Psychiatric service dog partnership: the dogs offer an opportunity for nonverbal communication, simple tactile interactions that grow compassion and empathy, particularly among child-age handlers.
Could you or a loved one benefit from use of a specially trained service dog that could help mitigate the effects of disability-related impairments? Most people are familiar with "guide dogs" for persons living with visual impairments or blindness, but did you know that service dogs can be trained to assist with a broad range of disabling conditions? Not all of these are visible disabilities, either. Service dogs may be trained to alert to critical physiologic cues such as low blood sugar, epileptic seizures, panic attacks, and even cardiac events; to evacuate their handlers in cases of emergency and find help when needed; and more.
Service dogs also can provide a form of physical and occupational therapy: they must be walked, fed, and groomed. And they are available to quell an autistic child's emotional outbursts on a moment's notice. In addition to the physical benefits, this mental component is key to service dogs' utility and appeal. The dogs offer an opportunity for non-verbal communication, simple tactile interactions that grow compassion and empathy, particularly among child-age handlers. These skills can help children and youth with special needs transition to adulthood and are valuable for individuals of all ages. For children with autism, service dogs assist with the development of crucial social skills that are necessary for successful navigation of whatever situations life presents.
The dogs are utilized to complement ongoing, conventional care for various conditions. When a service dog is used in combination with standard evidence-based treatments, disease management and recovery may be taken to new levels.
How Are Psychdogs Different?
Three fundamental assumptions inherent to using a service dog in support of a physical disability do not hold in the context of developmental disorders and mental illness. Consider the blind woman with a guide dog: 1) She knows that she is impaired (blind); 2) She knows what command to give her guide dog in order to move from point A to point B; 3) She is willing to issue the command.
However, with mental illness or developmental disorders such as autism, a person does not necessarily know that he or she is impaired in a given moment. The mind is a clever and compelling organ. It tells us things about the world and we tend to believe it. Yet, sometimes what the brain tells us is wrong. In other words, we can be symptomatic and completely unaware. Whereas the blind person is always blind and knows it, we are intermittently mentally ill and awareness of impairment is not always a given.
Even if a person with mental illness is aware that she is impaired in the moment, this does not mean that she will remember what command is needed in order for the dog to assist in mitigating a disabling symptom. Depression, for example, has a way of slowing the brain down. We can forget even the simplest of things when depressed such as our home phone number or address. Thus, we cannot reliably count on our brains to keep track of our dog's commands or when/how to use them.
Psychdogs Do Work or Perform Tasks
Federal law requires that service dogs be trained to "do work or perform tasks." Service dogs for physical disabilities are trained to perform physical tasks exclusively. These include guiding, pulling wheelchairs, retrieving dropped objects, physical support such as bracing, alerting to sounds, opening/closing doors, etc. Psychiatric service dogs can perform physical tasks and many do, but they also do "work" and this is peculiar to psychiatric service dogs. Consider the following definitions of task and work.
"A task is an overt trained canine behavior that is performed by a service dog on command. Canine task performance mitigates a handler's disability-related impairment(s). When a service dog performs a task it is usually visible to any bystander." "Work is a form of assistance that leverages a dog's innate sensory capacities, intelligence, and ability to problem solve without prompting from the handler. Work may be leveraged to develop handler insight into the unique manifestations of one's own mental illness. The goal of work is for the handler to learn to read her dog as her dog is reading her. Learning this skill facilitates somatic awareness and the development of insight. When a psychdog is doing work it often is not visible to a bystander. "
For a complete list of psychdog tasks and work see: http://www.psychdog.org/tasks.html
Where Can I Get One?
It is important that the person who will use the psychdog be the one who trains it. Admittedly most people have never trained a service dog before and, ironically, this is not a deal breaker. Psychiatric service dogs are the easiest service dogs to train especially when you invest smartly in the oversight of a local professional dog trainer. The goal is for the trainer to train you (or your child) in how to teach the dog basic obedience behaviors. All advanced service dog training builds upon the fundamentals of basic obedience. This is the primary reason for hiring the trainer. You and/or the dog's handler must develop excellent training technique.
A second reason to hire a trainer is to obtain professional assistance in making an appropriate canine selection at the outset. You are not training a pet. You are training a professional service dog that will lie down under the table at an aromatic steakhouse restaurant and not beg, a service dog who will react without aggression when an unknown toddler suddenly pulls its tail. Yours must be an exceptional easy-going dog that is keenly observant, sensitive, and mentally stable.
If the service dog is for a child, training responsibilities should be age-appropriate with parent(s) picking up the slack. The youngest children with service dogs have few responsibilities relative to the dog as these inevitably fall upon the parent(s). Parents who have children with disabilities as young as two years old have sought the support of a psychdog. For these families, we recommend starting with a carefully selected pet dog. Socialize the dog extensively and train basic obedience from Day One.
Depending upon your child's development and bonding capacity with the dog you can make the decision about service dog training at a later date, so long as you expose the dog on a regular basis to the sights and sounds of public environments. Pets that stay cloistered inside the home all the time will not make good service dogs in the future. Your goal is to cultivate a dog that isn't phased by an ambulance siren or an escalator. Remember, every interaction with your dog is a training moment and training never ends.
How To Train A Psychiatric Service Dog
The Psychiatric Service Dog Society developed an "owner-training standard" that may be found here: http:// www.psychdog.org/training_ownerstandard.html. This training standard is your recipe for how to train a psychdog. If you follow its guidance closely then you will produce a legitimate psychiatric service dog within a year.
Our website also offers a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section that delves deeply into dog sources, breed, and temperament selection issues. While it is a long document, you will need to know all the information contained therein. Educating yourself about service dogs is a journey, not something you can do in one sitting.
FAQ here: http://www.psychdog.org/faq.html
What About Children With Dual Disabilities?
What if your child has mobility impairments and generalized anxiety disorder? What if your child is deaf and bipolar? Does it make sense for you to impart the dog's mobility and/or hearing training, too? Not necessarily. Physical disabilities are often best served by "program trained dogs" that learn up to 100 commands. There are many nonprofit organizations that will provide your child with a service dog that is trained to assist with physical impairments. Few programs provide psychiatric service dogs or offer add-on psychdog training to a physical disability service dog. Nonetheless, if your child's physical disability requires a service dog we recommend that you obtain such a dog from an established program without mentioning that you intend to add-on psychdog training once the dog comes home. When the dog finally comes home, give us a call. We will help you without any added stigma!
The Importance of Canine Alerting
When a dog lives with its disabled handler 24/7 a critical opportunity is provided to the dog such that it may train itself to "read" its handler's physiologic baseline. Over time, the dog learns what the handler is like on a good day and a not-so-good day. Eventually, the dog will attempt to communicate its observation that the handler is changing and it is the challenge of the handler to recognize these efforts and positively reinforce them when they accurately correspond to known symptoms.
Alerting is the primary reason why the Psychiatric Service Dog Society advocates for owner training of psychiatric service dogs. A third party trainer cannot teach your dog to read its handler's physiology. If you obtain a psychiatric service dog from a program, the dog will know how to perform a repertoire of pre-fabricated tasks, which may or may not be useful to the disabled handler. The ability of a psychdog to read its handler's physiology resides in the domain of "work," and this capacity is achieved only when owner training is employed and togetherness between handler and dog is 24/7.
When a psychdog alerts to an oncoming psychiatric episode, this raises the handler's level of self-awareness early enough that s/he has a real opportunity to thwart the episode using medication and/or cognitive behavioral strategies. But this is only one half of the equation. The other half is the handler's obligation to act on the alert. In this way, each handler should consider in advance what behavioral choices are available when the alert is given. The range of follow-on behavioral choices will be unique to each handler and situation. It is helpful to utilize one's therapist in order to identify appropriate behavioral options in advance of any alerts.
Training a psychiatric service dog is a demanding yet energizing and empowering experience. The Psychiatric Service Dog Society website is one-stop shopping for all your training needs. We are a grassroots community of psychdog pioneers and our services are free. We do not get involved in the actual training of your dog but we will show you the steps that you need to take in order to train your psychdog responsibly and to a high behavioral standard. Please feel free to contact us at www.psychdog.org for more information. *
By Joan Esnayra, Ph.D., President, Psychiatric Service Dog Society; Sharon F. Terry, MA; Vaughn Edelson