The path to successfully owner training a service dog, at times, is a winding, bumpy, poorly lit road. Despite whatever challenges may be presented along the way, the effort is well worth it. I’ve spent the past few months reflecting on all of this.
We hit a major speed bump a few months ago, when I began experiencing too much anxiety to train Bradley calmly and confidently. Bradley is very sensitive to changes in my mood and when I became stressed, so did he. This created a vicious cycle, as we would each enhance the other’s level of anxiety. This quickly escalated into me becoming anxious simply because I was worried about potential future stress! Such a dynamic was becoming counterproductive.
I became extremely discouraged by this setback and faltered in my confidence in my ability to see Bradley through to the completion of the training process. My doubt was in my own ability, not Bradley’s capacity to learn. I expressed my concern with our trainer and took comfort in her assurance that many owner trainers have similar misgivings when they hit plateaus in their training progress.
To remedy this problem, Bradley’s trainer and I decided that she should handle him by herself during training sessions. While I would prefer to handle him myself, it wasn’t doing either of us any good for me to handle him when I wasn’t at the top of my game.
I determined another, more profound solution to this problem with the help of our trainer, as well as my psychiatrist, is to cross train Bradley as a psychiatric service dog. This will be a significant change for the better, as his sensitivity to my psychological state will be put to constructive use.
Psychiatric Service Dogs
What a psychiatric service dog is:
While most people understand the job guide dogs perform, psychiatric service dogs are far less widely known. Psychiatric service dogs, also referred to as PSD’s, are service dogs who are specifically trained to mitigate their handlers’ psychiatric disabilities. Just as there is an infinite variety of physical and medical disabilities, there are just as many variations of psychological disabilities. The handler of a psychiatric service dog must meet the legal qualification of being disabled in order to be protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, just like any other type of service dog handler. PSD’s perform tasks like alerting to symptoms, responding in a manner to lessen the severity of symptoms, grounding and many other skills.
What a PSD is not:
Many people are familiar with the term, “therapy dog,” and more people are becoming familiar with the term, “emotional support animal (ESA).” Therapy dogs and ESA’s are both distinct from each other, as well as from psychiatric service dogs. I’ll offer a brief description of therapy dogs and ESA’s to prevent any confusion between each of their roles and PSD’s.
Therapy dogs are thoroughly socialized, well-mannered dogs who are trained, tested and then certified to provide therapeutic support to well deserving members of society, like school children, hospital patients, nursing home residents and more. These dogs visit institutions to socialize with others who can benefit from the unconditional affection of a canine friend. While they play a valuable role in the lives of many people, they are not service dogs and their handlers are not afforded unrestricted public access rights with them.
On the other end of the pet therapy spectrum, is the emotional support animal (ESA). These are animals who provide comfort to their owners for not necessarily debilitating psychological conditions. These animals are not specifically trained to mitigate a disability, so they are not service animals. As such, their owners are not given public access rights. However, many statutes make provisions to allow owners of these animals to obtain housing in accommodations that are not otherwise pet friendly. Additionally, air carriers permit ESA’s to travel with their owners free of charge, provided proof of need for such an animal is presented.
It can be easy to blur the lines between therapy dogs, emotional support animals and psychiatric service dogs. A common misconception is that the sole purpose of PSD’s is to provide psychological comfort simply by being present. If that were the case, these dogs would be ESA’s, not service dogs. As with other types of service dogs, PSD’s are specially trained to perform specific tasks to mitigate their handlers’ disabilities. While their presence certainly provides their handlers with comfort, this is simply a by-product of their job.
For more information about psychiatric service dogs, please visit the Psychiatric Service Dog Society’s website.
Making Lemons into Lemonade
While Bradley’s sensitivity to my stress level initially served as a detriment to our teamwork, it presents a unique opportunity to help both of us.
By incorporating PSD work into Bradley’s job, it will both channel his awareness of my tension into a positive response, as well as act as an aid in decreasing my own anxiety.
In my particular case, I’m training Bradley to recognize when I first begin showing signs of anxiety and to alert me to it so I can take action to prevent it from becoming worse. In addition to alerting to my anxiety, I’m working on having him perform grounding tasks, like pressing his body against mine, nudging and licking me.
So far, this has put a positive twist on an unpleasant situation.
In other news, I’ve made a very significant decision that is going to change the nature of my partnership with Bradley.
The reality has set in that I’m not going to be capable of training Bradley to perform at the level of reliability I need to obtain the degree of independence I desire. While Bradley has a phenomenal temperament and eagerness to learn, my lack of guide dog training expertise is going to prevent us from reaching our full potential as dog guide team.
While I’m confident that Bradley will learn basic guide skills like obstacle avoidance, stopping at steps, finding certain items of interest, etc., I’m not as secure in my ability to teach him vital skills like intelligent disobedience and more advanced work in traffic. Even if I could, I can’t say I’d be able to trust my life in the skills I taught him.
Therefore, I have made the decision to apply for a program trained guide dog. Because Bradley enjoys working so much and we have come so far, I will not be retiring him from service work completely. Despite not reaching the extent of independence I need, Bradley can still help me do more than I could do on my own.
Many guide dog programs refer to dogs who are deemed unsuitable for guide work and go onto working as other types of service dogs or bomb sniffing dogs as “career change” dogs. While Bradley’s career has changed a bit, it’s more like a change in his job description. His career is evolving but he’s still going to play a very significant role in our partnership.
That being said, I’m absolutely ecstatic at the thought of getting a program trained guide. I feel that in doing so, doors will open that have never been open for me before.
In a few weeks, I’ll be applying with Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, New York. So, not only will I continue to chronicle Bradley’s progress in this blog, but now I’ll also be sharing my experiences applying for and acquiring a program trained guide dog.