Mental Health Assistance Dogs - Life Gets Better

UPDATE:  During the next twelve to eighteen months, Heeling Allies will be privately training service dogs for teenagers and young adults between the ages of 15 ~ 25 with Tourette Syndrome.  This program modification is effective as of August 1, 2013.

Mental Health Service Dog Question & Answer

1.  What is a service dog?

Any animal trained to do work for or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.
- Americans with Disabilities Act

2.  What is a Mental Health Service Dog?

A Mental Health Service Dog is a category of service dog that is individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a mental impairment that rises to the level of a disability.

3.  Is there a difference between a Mental Health Service Dog, Therapy Dog, and Emotional Support Dog?

Yes. Yes. And, Yes

A Therapy Dog is a dog trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, people with learning difficulties, and in stressful situations, such as disaster areas.

- Wikipedia

The term Emotional Support Dog refers to a dog that provides therapeutic benefit to an elderly individual or individual with a disability. The primary purpose of an Emotional Support Dog is to provide the owner with affection,companionship, and provide motivation.  Emotional Support Dogs should be trust worthy and have friendly dispositions.  They should be well trained, although they need not be trained to perform tasks.  There is no category for Emotional Support Dogs in the ADA, however these dogs are covered under the Fair Housing Amendment Act or FHA and Amended Air Carrier Access Act or ACAA. 

A Mental Health Service Dog is a category of service dog that is individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a mental impairment that rises to the level of a disability.

4. Why does Heeling Allies refer to service dogs for people with mental impairments as , Mental Health Service Dogs instead of Psychiatric Service Dogs?

Heeling Allies uses the term, Mental Health Service Dog over Psychiatric Service Dog for a several reasons.  The word psychiatric carries a lot of stigma.  We have found that a large percentage of people who have mental illness have an aversion to this word, since the word is often associated with deprecating words like, psycho, psychopath, psychotic, crazy and etcetera.

In 2008, Darcie Boltz coined the term Mental Health Service Dog because she felt strongly about developing a solution-focused term for this category of service dog.

Unlike the term, psychiatric service dog, other categories of service dogs are modified according to the type assistance the dog provides it’s handler (i.e. Guide Dog or Seeing-Eye Dog, Mobility Support Dog, Hearing Dog, Seizure Alert Dog, Diabetic Alert Dog and so on).  The term, Mental Health Service Dog suggests the dog assists it's handler in achieving mental health.  

Although the term Psychiatric Service Dog is popular, Heeling Allies chooses not use it for these reasons.  We refer to this category of Service Dog as a Mental Health Service Dog or simply, a service dog for an individual with a mental impairment.

Heeling Allies encourages individuals to use the term they feel most comfortable with, whether it is, Mental Health Service Dog, Psychiatric Service Dog, or simply, Service Dog.  Although, we have noticed the term, Mental Health Service Dog is gaining in popularity and we are pleased that this is so.  
 
5.  “I have a mental impairment and I own a dog.  My doctor wrote me a prescription for a service dog.  Now my dog is my Mental Health Service Dog.”  True or False?                                                                                               

FALSE: Mental Impairment PLUS Dog DOES NOT EQUAL Mental Health Service Dog.

  • Mental Health Service Dogs require a high level of  intensive, specialized training in the following areas:  basic and advanced obedience, public access, and task performance.  A dog is not a Service Dog unless it has received specialized training to become a service dog, even if the owner has a disability.

  • Teaming up with a Mental Health Service Dog is not appropriate for everyone with a mental impairment.

  • There are many wonderful dogs on this planet, however a very small percentage of them meet the narrow criteria of a service dog.  Service dogs should be physically and psychologically sound and should be thoroughly tested to insure this is so. 

The bottom line is:  Many dogs make great pet dogs, and very few dogs have what it takes to be a great service dog. 

6.  Who can benefit from partnering with a Mental Health Service Dog?

Mental Health Service Dogs can be a great adjunct to treatment for individuals with mental impairments ranging from bipolar disorder to major depressive disorder.  However, Heeling Allies has seen Mental Health Service Dogs be especially effective in the lives of individuals who have anxiety disorders such as: agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

7.  What benefits do owners of professionally trained Mental Health Service Dog handlers commonly experience?

  • Reduction in debilitating symptoms.
  • Greater access to the world.
  • Around the clock support, in addition to mental health treatment and social support. 

7.  What types of things do professionally trained Mental Health Service Dogs do to assist their handlers? 

Every individual experiences his/her mental impairment differently, which is why Heeling Allies custom trains Mental Health Service Dogs to meet the unique needs of each of our clients. No two dogs we produce are trained to perform identically. 

Mental Health Service Dogs must have a solid foundation in basic and advanced obedience training, and public access training; as well as the ability to perform work that mitigates disabling symptoms of their handler’s disability.

Mental Health Service Dogs can reduce debilitating symptoms of some psychological impairments such as, hyper-vigilance, avoidance patterns, and exaggerated or painful responses to internal and environmental triggers. 

Mental Health Service Dog tasks can be broken down into two categories: conditioned tasks and intuitive tasks.  Conditioned tasks are tasks that a dog is deliberately trained to perform, and intuitive tasks are tasks a dog performs without having been taught to do so.

Examples of Mental Health Service Dog Tasks:

  • Provide a buffer or a shield for the handler in crowded areas by creating a physical boundary.
  • Extinguish flashbacks by bringing handler into the  “here and now.”
  • Orient during panic/anxiety attack.
  • Stand behind handler to increase feelings of safety, reduce hyper-vigilance, and decrease the likelihood of the handler being startled by another person coming up behind them.
  • Environment search.
  • Wake handler to alarm.
  • Wake handler from nightmares.
  • Turn on/off lights.
  • Help balance unsteady handler/provide physical support for balance.
  • Assist in coping with emotional overload by bringing handler into the “here and now.”
  • Remind/alert handler to take medication.
  • Interrupt obsessive behaviors.
  • Alert handler to change in mental state (i.e. panic attack, anxiety attack, manic episode, etc).

* Mental Health Service Dogs can be trained to perform a variety of individualized tasks.  You may not see a task in the above list that would be helpful to you.  A Heeling Allies representative can help you to determine tasks that will help to  mitigate specific symptoms that you are most challenged by.

8.  Many of the benefits of owning a Mental Health Service Dog extend beyond having the dog's assistance with certain tasks.  Such benefits are inherent in the human-canine relationship and often include:

  • Provide relief from feelings of isolation.
  • Increase sense of wellbeing.
  • Increase sense of security.
  • Give a sense of purpose for living.
  • Increase self-efficacy and self-esteem.
  • Provide a safe and secure relationship in which one can give and receive love and affection without the possibility of rejection.
  • Provide dependable and predictable love, affection and nonjudgmental companionship.
  • Provide motivation to exercise.
  • Facilitate social interactions.

Mental Health Service Dogs should be considered an adjunct to mental healthcare, never a substitute.

 
Heeling Allies is located in Seattle WA, and trains Mental Health Dogs for individuals nationally.

Currently Serving: Washington State & Upstate New York

© 2008-2014 Heeling Allies.  All Rights Reserved.