Whether a dog is a pet or a working dog, they all offer some level of emotional support to their owner regardless of their mental or physical condition.
Emotional Support Dogs vs. Service Dogs
When it comes to understanding how service dogs can assist those with mental health issues, it is first important to understand how service dogs are different from emotional support dogs. We all enjoy the emotional support dogs provide, such as that happy greeting at the door when we get home from work or the non-judgmental behaviors that dogs give us all the time. These behaviors are also a major benefit for many people. A dog who is considered an emotional support dog is meant to do exactly that. They are always there for you as a companion. They make you feel better, they comfort you when you’re sad or ill, and that’s pretty much it because they have no special skill sets like a service dog does.
Service dogs are the only dogs that are protected by federal law and are like having a piece of medical equipment with a heartbeat. They can go to almost any place with their recipient. To be a service dog, they must be able to perform specific tasks that mitigate the challenges of the disability that individual faces.
Ways Service Dogs Assist Those with Mental Illness
There are many disabilities that include various levels of mental illness.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody with any kind of disability that didn’t experience some level of anxiety, some level of not being comfortable in public or in social gatherings. Their mental state of wellness or lack thereof becomes a secondary issue to other disabilities. The service dog is trained to help their person with their primary disability, whether it’s an alert for diabetes, seizures, PTSD episodes, or helping them with balance/mobility issues, etc. At the same time, the service dog is also providing tremendous emotional support. The dog literally completes their life and gives them the motivation they need to go back out in public again, and enjoy social events and family functions. The service dog is by their side 100% of the time, enabling them to find their new normal, whether it’s just going to a grocery store or to a mall”, said Carol Borden, Founder of Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs.
Public activities are difficult for those with disabilities. For example, if you are afflicted by a seizure condition, you are never comfortable going out alone. If you try, in the back of your mind, you are always concerned because you never know when a seizure is going to occur. This causes you to lose all sense of security, thus feeling very vulnerable in public. Imagine yourself all of a sudden lying on the ground with a seizure; any number of bad things could happen that go through your mind versus if you have a service dog with you 100% of the time that will alert you in advance if you’re going to have a seizure. With the service dog’s alert in advance, you can put yourself in a safe place and know he will be standing there with you until you come back from the seizure and reorient yourself.
Also, when you have a seizure, the possibilities are very high that you could have a catastrophic injury from falling. We have had recipients suffer horrible injuries, anything from TBIs to broken bones during a seizure. We had one recipient who suffered a fall that was so devastating that they couldn’t even repair her jaw. They had to replace her jaw with a cadaver bone. People don’t realize the impact that some of these disabilities have. So, if you’re thinking about all those horrible things that could happen to you, why would you ever want to go out in public again? This mental health issue becomes a secondary issue to the recipient’s primary disability. Because now their anxiety and fear of going out in public are so high. With a service dog, the recipient can gain newfound confidence to function with a new normal.
The same thing could be said of someone with mobility issues. If they fell and couldn’t get up, how embarrassing would that be for that individual in public? Plus, this increases the risk of injury. If they had a service dog helping them with balance, this wouldn’t be a concern as the service dog is trained to assist them. In other cases, people with certain mobility issues may not be able to bend over and pick up a dropped item but may appear to an outsider to be mobile otherwise. Without assistance in public, mobility-challenged individuals would either have to walk away and leave a dropped item behind or be aided by having to ask someone else if they could pick up that item for them. With a service dog, we train a mobility dog to pick it up for them or give them balance so that they don’t have to be concerned about a fall.
In the case of diabetes, if somebody didn’t know that their blood level was getting into a dangerous zone, then it’s possible that they could be perceived as being drunk and people potentially being disrespectful to them as a result of them not understanding what is happening. With a service dog, they can alert you in advance so that you can check your blood sugar and take corrective action.
PTSD is another example. There are various symptoms that come with PTSD, some more severe than others. Those with PTSD could have flashbacks or anxiety attacks. When they are out in public, sometimes their emotional state can rapidly escalate to a very angry or very emotional state quickly. The service dogs are trained to alert as soon as the person’s blood levels go out of normal range, causing different episodes to take place. The service dog is able to redirect the individual so that they focus on the dog bringing their breathing down and reducing their anxiety.
When we’re talking about how service dogs help with mental health, we are really addressing and assisting with the primary disability.
To learn more about how service dogs assist people, click here.
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