Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

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

Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

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

Article excerpt

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. … 
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