Our family dog, Domino came into our lives when my girls were 6, 8 and 10 years old. Little did we know just how much this little black and white fluff ball would make our lives richer, happier, safer and more complete. We chose a cockapoo (cocker spaniel/poodle mix) because they are known for their playful, intelligent and affectionate disposition. And, they are hypoallergenic. What we got was a dog who redefined the meaning of the word ‘tolerant’. Sibling rivalry guaranteed daily (or sometimes hourly) competitions over who got to cuddle, play, snuggle, hold or sleep with Domino. Curious little fingers poked, prodded and inspected our puppy’s ears, nose, paws, nostrils and every one of his spots that inspired his name. Creativity meant that Domino was subjected to experiences I never could have imagined. Case in point: I came home one day to find Domino complacently dressed in a two-piece bathing suit with matching painted nails. Another time, the girls used his floppy ears to try out new ‘hairstyles’ such as pigtails, ponytails and assorted up-do’s.
Beyond tolerance, Domino’s intuition is so high and his loyalty so deep that he quickly became the alpha source of comfort and soothing. Mental illness, in the form of anxiety, depression, mania and frequent meltdowns, had already claimed a stronghold on our family dynamic before Domino’s arrival. Each day was marked with apprehension, stress and turmoil making it more and more difficult to create some semblance of normalcy. Domino was often our beacon of predictability and calm, infusing unconditional love in a soft and instinctive way. When all other efforts failed, our four-legged friend worked his magic to quell a panic attack, diffuse a rage or shine hope into dark thoughts of despair.
It’s no secret that animals have an innate ability to provide comfort. Many years ago I attended a national DBSA (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance) conference and was struck by the number, and variety, of emotional support animals (ESA) in attendance with their owners. In addition to dogs there were cats, birds and even a guinea pig. While these animals do not perform a specific task that alleviates an aspect of their handler’s disability, they clearly serve a significant role for their owners. Even though he’s never had any formal training, our dear Domino is a proud, badge carrying, vest wearing (on occasion) certified emotional support animal. Basically that means that he can go places were dogs would normally not be allowed (e.g. airports, restaurants and other public places) and which could be anxiety provoking for his handler. For our family, his presence at home has been, and still is, the greatest benefit.
- A dear friend of mine, and dog owner many times over, has been on a quest for a psychiatric service dog for her young adult son. ‘Josh’ has auditory and visual hallucinations that make it difficult to distinguish between reality and symptoms of his illness. Like individuals with PTSD, certain situations can be extremely triggering and cause disassociations. A psychiatric service dog is trained to specifically meet the needs of the handler by such things as: identifying what’s real; creating a personal space barrier; calming anxiety; blocking an impulsive, panic driven movement of darting into oncoming traffic; guiding back to safety.
There are several wonderful, dedicated organizations that provide the training, resources and funding to connect service dogs with those in need. PAWS Training Centers and Puppies Behind Bars are examples of organizations committed to making a difference. However, most are limited in the types of disabilities they support or are targeted to one specifically. There are also several websites such as Psychiatric Service Dog Partners that provide information on selecting a particular type of dog, finding a trainer and determining the specific skills needed to support the handler.
The problem is, the lion’s share of the burden falls on the individual in need. There is no question that veterans, individuals with PTSD or TBI (traumatic brain injury) or diagnosed with autism are acutely in need of these services. So are individuals with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder and other severe mental illnesses. Why should the circumstances of a person’s disability determine their access to services? Whether genetics, an IED (improvised explosive device) or trauma from domestic violence, the needs are still essentially the same. For that matter, why should the disability itself determine access to services? Diabetes, epilepsy, spinal cord injury and schizophrenia all result in impairments that limit functionality. Why should one disability trump another when it comes to access to care?
I am not in any way suggesting that the programs, charities and organizations that exist are to blame or are in any way at fault. Advocacy for specific illnesses promotes awareness, education and serves to directly support those in need. Trying to create a one size fits all environment is not the answer. However, we need to fill the gaps. We need to make available those resources that are evidence based and effective when segments of a disabled population are unable to access what others of that population receive.
I don’t have the solution. I wish I did. But I do know from experience that talking about a problem, raising awareness, challenging all of us to consider ways to improve the situation, is a huge step in the right direction. The good news is that resources exist now that didn’t 10 or 20 years ago. Now we need to connect those resources with the individuals who are still in need.