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Access Press - Minnesota's Disability Community Newspaper

Service Animals Can Help Alleviate Depression

by // January 10th, 2006

The doctor’s letter reads, “Meghan Saweikis is my patient. I am treating her for a chronic medical disability. Meghan uses a service dog to assist her in managing this disability, and I support her in doing so. Please accommodate Meghan and her specially trained service dog, Nadia, as needed.” Additional information from her doctor might have read like this: “Meghan was treated for 3 years with talk therapy and medication, but progress was minimal. When I suggested that she get a dog, and have it trained as a psychiatric service dog, the results were dramatic. She’s still taking medication, but with the dog added to her treatment protocol, she’s now doing well.”

Fiction? Fantasy? No! This story demonstrates how bonding with animals— primarily dogs—can help alleviate depression and give persons struggling with mental illness a reason for living. Saweikis’ case goes beyond depression and bonding. Her dog, Nadia, a German shepherd, is a “psychiatric service dog” (PSD), which was trained for 18 months to perform such tasks as waking her when she’s having a nightmare and shielding her from people who approach too closely. But the bonding is key. For her and others in similar circumstances, half the “medicine” for daily living is her bond with the dog. As she relates, “Nadia gets me out of bed when I wouldn’t otherwise leave my house.”

Four categories of dogs provide support for emotional problems, including depression.

A pet dog brings psychological benefits almost immediately to its new owner. The fastest and easiest route to emotional support from a dog is to acquire one as a pet. It’s important to budget for the time, effort, and expense! For those who need more than a pet, service training of the pet may be a possibility, depending upon the dog’s temperament and trainability.

A therapy dog is sometimes used in group homes. Beth Stopka works as a direct care specialist at a group home in the Minneapolis area. Her four female clients have various mental and physical disabilities ranging from severe mental retardation to depression and schizophrenia. Stopka advocates using animals to help such persons, as does the company’s management, which keeps a golden retriever named “Camp” on staff. “When the main office sends the dog over for an hour to be with the clients, the beneficial effects last all day,” says Stopka. Therapy dogs are also used in such institutional settings as in-patient mental health facilities, “partial” outpatient programs, individual therapists’ offices, even nursing homes. Such dogs are often an indispensable source of comfort and stability for those who interact with them.

Emotional support dogs (ESDs) or other emotional support animals (ESAs) and psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) are additional types of canines that a psychiatrist may recommend to lend support to persons with mental health issues. The help they provide is similar to that given by dogs for the blind, deaf and physically disabled, except that the aid is emotional rather than physical. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) defines a service dog as one that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks that benefit persons with a disability. PSDs are useful for people suffering from major depression, anxiety, agoraphobia, autism, post traumatic stress disorder and other psychiatric conditions. A PSD may only be used by persons with a disability, as defined by the ADA, and when the severity of their symptoms requires a highly skilled form of canine assistance.

State and federal laws govern public use and access with service dogs. However, general ignorance of the ADA by gatekeepers of public access, coupled with the seeming absence of the law and the lack of a government-issued ID tag for the dog cause many PSD owners grief when they attempt to enter restaurants, movie theaters, etc., and find themselves and their dogs illegally barred from entry. An emotional support animal (ESA), in contrast to a PSD, is not necessarily trained and may be used for companionship and calming physical presence more than anything else. Under the Fair Housing Act, persons with disabilities may have an “emotional support animal,” even in no-pets housing. In contrast to emotional support dogs, therapy dogs and pets, a psychiatric service dog (PSD) must be owned and operated by a single disabled individual. Joan Esnayra, Ph.D., who coined the phrase “psychiatric service dog” and founded the Psychiatric Service Dog Society (www.psychdog.org), contrasts pet ownership with PSD ownership: “The real medicine of PSD ownership is the relationship or bond that the owner enjoys with the dog. With a PSD, the relationship is 24/7. This ‘joined-at-the-hip’ lifestyle fosters a stronger, more therapeutic bond than one gets from occasional interactions with a family pet.”

Thirty-three-year-old Carey Ivey, of Dayton, Ohio, says the 24/7 relationship is crucial. “Medication, therapy, exercise, and two pet dogs, whom I love dearly, didn’t help enough,” she notes. “With Asta [her rottweiler PSD], I’ve been able to return to college part time— a dream I’ve had since high school. Asta is my rock. She performs special tasks, and gives me emotional, physical and psychiatric support. I can’t imagine life without her.” Asta was Ivey’s pet before she decided to train her dog to be a PSD. The pairing has worked so well, she’s even been able to reduce her medication dosages “…with my doctor’s approval, of course!”

PSD owner Brenda Bryant, 44, of Aurora, CO, comments, “One symptom of major depression is lethargy. But when you take on the commitment of caring for your dog, you are forced to take on its needs, feedings, bathroom breaks, and playtimes. You gain from this, and your depressed phases aren’t so low as before.”

See the table below for examples of the tasks a PSD may be trained to perform.

As for training, “It’s a two-way street,” says Esnayra. “At first, the owner trains the dog, but over time the dog begins to train the owner—cultivating the owner’s insight and body-awareness of developing mental health symptoms.” The unconditional love from a dog—sometimes coupled with training—can make a tremendous difference in the happiness and quality of life for many people. And I’ll just bet that all that love flows right back to the dog—don’t you think?

“Dogs Can Help Alleviate Depression” by Dave Morton is reprinted with permission from SAVE-Suicide Awareness Voices of Education.

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