In today’s guest post, the writer from the blog Unhinged and Unenlightened talks about their experiences with owning a service dog to help treat their mental illness and cope with their symptoms.
I have a service dog named Lightning, from the foundation Chasam-Paws. She is a medical alert and psychiatric support service dog. She is my pride, my third leg that I always needed to get me through my symptoms, and a great joy to have.
In case anyone is wondering, the main tasks she performs are 1) alerting to fluctuations in stress 2) alerting 20 minutes beforehand to the onset of confusion and hallucinations 3) orienting me around objects and helping me walk in these episodes of confusion 4) finding exits 5) finding key persons (such as my wife) in these confusion episodes 6) alerting to nearby presences around the house (i.e., people at the door) in order to lower my hypervigilance.
I could write a whole book on her and how she changed my life, and there is so much to be said about the tasks a service dog performs for an individual. However, the tasks are so highly individualized, especially within the field of mental illness, that I would instead like to talk about the repercussions of owning a service dog. How does owning a service dog for mental illness help, in general?
You learn to stand up for yourself and your rights
First and foremost, by taking the very visible and overt act of owning and presenting yourself somewhere with a service dog, you are learning to assert yourself and your needs. You are acknowledging that you have a problem, that it is disabling, and that you require the assistance of a highly trained dog in order to help you function like a normal human being. This is not always an easy step for many reasons. Some people have difficulty ‘coming out’ and letting those around them (and often strangers) know that they have a mental illness or disability. Others receive great resistance from loved ones and relatives. People are often very ignorant as to how a service dog is actually needed, and are unwilling to accommodate. By insisting they accommodate you and persisting in having and using a service dog, you are standing up for yourself and acknowledging the very real disability you have.
You face your symptoms and how they disable you
By training the dog (whether by yourself or asking the foundation to train it for you) you need to be very aware of what your problems are, and face them head-on. You need to know exactly what your difficulties are in order to train the dog to compensate for them. For example, I realized that I lost my balance often and had the sensation of flying- but I needed to acknowledge that this meant I walked oddly which made me always bump into my dog. This, in turn, led to my dog wanting to lead me in a straight line so I would walk better. A stiff handle to hold on to gave me an ‘anchoring’ point and let Lightning walk me in a straight line so I wouldn’t bump into things. But before getting the handle, I had to acknowledge that during my episodes, I would occasionally need help walking. To be able to have your dog fully support you, you need to be aware and willing to acknowledge your symptoms and their repercussions on your functioning.
You gain greater confidence and independence due to medical alerts
When a service dog alerts to an episode, it does not stop the episode from happening. Rather, it gives you the chance to plan around something normally unpredictable. It lets you know when to do what. For example, Lightning signals to my episodes of confusion. Without her alerts I grew so afraid of them happening that I was could not go anywhere alone. I would not make decisions on my own without consulting someone ‘normal’ first, for fear of making a mistake due to my confusion. I was constantly double-checking myself and having difficulty in social situations due to my inability to make myself understood. How did a dog alerting to these episodes change anything?
Well, as I mentioned before it did not stop the confusion from happening. What it did change was giving me the knowledge of when to do what. It gave me the power to know when I was functional and logical, and when I wasn’t. Suddenly, I knew when I could go shopping and make financial decisions, and when I would be unable to even hold a conversation coherently.
This gave me not only independence, but also a renewed sense of confidence. Now when I struggled to do something logical, I knew to give myself a break and not feel stupid, because my dog would have just reminded me of my condition. If I wanted to do something important, I waited until I had a ‘clear spot’ without a signal, then went out with confidence and the knowledge that I was able to do it. Before these alerts, I was failing my university classes with big zeros because I was exhausting myself without realizing that I was having episodes of confusion. After her alerts? I received scholarships because I knew when to put my effort into things in order to succeed.
Self-care is enforced as part of the daily routine
Having a dog that alerts to rising anxiety levels not only raises your awareness of your own condition, but it also highly encourages (if not forces) you to take care of yourself . Medical alert dogs are often trained to be persistent in their alerts until you do specific things. It could be to bark until you stop self-harm that you would otherwise just continue doing even if you knew not to. It could be to whine as if they need to pee so you leave the social situation you are in and feel trapped by. Most of the time the alert will not end until you do the required follow-up action. So, in order to upkeep the training you must do these actions, which are often self-care. Of course a well-trained service dog can be ordered to stop the alert if the action is not possible in the circumstances, but at least there was a significant reminder to enforce self-care.
You keep going out for socializing
Finally, you get socialized along with your dog. Service dogs are made to work, and need to work. If they are going to stay at home 24/7, that is not a service dog. They will lose their training, focus, and ability to perform their tasks in public. Therefore, even if you aren’t necessarily feeling up to going out, your dog needs to work a required amount of hours per week.
Of course there is holidays, and vacations do happen, both for you and your dog. But on average, handling a service dog ensures that you keep going out in a regular and consistent way, in a full exposure to society. You need to keep visiting homes, walking down streets and parks, and going into stores so that your dog retains the ability to function in all these spheres. Upkeeping your dog’s training upkeeps your exposure to social situations. And this touches upon the final point that’s amazing about service dogs- it’s teamwork.
Teamwork & Support
You and your dog (especially in the case of owner training) learn together, grow together, and become so well molded to each other. So many times when I am having a terrible episode I feel as if Lightning’s support and guiding is the third leg I was missing in my struggles. She is not a crutch but a tool like a prosthetic that helps me walk through life and function on a basic level. This support gives me the strength and confidence to keep going through life despite my worst episodes. I believe this kind of support and assistance is crucial for many people suffering from mental illnesses, and wish that humanely trained service dogs of a high quality were available more readily.
If you found this article at all interesting or would like to support this cause, please consider making a donation to CHASAM-Paws.