adults get enough playtime. No matter how hard we try, we can’t recreate that feeling of total surrender and joy through drugs and alcohol. But playing with dogs can reignite the pure, unadulterated glee of childhood.

Finding the Best Fit

Even if you’re terrified of dogs, you can benefit from canine therapy. In that case, spending time in the company of fully-trained therapy dogs under professional supervision may be the best fit. The challenging act of vulnerability can have enormous benefits, and overcoming your fear will help you build your inner reserve of strength.

What if you like dogs and feel comfortable with them? Should you bring one home right away? First, assess your readiness. Is your home a good fit for a pet? Would your schedule allow you to spend adequate time and energy on caring for a dog? If not, take a step back. Think about becoming a dog-sitter, volunteering at a shelter, or offering to walk your friend’s dog on weekends.


If you do want to move ahead with adoption, how will you make your choice? Trained service animals or emotional support dogs can provide extra support. Dogs who have undergone significant training will be more expensive, but there are many organizations dedicated to making this path accessible to all. Do you have physical or mental health conditions like PTSD, chronic pain, or limited mobility? If so, a service animal could offer wide-ranging assistance with a number of everyday tasks. Emotional support dogs can also accompany you on flights, and are permitted in more housing situations.

You may also decide to seek out a shelter animal. Pets in need appeal to the caretaker within us – and many who have been through hardships want to ease the suffering of others. Your perfect mate could be a rescue. However, there are a few things to consider. Some dogs who have been strays or come from abusive backgrounds will require much more care and attention due to anxiety and other issues. They may need extensive training and emotional support. Look for a pet who’s a great match for where you are now. If you have experience with needy animals, you may be up for a challenge; if not, a more well-adjusted pet–perhaps an older dog from a stable background–will be a good fit.

What Now?

Look to Rover to find reliable, trustworthy pet-sitters who can also help you train your dog, take them on daily walks while you’re at work, and more. There’s no shame in asking for help – it’s an essential skill that all of us need to master, as there’s no way to truly recover if we try to do everything on our own.

Spending time with your dog will give you constant reminders of what it means to be free. Dogs live in the present, enjoy each moment, and savor the daily delights that often pass us by. There’s no better companion on the path to liberating ourselves from dependency, and stepping into our calling.

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