When I think of service dogs, I tend to think of guide dogs for the blind or dogs who help those who are deaf. I know there are also service dogs to help those in wheelchairs, as well as dogs who help people who have epilepsy or who need help with their balance. When I think of a service dog, I generally think of a dog who helps to overcome physical disabilities. At least they did until I read "Healing Companions" by Jane Miller. This book, published by The Career Press, Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, explores the many ways a dog can help people with psychological problems.
The author, a clinical psychotherapist, discovered the usefulness of dogs in this way by watching her own dog interact with her patients. She saw how just the presence of the dog calmed people, and how some people, who found it difficult to talk to her, had no trouble talking to the dog.
What I found especially interesting was that just caring for a dog could be a huge help for people with mental illness. In several examples in the book, people took better care of themselves if they had a dog to look after. Regularly feeding the dog reminded them that they needed to feed themselves. If their dog needed medication, it helped the person remember their own medicines. People suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder found comfort in the calmness of their canine companions. Soldiers who had flashbacks could calm themselves by just watching their dog. The unconcern of the dog helped them realize that the flashback was not real.
Susan Ewing of Jamestown herds her Corgis, Rhiannon and Griffin, for a photo.
Of course, dogs can also be taught many useful behaviors that can help a person to function socially. As an example, a person who may feel stressed in a crowd can teach a dog to position itself so that other people can't press quite so close. A person who is afraid to enter his home for fear of an intruder hiding, can have a dog trained to turn on lights, and to search the rooms, making sure everything is safe. Dogs can also be taught to call for help. There are special phones that have a large button that a dog can either paw at, or press with his nose, to call 911, or whatever number might be programmed into the phone.
Despite the author's obvious love of dogs and her appreciation of the work they can do, she's careful to advise people of the work involved when adding a dog to a household, and covers the area of other pets, the reaction of a spouse or partner, and children. She also talks about the different energy levels of different dogs and the need to determine what the right fit for each individual might be. There's also discussion concerning when it's time for a dog to retire, and how to train a replacement, while at the same time addressing the needs of the dog being replaced. Many times the dogs will become friends and may even share the duties involved in caring for their handler.
The main section of the book is about 150 pages long, but there are 100 more pages dedicated to appendices, which are really wonderful sources of all kinds of good information. First, there's information on the Americans with Disabilities Act, and anyone who is considering a service dog should be aware of the provisions of this act.
There are two sections by Joan Froling, "Assistance Dog Tasks," and "Service Dog Tasks for Psychiatric Disabilities," which give a very good idea of the many ways that a dog can help in all kinds of situations. Froling is the co-founder of the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners and a dog trainer, so she knows very well the positive benefits having a service dog, and also knows the many tasks they can be trained to perform.
Finally, there is a wonderful "resources" section that includes both books and websites, covering training, breeds of dogs, how to find a trainer, how to find agencies that train and supply service dogs, canine health information, veteran's groups on line, information on the Americans with Disabilities Act, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and Job Accommodation Network.
Anyone with a psychiatric disability or anyone who knows such a person, will learn a lot by reading this book, and, it could lead to a partnership with a service dog that could make social encounters easier and life in general much more enjoyable.