A few years ago Angel White lived a fairly isolated and tormented life. She had frequent panic attacks. She was afraid to leave home and interact with people. She was filled with fears and paranoia. She had severe migraine headaches. She lost her home, friends, colleagues and was having trouble with her finances. She turned to traditional psychiatric and psychological services but these were only minimally helpful. It was not until she found “Spencer” that her life began to change for the better.

Spencer is a 5-year-old black Labrador retriever. With his bright red harness and a certified card identifying him as “service dog”, Spencer accompanies Angel wherever she goes. If Angel is feeling suicidal, Spencer seems to sense her mood and approaches her with a ball, playfully urging her to get outdoors which, in turn, breaks her suicidal thoughts and impulses. If Angel is having a nightmare she cannot awake from, Spencer hops up on her bed and nudges her until she awakens. If she is afraid to go to a social event Spencer escorts her and instantly becomes a topic of interest to others which helps Angel to socialize. If she is walking down the street and becomes disoriented, Spencer helps keep her safe and away from traffic. As Angel says, “Because of Spencer I am now a participant in life rather than a fearful observer”.

For many years people with mobility and sensory disabilities have used “service dogs” to assist them. For instance, people who are blind use specially trained “seeing eye dogs” and people who are deaf may use dogs that are specially trained to “hear” oncoming traffic, door bells ringing, strangers approaching, etc. The right to use service animals in public places like restaurants, trains, airplanes, malls, theaters, etc., is guaranteed under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). People like Angel White are taking advantage of this opportunity and are proving that service dogs can assist people with psychiatric disabilities in many ways.

For people labeled with mental illness to get a service dog, there are certain steps that must be followed. However, before getting a dog you must search your heart and ask yourself: Am I willing to love and provide for the needs of this dog? Am I willing to spend the time necessary to train my dog? Am I willing to bond with this animal so that we become a working team? If the answer is “yes:, then the following steps are recommended.

  1. Any breed of dog may become a service dog. Angel found Spencer through an advertisement in the paper. You could go to your local animal shelter and choose one. You can get a dog for little or no money. It is preferable to get a somewhat older dog. Angel got Spencer when he was a little over a year old.
  2. After getting your dog, it is recommended that you both go to “obedience school”. A service dog must be a well mannered, gentle, and most importantly, reliable animal. Your dog will have to learn to sit and stay when told to do so. Your dog must be able to be around other dogs, cats, and people without barking or chasing them. Eventually your service dog will have to learn things like how to sit in a restaurant without begging for food or how to be in a crowded mall without freaking out. It is fairly easy to find obedience training classes at low or no costs in the community. Check with your local animal shelter or veterinarian for information.
  3. Be patient! It takes time, lots of love and patience, and sometimes more than one obedience class to train a service dog. It’s hard work but when you realize that your service dog will help you get out into the community safely and effectively, then it seems worth it. As Angel White said, “Spencer helped me get my life back”.
  4. Registration means that your dog will have passed some basic behavioral tests to insure that it will be well behaved in public. The dog will receive a photo I.D. and registration card that should be attached to the dog’s harness. Then, when you go to restaurants, to work, ride trains, etc., people must allow access for you and your dog. Angel reports that the I.D. and certification tag can really cut down on hassles related to bringing your service dog with you wherever you want to go.
  5. Once your dog is trained you can apply to get it registered although this is not required under the ADA. Contact The Delta Society for additional information, www.deltasociety.org and follow the links for National Service Dog.

Additional information is available from the Psychiatric Service Dog Society: www.psychdog.org

An informational podcast on Psychiatric Service Dogs with Joan Esnayra, President and founder of Psychiatric Service Dog Society and Peter Ashenden, Executive Vice President, DBSA.

Free Podcast – Psychiatric Service Dogs: http://softconference.com/dbsa/sessionDetail.asp?SID=111691