I learned about service dogs for mental health a couple years when I was hospitalized, and right away I knew it was a great idea and wanted to be part of it. I contacted a trainer in the area and requested information, I knew soon I would have a dog of my own and he or she would be the answer I was looking for. After filling out the lengthy forms and a few emails later I learned that there was a three year wait for a dog as they were in high demand, I was immediately crushed and felt once again I was alone in this daily battle for stability.
When I began doing research on what a service dog for mental health actually does and what they are capable of helping with, what I found was quite remarkable. The training they receive is extensive and they are taught to focus on the most common symptoms for each illness; because of this each service dog’s job is unique to the person. The most common mental illnesses the dogs are trained for are Schizophrenia, PTSD, Depression, Anxiety and Bipolar Disorder.
For these illnesses specifically, a trained service dog is able to minimize anxiety by licking the handler’s face or hands, pawing at them and physically engaging them. They can indicate whether something is there or not for those with visual or auditory hallucinations. For PTSD and those who have night terrors, the dog is able to awaken the person, turn on lights, and help them calm down. If depression becomes severe, the dog is able to get the person up to go for a walk, play and simply have them moving.
So with such a long wait list the idea of getting a puppy came to mind, after all a puppy would be fun and certainly add some excitement to life. He or she would be able to provide me with the support I needed and wanted. What I found, however, was not what I was expecting. In November we got a Yellow Labrador puppy, she was 7 weeks when we brought her home and just the cutest thing I’d ever seen. While this ball of fur was a welcome addition, over the next couple months I began to see a change in myself and it wasn’t for the better. This puppy, who was supposed to bring such joy and comfort, was causing my illness to compound itself in not so welcome ways. I became more anxious, my sleep patterns were way off, stress became a daily issue and depression set in. I would often dissociate and my auditory and visual hallucinations increased, this was not what was supposed to happen.
It took awhile to realize that while it was a good idea to have a dog and she is able to help me, having a puppy and raising her to be a helpful dog for me, was not the right path. On the positive side she does help me concentrate on being active and social by taking her for walks, playing and talking with people we meet. However, I didn’t expect life to change in the way it did. Having a puppy is like having a toddler; they need constant supervision and attention. She took over our lives; the spontaneity that was once enjoyed was no longer available as she could not be left alone for a long period of time. I became angry, I wanted “my life back”, I missed the adventures of life and the freedom, and there are days when it is a greater weight on me than I would like, knowing life will never be the same.
It is often in these moments, when I sit down and sometimes cry because I am trying to do something and she wants to “help” me that I get frustrated, and then I look at her and all I see are these bright green eyes looking at me and that puppy face and I know she is maybe in her way already trying to help, she knows what I need and I am the one not listening to her.
I still struggle quite a bit, but we are getting to where we want to be. Not only is she learning about us, but we are learning about her and I have to adjust to what she needs, it’s not all about me. My intellectual side knows that, but the other side, the one that does not see things the right way, fights back and I am caught in the middle.
The lesson here is, yes a service dog is a wonderful addition and is very helpful, however when making the decision to have one, it may be wise to be patient and wait for a trained dog. The idea of a puppy and the fun it can bring is nice, but weigh the pros and cons before you do and make sure you are prepared for not only the life changes it will bring, but the challenges you may face mentally as well.