Everyone knows about guide dogs for the blind. Most people know about “Hearing Ear” dogs for the hearing-impaired. A few people know about assistance dogs for the physically disabled. Even fewer know about service dogs that assist diabetics by detecting high or low blood sugar, or Seizure Detection Dogs that can sense changes in brainwaves before a seizure occurs and alert the person so that s/he can get to a safe place and/or take preventive medicine.
Almost nobody knows about Psychiatric Service Dogs. There has been a bit of a flurry in the press about PTSD dogs for returning veterans, While the Veteran’s Administration has been vocal about acknowledging the benefit of PTSD Dogs in mitigating the disabling and sometimes disastrous sequelae of combat-induced PTSD, they have nevertheless refused to pay for the dogs, preferring instead to underwrite expensive medicines that often do nothing but sedate the sufferer, without providing any definitive remedy.
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which is an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, has recently clarified its position on the legitimacy of Psychiatric Service Dogs:
Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.
I have been using a PSD since 2002. When I first acquired Ivan, I didn’t know if he was going to work out or not. Psychiatric Service Dogs are not like Guide Dogs for the Blind, in that their training is not so much task related as it is intuitive perception of its human partner’s mood. Not every Guide Dog makes the grade, for one reason or another; and many fewer PSDs have the focus and the attentiveness to tune in to its partner’s state of being and respond appropriately when needed.
My PSD partner, 2002-2007
Ivan almost didn’t make the grade. He was a wild and cantankerous puppy, but he had an intensity of focus that made me stick with him. We got involved in some dog sports that gave him an outlet for his energy, and by the time he was a year old he was cuing in on my moods and literally dragging me back from episodes of dissociation resulting from severe PTSD. When I retreated to my bed overwhelmed by depression, he climbed up and stood over me, licking my face and looking into my eyes with such a concerned expression that I couldn’t help but laugh. He somehow knew when it was time for me to take my meds, and if I was zoned out he would tug at my sleeve.
The ADA is very specific about the requirement that a PSD must be trained to do some specific task. I take issue with this, in that mental illness is not something nuts and bolts like physical disabilities are. You can train a dog to open the fridge and take the laundry out of the dryer (which, by the way, Ivan loved to do for fun, and he could put it in the basket too), but how do you train a dog to respond to an incipient attack of mania by signaling the partner to take a pill? Training a dog for a specific response requires exposing the dog to the situation over and over. You can teach a dog to pull a wheelchair, but the wheelchair has to be present at all training sessions. Guide dogs for the blind go through extensive training in many situations, over and over. So how can one respond to the ADA’s insistance that the dog be trained for a specific task?
To further muddy the waters, the ADA position statement distinguishes between Emotional Support Animals and Service Animals by the same requirement that Service Animals must be specifically and specially trained to perform a task, whereas Emotional Support Animals are there to comfort and support: “Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.” I think that is a very fine line, when it comes to distinguishing an ESA from a PSD.
Bottom line, though, PSDs share the same access rights as any other service animal: exactly the same as a Guide Dog for the Blind. It is a federal offense for any business establishment, public or private, to deny access to a PSD.
I never had one single bit of access trouble with my Ivan. He was a German Shepherd, a breed universally associated with service animals. We flew all over the country. He took up a lot of room at my feet on airplanes, which sometimes inconvenienced other travelers, but for the most part everyone was good natured about it. We stayed in hotels, and he came with me to restaurants, where he lay down under the table and none of the other patrons even knew he was there. He went to movies and the theatre and museums. He accompanied me to a ship museum in Baltimore and amazed the sailors by running up and down the ladders between decks! He loved playgrounds and would run up the ladders and slide down the slides. He loved everyone, and everyone loved him. He died at age 5 from kidney cancer, in 2007. I will miss him forever.
I couldn’t bear the thought of trying to replace Ivan, so I did without a dog until two years ago, when I bought a Lhasa Apso, Noga, for a pet. I never expected anything from her except being cute and fuzzy and comforting. But to my great surprise, she started tuning into my moods, and doing specific behaviors related to how I was feeling. For instance, I often start into a hypomanic attack in the late evening, when I should be taking my meds and going to bed. If I don’t, she jumps at my legs and bops me with her feet, over and over, and if that doesn’t work she jumps into my lap and flings herself on top of my computer (which is what I am always doing if I am in that state at that time). If I am depressed she comes and licks me till I laugh.
Now, as you can see, Noga does not look like what people generally think of as a “service dog.” She is cute and fuzzy. She weighs twelve pounds. I don’t have a picture of her with all her Service Dog gear on, but even with her vest that has PTSD DOG, FULL ACCESS on it in big letters, people still give me the “oh yeah, right” look. I have been denied access to hotels in the middle of the night when my flight was cancelled. Oh, and I forgot to tell you, she is registered with a national Service Dog Registry and has the appropriate documentation for that.
The ADA provides specific instructions for businesses that have any doubt that the animal is a service animal. They are permitted to ask if the owner has a disability, and what specific task(s) the animal performs to mitigate that disability. They MAY NOT ask anything about the nature of the disability. All they may do is inquire IF the owner has a disability.
Unfortunately, I have been repeatedly hassled by business owners about Noga, and one hotel desk clerk demanded to know exactly what my disability is, in front of several other customers waiting to check in! I made a huge scene and threatened to call the police, which I would have done because I was hypomanic as hell after having been turned away by two other hotels.
When I had Ivan I actually carried a prescription from my psychiatrist, which I had stashed among the other papers in his vest (rabies certificate and such). The very few PSD organizations found around the Internet discourage that, though, because they feel it might cause a precedent for businesses to hassle PSD handlers, since the ADA is very specific that no special documentation is necessary.
If a prospective PSD handler were to ask my advice on what kind of dog to look for as a potential partner, my advice would be something like this:
1. Steer clear of organizations that purport to sell trained PSDs. They ask a pile of money and there is no guarantee that any particular dog will partner with you. The best PSD is an owner-trained one. Go for a breed that is usually identified with Service Dogs: German Shepherd, Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever. But be VERY careful about breeders: do your research and ONLY purchase a puppy from a reputable breeder of WORKING DOGS, not show dogs, and definitely NO “hobby breeders.” The money you spend on a quality puppy will save you thousands in vet bills and heartache.
2. Go to obedience school. Both of you. If you get a puppy, make sure you go to Puppy Kindergarten Training (PKT). I advise people to train their dogs all the way through CGC, Canine Good Citizen, which is a program administered by the AKC. CGC training assures that your dog will be safe in any public situation, including with other dogs, children, elderly people, wheelchairs, everything. Not only will you come out of it with a “safe dog,” but the bonding experience of training with your dog is invaluable.
3. Do fun stuff. Find out what your dog thinks is fun. Ivan would retrieve a ball or a stick until he died (luckily I got tired first)! Some dogs love to swim. Noga is a hike-o-maniac, despite her fluffy exterior. Not only will you bond with your dog this way, but you’ll have fun too, and maybe get outside more.
4. Give your dog time off. Nobody can stand being on duty 24/7. Many dogs get upset about “standing down” from duty, but they need it. Use a crate if need be, to give your canine partner an hour here and there, when you’re feeling steady. Mine just knows when I don’t need her and goes off and lies down somewhere else. But she’s always got an ear pricked for me. She knows my brain waves better than I do.
5. Join an online PSD community. Unfortunately, the main one fell apart some time ago, and there seems to be only one left here. It is not PSD specific, but does have a PSD message board/forum where you can meet other PSD partners and ask your questions.
In summary, Psychiatric Service Dogs are a valuable resource that can help us cope with our disability more effectively, helping us to lead happier and more productive lives. Mine have saved my life many times, and I suspect that if more people had them, the morbidity and mortality from psychiatric illness would decrease dramatically. Anyone who is interested in more information about any aspect of PSD partnering is welcome to contact me.