If you get out of the house at all, you have almost certainly at one time or another seen a blind person walking or riding the bus in the company of a service dog. And you may also have heard about the ways in which dogs can help military veterans with issues like PTSD or anxiety. I honestly had no idea of the extent to which dogs can help with psychiatric issues until a few days ago, when I was talking with my brother-in-law, Max.
Max has a friend that he’s known since high school. Phil was always known as “The Weird Guy,” which is of course unkind. Phil just didn’t seem to connect the way so-called “normal” people do, and at times his behavior was totally off the wall. His parents took him to medical doctors, neurologists, and finally to a psychiatrist who diagnosed him with schizophrenia.
These days Phil functions pretty well. He holds down a job in a structured environment, and he’s been good about taking his medication (which Max tells me has been a huge problem in the past). The real key, though, to Phil’s good health has been (and Max says, “You’re gonna love this, Ash”) his dog.
So, being of a naturally inquisitive mindset, I started wondering about psychiatric disorders in human beings, and how the companionship of a dog might help. After all, dogs offer incredible help and support to people with physical disabilities, so wouldn’t it make sense that they could also provide relief and assistance to people with mental issues? I started reading, and I learned a lot.
How Psychiatric Service Dogs Help
For people suffering from mental disorders, a dog can provide a sort of “bridge” between the abnormal world that the patient occupies, and that in which most of us live. Whether the issue is PTSD, agoraphobia, schizophrenia or something else, a dog can help. First of all, if you have to look after a dog, you need to be as healthy as you can be – an agoraphobic (someone who fears leaving the home), for instance, is going to have to walk the dog. Ergo, he or she has to venture outside. Someone with an anxiety disorder or PTSD reacts favorably to the calming presence of a dog. Schizophrenics, who are notorious for going off their meds, may be more motivated to stay on them because they know that if they go off the rails, they may find themselves unable to care for their dog. It’s a symbiotic relationship – the sufferer looks after the dog, and the dog looks after the sufferer.
So, taking that as our basic principle, let’s talk about specific disorders and how dogs can help.
Psychiatric Conditions and Canine Companions
Let’s be totally up front here. Not every psychiatric problem is going to just go away, or even necessarily be eased, by the presence of a dog. However, there are several conditions that seem to respond very well when the patient is provided with a psychiatric service dog.
Patients with autism find it hard to connect with the world and the people who occupy it. They may feel isolated, and that sense of isolation colors their social interactions. An autistic child, or adult for that matter, may feel that they don’t belong. They may not even want to belong. Dogs, quite simply, help people with autism to relate better, and can also provide a calming influence when the person finds himself or herself in a situation where they feel they can’t cope.
2. PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)
This is, as you can tell from the name, a condition that occurs following trauma. Most of the time, we connect it with veterans coming back from war, but in fact, it can affect anyone. People who have been through a bad car accident, or been sexually assaulted, badly beaten, or emotionally abused, for instance, can all suffer from PTSD.
With PTSD, even ordinary activities can trigger panic attacks, or flashbacks during which the person actually relives the trauma that caused the disorder in the first place. Imagine, for instance, going to the grocery store, and someone drops a watermelon. It makes a huge noise, and all of a sudden, there you are, back in Afghanistan. Or you’re calmly walking down the street, and you see a man who resembles, maybe in a very slight fashion, the stranger who raped you on the dark street all those years ago, and you lose it.
Dogs are naturally compassionate, and they know when you’re in emotional distress. For many people, a psychiatric service dog can provide comfort and nurturing when nothing else helps. Often, they can stave off panic by sensing when their humans are about to self-destruct. At the very least, they offer a warm, comforting shoulder to huddle into as the episode passes.
Schizophrenia is a devastating condition. Sufferers like Phil, “The Weird Guy,” are simply not in the same world that the rest of us occupy, and their world is often very frightening. Imagine hearing voices in your head, thinking that aliens are talking to you through your television, or being convinced that demons are asking you to do horrible things, and you have a good concept of schizophrenia. Most schizophrenics are not violent, although we do hear stories about horrible crimes being committed by sufferers who are out of control. Violent or not, though, they are invariably tortured.
One of the biggest problems with treating schizophrenia is that patients are often motivated to go off their medications. This is because the medications that are used to treat schizophrenia can often have a “deadening” effect, and sufferers may decide from time to time that it is better to feel anything at all, rather than nothing.
So, what keeps a schizophrenic patient taking his or her meds? Often, as I suggested above, it is a dog. The calming effect of the dog, coupled by the knowledge of the “on med” patient that if he or she stops the medication the dog might suffer, can work wonders even in cases of very severe schizophrenia.
4. Panic Disorder
Panic disorder is something like PTSD, but without the flashbacks. All the same, panic disorder can be crippling. Imagine, for instance, that you burn the toast while making breakfast. To a normally-functioning person, this isn’t a biggie – he or she just pops a couple more slices of bread in the toaster, or decides to pick up breakfast on the way to work. For someone with panic disorder, though, burnt toast invokes the same reaction as, say, the house burning to the ground.
Now, granted, the presence of a dog sitting calmly beside you, looking at you quizzically with loving brown eyes, might not completely derail a panic attack, but for sure it’s not going to hurt. And many people who are plagued by panic attacks report that a dog does provide physical comfort. A trained psychiatric service dog can also alert nearby people in case the attack is so severe that it requires medical attention.
Everyone feels sad from time to time. But when you’re so depressed that you can’t even drag yourself out of bed in the morning, and your work life and relationships are suffering, that’s a whole other thing. It makes you feel trapped, completely alone, and leaves you utterly incapable of functioning – it’s not just sadness; it’s clinical depression.
This is another instance where the presence of a dog, even if it’s not a trained psychiatric service dog, can help. You have to get out of bed, because you have to look after the dog. Any dog is helpful, but a trained psychiatric service dog is even more effective when it comes to helping depression sufferers with the daily functions that they might otherwise find overwhelming.
So, these are just a few psychiatric disorders that respond well to the intervention of a psychiatric therapy dog. Now, how do these dogs help?
What Exactly Do Psychiatric Service Dogs Do?
From the above, you can see that psychiatric service dogs, and sometimes even just your ordinary, garden variety companion dog, can make life considerably easier for people who suffer from psychiatric conditions. The job of a trained psychiatric service dog, though, will vary depending on the type of condition that the patient has.
Psychiatric service dogs are usually trained to perform specific tasks. There may be specific things that they need to learn how to do in order to help their person with his or her condition, but there are some things that are common to all psychiatric service dogs. Most important is knowing to stay beside their person when they are in, or approaching, a state of crisis. Some dogs are even trained to know when their person is hallucinating.
Who Can Be a Psychiatric Service Dog?
The short answer to this question is “Practically any dog.” There are, however, a few qualifications. Assuming that a dog is of normal to high intelligence, breed doesn’t really matter all that much. That said, though, small dogs aren’t likely to provide much protection to someone who is vulnerable. And large dogs like Great Danes or English Mastiffs might have a lot going for them in the brain department, but because of their size, they may not be practical when it comes to accessing public transit, and this could present problems for their human.
More so than size, though, temperament is important. A psychiatric service dog has to have an above-average willingness to work as part of a team, that team being the dog and their human. If a dog is more comfortable as a “loner,” or is very strong-willed and independent, he will not likely be effective as a psychiatric service dog. Also, if the dog is easily distracted, and lacks focus, he will not be a reliable psychiatric service dog – this applies especially to dogs that have a very strong prey drive, because they can easily leave their humans unattended while they pursue a smaller animal. They’re not trying to misbehave; they just can’t help it. But in this case, intent really doesn’t matter – a huge prey drive simply does not make for a good service dog in any capacity, psychiatric or otherwise.
What Do Psychiatric Service Dogs Do?
Psychiatric service dogs are called upon to perform a number of tasks that will enable their humans to live healthier, more productive lives. Among other things, psychiatric service dogs will:
- Assess the environment to make sure that it is safe for people who suffer severe mental health issues like schizophrenia or PTSD
- Remind their humans when it is time to take their meds, or even bring the meds to their human at the necessary time
- Interrupt destructive behaviors like cutting, hair pulling, or other forms of self-injury
- Guide their humans away from situations that could trigger panic or disorientation
- Offer physical comfort during a panic attack
- Help the human to overcome difficult situations (for instance, an agoraphobic who has trouble leaving the home)
- Provide a link to reality for a human who is delusional, paranoid, hallucinating or unreasonably fearful
It sounds almost miraculous, doesn’t it? And yet, dogs, simply because of their dog-ness, can be so helpful to persons with mental health issues. And with training, they can be even more helpful.
We have all heard stories about dogs who have accidentally called 911, or through happy coincidence, have dialed the number and saved their owners from catastrophe. Psychiatric service dogs are actually trained to call 911 if they perceive a threat, or even to dial a suicide prevention hotline if they perceive their human to be in a life-threatening situation. The service dog identifies the crisis, and then hits a special button on the phone that has been pre-programmed by the human in anticipation of a later crisis. Many a life has been saved thanks to these specially-trained dogs who know when their humans have hit the “no turning back” point. Even when the human is in such despair that he or she forgets to call for help, the dog remembers. And to my mind, my friends, that is nothing short of magical and miraculous.
Is Mental Illness a Disability?
The sad fact is, psychiatric service dogs are not available to all people who suffer from mental illness. A number of mental illnesses qualify as disabilities under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), but not all are covered. What this means is that even though your dog may serve to calm you in public, or on an airplane, or elsewhere in public, you may actually have to provide documentation to the effect that the dog is essential to your well-being.
This can be a huge issue if you are looking for housing in an area where pets are not permitted. The Fair Housing Act prohibits landlords from denying you accommodation if you require the use of a service animal, but you will probably be held to a higher standard than you would if, say, you were blind and needed a guide dog. And the law is not clear on the matter. You will probably also need to provide documentation if you want to bring a psychiatric service dog to your workplace, and again, will be held to a higher standard than if you were physically disabled.
It’s Not Cheap
The other thing that you will have to consider when it comes to having a psychiatric service dog is the cost. This can be a huge obstacle. Think of it as supply and demand – since the idea of psychiatric service dogs is relatively new, there are few organizations training these dogs, and few dogs available to people who need them. What this means is that if you require a psychiatric service dog, you could be on a waiting list for a very long time, and expect to pay big bucks when one finally becomes available. On an average, just for the first year of training the cost is in the neighborhood of $4,000, and that’s just for the cost of things like the necessities of life like food and medical care, along with training tools. It can take at least another year to fully train a psychiatric service dog, and each subsequent year will cost around $2,000.
Does Everyone With a Psychiatric Condition Need a Service Dog?
No, probably not. If you’re afraid of heights, for instance, I’d very much doubt that you’d need a service dog every time you ride an elevator to the top floor of a building. If you are claustrophobic, it’s pretty much a given that you don’t need to have a dog with you if you need a CAT scan or have to clean out your closet.
If you have a serious psychiatric condition like PTSD or schizophrenia, though, a psychiatric service dog can provide incredible benefits. Keep in mind, though, that the cost of having a psychiatric service dog is very high, and your medical insurer will almost certainly not cover it.
Given the huge cost of training a psychiatric service dog, and the lack of available programs, some people are turning to training their own dogs. This can be a daunting procedure, but there are resources available to help you. A simple Google search will reveal tips and techniques. And for that matter, sometimes just the process of training your dog can be a very beneficial therapy. It not only improves the bond between you and your dog, it gives you more control over the tasks that you want your dog to help you with, and gives you a good handle on how your dog will react to various situations and stimuli.
Things to Consider
If you are thinking of getting a psychiatric service dog, or perhaps looking for one for a friend or family member, there are things that you should consider.
First off, think about health issues. You will be in constant contact with the dog, so if you have allergies, certain breeds may not be appropriate.
Think about size, too. If you need a dog to provide physical bracing during a panic attack, you are going to need a dog of substance. A little dog isn’t going to work for you.
Your dog is going to have to be with you all the time. If you’re not comfortable with the idea of having to include your dog in your day-to-day routine, your vacations, your sleep-overs with sexual companions, and so on, then I have to question why you even think you need a psychiatric assistance dog in the first place. Maybe you just need to chill. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, but to my way of thinking, anyone who really needs a psychiatric service dog needs him on-site 24/7.
The Final Word
When Max first told me about Phil, I was incredulous. Then it just started to make sense – if dogs can help us with physical disabilities, why in the world would we think that they couldn’t guide us through mental health issues as well?
I had the pleasure of meeting Phil shortly after talking with Max, and I have to say that I was deeply touched by the bond that he has with his psychiatric service dog. “We’re a team,” Phil said. “I look after him, and he looks after me.” If I hadn’t known Phil’s story, I would have thought he was just another guy with a dog. Which is, I suppose, the whole point. Psychiatric service dogs give normality to people who otherwise might fall through the cracks. Just another example of the amazing human/canine bond that has gone on since time immemorial.