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Can a Service Dog Help with Dermatillomania?

Dermatillomania, also known as excoriation disorder or skin picking disorder, is a psychological condition characterized by compulsive picking, scratching, or pulling at the skin. It affects approximately 2-3% of the population (estimates vary) and causes distress and potential physical harm.

Dermatillomania is typically treated through a variety of therapeutic approaches. Considering  Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) and Psychiatric Service Animals (PSAs) as part of a holistic treatment plan is a great idea. In this blog post, we will explore what dermatillomania is, how it is usually treated, and the ways in which a support or service animal can provide assistance to individuals living with this condition.

Table of Contents

Understanding Dermatillomania

Dermatillomania is a body-focused repetitive behavior (BFRB) that involves the repetitive and compulsive picking of the skin. It often stems from a variety of factors, including anxiety, stress, or a desire for relief from physical discomfort. The condition can manifest in different degrees of severity, ranging from mild to severe, and can have significant impacts on an individual’s daily life, self-esteem, and overall well-being.

Treatment Approaches for Dermatillomania

Treatment for dermatillomania typically involves a multidisciplinary approach that addresses both the psychological and behavioral aspects of the disorder. Some common therapeutic interventions include:

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT focuses on identifying and modifying the thoughts and behaviors associated with dermatillomania. Techniques such as habit reversal training and stimulus control can help individuals gain control over their skin-picking urges.

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Although the FDA has not yet approved a medication specific for dermatillomania, medication may be prescribed to manage underlying conditions such as anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, which often coexist with it. A recently published study showed positive results – a significant reduction in skin picking and hair pulling – from a medication typically used for people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Support Groups

Peer support groups or online communities provide a platform for individuals with dermatillomania to connect, share experiences, and learn coping strategies from others who understand their challenges.

The Role of Support and Service Dogs in Dermatillomania Treatment

Emotional Support Animals and Psychiatric Service Animals can play a valuable role in assisting individuals with dermatillomania by providing emotional support, reducing anxiety, and interrupting the picking behaviors. Get your official ESA or PSA approval letter through American Service Pets here.

Here’s an ESA & PSA-specific way they can help:

Emotional Support (ESAs & PSAs)

Service dogs offer unconditional love and companionship, which can help alleviate feelings of loneliness, shame, and anxiety commonly experienced by those with dermatillomania.

Here are some PSA-specific ways they can help:

Service dog for dermatillomania

Sensory Distraction

By diverting attention away from skin-picking urges, service dogs can interrupt the compulsion and redirect the individual’s focus onto positive interactions with their canine companion.

Deep Pressure Therapy

Deep Pressure Therapy

Service dogs can be trained to apply deep pressure through leaning or laying on their handler’s lap or chest. This pressure has a calming effect and can help reduce anxiety and stress levels.

Task Interruption

Service dogs can be trained to perform specific tasks to interrupt or redirect skin-picking behaviors. For instance, they can nudge their handler’s hand gently or provide a targeted tactile stimulation to prevent or disrupt the picking action.

Increased Confidence & Self-Esteem

The presence of a well-trained service dog can boost an individual’s confidence and self-esteem, enabling them to better manage their condition and engage more confidently in social situations.

Training Tasks for Service Dogs Assisting Dermatillomania

To effectively assist individuals with dermatillomania, psychiatric service dogs may be trained through I Train Academy (recommended!) or another service dog training program to perform the following tasks:

Pawing or Nudging

The dog can use gentle pawing or nudging to redirect the handler’s focus away from skin picking and towards the dog.

Blocking or Distracting

The service dog can position themselves between the handler and their skin picking target, effectively blocking access or providing a sensory distraction to interrupt the behavior.

Deep Pressure Therapy

Through trained cues or on command, the dog can apply pressure using their body weight, helping to alleviate anxiety and providing a calming effect.

Retrieving Fidget Toys

Dogs can be taught to retrieve fidget toys or other objects that provide sensory stimulation, giving the individual an alternative outlet for their restless hands.

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One Reddit user commented that their cousin’s dog, perhaps not even necessarily trained specifically as a service dog (the commenter doesn’t say), was so helpful in licking their face, and growling and whimpering, when they tried to touch their face, that they didn’t pick at their face for long periods at a time!

Dermatillomania is a challenging condition that can greatly impact quality of life. While treatment approaches typically involve therapy and medication, the inclusion of a service dog can provide unique benefits. Service dogs offer emotional support, task interruption, and can be trained to perform specific tasks to assist individuals in managing their skin-picking behaviors. Their presence can provide comfort, reduce anxiety, and contribute to the overall well-being and recovery of individuals with dermatillomania. It is important to work with professionals experienced in both dermatillomania and service dog training to determine the most appropriate course of treatment for each person’s specific needs.

ESA or PSA Certification?

The benefits of an Emotional Support Animal certification and a Psychiatric Service Dog certification are drastically different. Fortunately for you, American Service Pets’ network of active board certified doctors can help you find the right path to certification. To find out whether you need an ESA or PSD letter, take our easy, three-step Pet Owner Survey!


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