Help from man's best friend: psychiatric service dogs are helping consumers deal with the symptoms of mental illness

Citation metadata

Author: Joan Esnayra
Date: July 2007
From: Behavioral Healthcare(Vol. 27, Issue 7)
Publisher: Vendome Group LLC
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,524 words
Lexile Measure: 1400L

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

With greater frequency, mental health patients are presenting at emergency rooms, hospitals, and clinics with a service dog in tow. These are psychiatric service dogs, specially trained to partner 24/7 with persons living with severe mental health disabilities.

A fundamental premise of the psychiatric service dog therapeutic model, as promulgated by the Psychiatric Service Dog Society, is 24/7 human-canine partnership. The intensity of the partnership leverages a dog's innately observant nature to the human partner's benefit. As the dog becomes conditioned to the usual range of behaviors, attitudes, and dispositions of its mentally ill partner, the dog responds to the person's episodic manifestations of mental illness by manifesting an unusual behavior. Each dog is unique in the signal or alert it provides, such as nibbling a handler's fingers or toes, bumping a handler's elbow, whining, barking, pensive or worried looks, or apparent misbehavior (e.g., running around the handler in an excited manner uncharacteristic or ill-suited to the circumstances).

Since the dog and handler are together 24/7, the human partner takes note when her dog is behaving differently and uses this information to deduce that she likely is entering an episode of mental illness. This often silent exchange usually takes place before the human partner even is aware of her own nascent symptoms, which may include aggressive driving secondary to a hypomanic episode or hyperventilation due to an incipient panic attack. In the words of three psychiatric service dog handlers:

* "When a psychiatric service dog alerts, its handler acquires new information about triggers that are affecting her brain and precipitating symptoms."

* "I found that if I am not calm, [my dog] begins to act up. This is my clue to do an internal check to see what is really going on inside."

* "When my dog alerts, I am given an opportunity to act on the information long before the development of symptoms that would otherwise require inpatient care."

It is not yet understood what exact cues a dog may be picking up on. They may be subtle behavioral cues, or they may be olfactory cues such as a subtle change in the smell of one's breath or uncharacteristic sweat gland secretions on one's skin. The acquisition of insight in this context renders the human partner better equipped to mitigate the episode through...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A167419384