Invisible Disabilities and Mental Health Service Dogs
Many of you know about service animals for people with disabilities. Most think of guide dogs which help people that are blind. Today, there are many types of service animals. The following is a list of some of the conditions that can be improved with service animals: hearing loss, seizure disorders, guidance for the blind, diabetes, PTSD, physical immobility, and various types of mental health disabilities.
Today, I want to discuss mental health service dogs. These dogs can provide great relief and assistance for those suffering from severe mental health conditions. I refer to this type of disability as an "Invisible" disability since the symptoms of these conditions are not always apparent to outsiders. People who suffer from mental health challenges may appear functional on the outside, but be in great distress on the inside. Luckily, animals have shown to improve conditions that otherwise have limited success with traditional healing modalities, such as therapy and medications. In order to qualify as a service animal, the dog must perfrom a task that helps mitigate a person's disabilty. Below, I have listed some general tasks mental health service animals may perform.
- Retrieve medications
- Retrieve water to help with side effects from medications
- Calling 911 from a special phone in which a dog can call by stepping on a button
- “Grounding", which helps bring someone into the present during a panic attack for flashback
- Wake someone up during a nightmare, or in the morning
- Interrupting self-destructive behavior, like cutting or other self harm
- Assist with finding an exit in the event of a panic attack in a public place
- Provide a buffer between handler and the public
- Calm the handler during a panic attack
- Locate help when needed
The above list is a sample of some of the tasks a service animal can perform. This list can change depending on the nature of someone's disability and specific help needed. As a side note, it is not proper to ask someone what their dog is specifically trained to do, or even about the nature of their specific disabilty. This information is very private, and many people with service animals do not want to answer these questions, even to their close friends.
Individuals with “invisible" disabilities who have a service animal may find public access more difficult. Since others can't see what is wrong with you, they assume you just want to bring your dog everywhere. This common misconception can make it difficult for those with legitimate disabilities when they require public access. The best way to combat this is to educate others. When I am doing well, I make it a point to tell business owners and others who question why I need a service animal, about the appropriate way to interact with a service animal, and about what conditions they help treat. Many people will say, "why do you have a dog, you look fine, you aren't blind"! Believe it or not, I have actually had people look me in the eyes and ask me if I was blind! Usually, I take the time to explain that there are many hidden disabilities.
Aside from the tasks service animals provide, it is my opinion that the greatest benefit comes from the human/animal bond that has been shared for centuries. Dogs help people remain in the present. When I am with Earl, I'm constantly focused on him, and thus not living in my head. For anyone that has suffered with mental health challenges, escaping your thoughts can be very difficult. I find that when Earl is with me, I am constantly looking around at where he is stepping, what he is smelling, and who is trying to interact with him. By having him by my side, I shift my focus from inside to out. Research also suggests that touching a dog or even looking into their eyes, can release the hormone Oxytocin. This hormone is known for having a calming affect, reducing anxiety, and for some increasing empathy. Many suffering are very disconnected from others, and lack this much needed release of oxytocin.
In summary, I strongly encourage those to learn more about the many benefits of working with a service animal, particularly for mental health challenges. They provide unconditional love, acceptance, and a sense of responsibility. Thye can help bring about rapid changes that otherwise may be unattainable with current treatment options. Remember, just as you "don't judge a book by its cover," you never know what someone is struggling with in the very complex organ of the brain.