Most people know about seeing-eye dogs for the visually impaired, but what about service dogs to help people with mental illnesses?
Psychiatric Service Dogs (PSDs) — a relatively new phenomenon — are dogs that are individually trained to work or perform tasks for individuals living with mental illnesses.
Although there is little research into the effectiveness of PSDs for people with mental illness, Aaron Katcher, M.D., emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, has examined the interaction between animals and people. He has found “much evidence that social support is a critical variable in the recovery from many serious biological disorders including psychiatric illnesses.”
NAMI New York’s Phil Kirschner took his own doctor’s suggestion that a dog might help provide needed structure to his life and help him with his depression. He states, “I had never considered owning a dog before, and I admit to being somewhat overwhelmed by the thought of having to learn how to take care of a dog, train a dog, etc.”
Tasks PSDs can be trained to perform include:
- Remind handler to take medication on time
- Warm handler’s body during a panic attack
- Interrupt repetitive behaviors
- Attend to handler during emotional distress
- Accompany handler outside of the home
- Provide discernment against hallucination
- Mitigate paranoia with reality testing
Kirschner says he has experienced issues related to life with a service dog that he had not anticipated, including access challenges. “Because mental illness is not usually a visible disability, many shopkeepers think I am trying to sneak my SDIT [Service Dog in Training] into their store.”
Kirschner says that the jury is still out as to whether or not his service dog and he are going to ultimately pass muster, but they are certainly giving it their best. His advice: “Do your homework.”
“Researching Psychiatric Service Dogs on the Internet and joining a Service Dog listserv are two things you can do that cost nothing. Try to talk to as many PSD owners as possible in order to evaluate whether this life choice is for you.”
To find out more about PSDs, visit The Psychiatric Service Dog Society web site. PSDS provides information for persons living with severe mental illness who wish to train a service dog to assist with the management of symptoms.
~~by Clara Hinton~~