Second in a Series. See: I did it! I Trained My Own Psychiatric Assistance Dog
Walking around with my service dog, Atlas, I am often asked “How do I get one, too?”
If this is something you are seriously considering, talk to your doctors as soon as you can. It’s a complex process and every person deals with it differently. Remember there is no Service Dog Registry in the United States; it is the training that makes the dog a service dog. Here are my tips and at the end, The Tasks Atlas Learned to assist me.
- Read the Americans with Disabilities Act.
This has become my best friend over the last year and a half as I’ve tried to move through the world with a service dog. You must be disabled in some way and the dog must be trained to meet specific standards of behavior as well as perform “work or tasks” to mitigate your disability. For me this meant coming to terms with the fact that my Panic and General Anxiety Disorders had become so bad they were disabling.
- Talk to your doctor and your care team.
A service dog is no one’s first choice. You are relying on a furry toddler as a piece of medical equipment, and that’s not a decision you should take lightly. This dog can do a lot for you, but it’s a reciprocal relationship, and you need to give them a lot in return. Make sure that’s something you are ready and willing to do.
- Talk to your family, partner, friends, everyone!
This is not something you can do on your own. Everywhere you go, this dog is coming with. The bathroom, the movies, out to dinner, at a bar, to the baseball game. You now have a shadow who is going to impact everyone around you. If you plan to train the dog, people are going to be vital to your success. If you plan to get a program dog, they are going to be vital in making sure it’s training works.
- Find a trainer, and then find 3 more.
Talk to a trainer who has trained service dogs before. Get their opinion on what you need and whether a dog could be beneficial. They will know what breeds will work well with the kind of work you need and your lifestyle. Then ask a couple other trainers. You need and it’s not going to be cheap. They can help temperament test a puppy and teach the dog everything from “sit” to complex medical alerts and responses; depending on what you need. The more experts you can find, the better the chances you’ll find one who you get along with.
- Figure out how you want to acquire this dog
This is probably the most overlooked step in this process. Those trainers you found, you’re really going to need them now! Using an existing pet doesn’t usually work out well, so don’t count on that. Do you want a fully trained dog from a program? Do you want to train the dog on your own? A mix of both? Is there a breeder your trainer knows of? Do you want to rescue the dog? These are all huge questions that are going to change how this process goes for you. There’s no right answer, and every answer will bring up more questions. Use the knowledge of those around you to figure out what is best for you.
- Take a couple of deep breaths
Go back and do steps one through three again. You’ll have more concrete answers and know what you’re getting into a little more. Then do some self care and really think about if this is right for you.
- Go on an outing
Ask those trainers if you can tag along for a small outing with service dogs. This allows you to see the trainer in action, see the dogs they work with, and get a better idea working with a service dog. A lot of people, myself included, have no idea how walking around with a vested dog changes the way people see you. People will reach to pet, people will stare and gawk, children will scream and cry when you tell them they can’t pet. I’ve had full grown adults pout at me and call me names because I wouldn’t answer questions about medical history or let them play with my dog. But you also get to see how helpful a pup can be. You get to see alerts that prevent a fainting spell or grounding to ward off a dissociative episode. You may see a dog guide it’s handler safely to an exit they can’t find themselves. It’s a magical thing to watch.
- Start applying for dogs
No matter how you plan to acquire your dog, you now have the tools and knowledge to best answer questions from breeders, rescues and service dog organizations on what you need and what you want.
- Try not to roll your eyes too hard at the general public
Every handler I know says the public is the hardest part of having a service dog, and I agree. Have a series of answers to give to cashiers and waiters who ask. Eventually it becomes a game you can play with friends, at least service dog friends, about how you answer.
- TRAIN TRAIN TRAIN
No matter how the dog comes to you, you need some training. Handling a service dog is a skill all its own. Training one is even harder. You and this dog will become a seamless unit, but that takes time and practice and hard work.
- Train some more
No really. Keep training. Everyday, for the rest of the dog’s working career, you will be doing some form of training. It may be making them wait for their dinner to work on that impulse control, or walking through the basic commands after a lazy day. If you don’t use their training, they lose it so keep it going.
The Tasks Atlas Learned
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal must be individually trained to do work or perform tasks of benefit to a disabled individual in order to be legally elevated from pet status to service animal status. It is the specially trained tasks or work performed on command or cue that legally exempts a service dog and his handler from the “No Pets Allowed” policies of stores, restaurants and other places of public accommodation under the ADA.
To me, Atlas’ tasks fall into a couple of categories; Medical Alerts, Behavioral Interruptions and Psychiatric Tasks. There’s no hard line on what qualifies a task as a specific kind of task, but this is a way I find it easier to break them up and explain. A task is anything done to help with a disability, this means that Atlas is trained to do other things (like carrying things or giving high fives), but because they do not directly relate to the ways I’m disabled by my disorders, they are not counted as task work.
- Cardiac Alerts
- Alerts to drastic rise in heart rate
- This is an alert Atlas did naturally, that I shaped to get the response I wanted when it was needed.
- Atlas give this alert by “biting” my fingers or arm. He is part heeler so this was a natural way for him to get my attention and because it was a natural alert we kept the natural response.
- Cortisol Alerts
- Alerts to a spike in stress hormones, mainly Cortisol
- This is a trained alert used via scent training the same way drug or search and rescue dogs are trained to find a specific scent.
- Atlas alerts to this initially by putting his nose in my hand. Depending on how I respond and what else is happening, he will move on to Deep Pressure Therapy, guide work or just let me know and go back to whatever he was doing.
- Behavioral Interruptions
- I often start to shake my hand at my side, or dig my nails into my palm, or pick my nails, or scratch my arms when I start to get nervous. These things often start happening before I hit a full panic, but I often do not realize I do them.
- This was trained by teaching him to place his head in my hand and then switching the cue from a verbal cue to a physical cue.
- Atlas puts his nose/face in my hand to allow me to be calmed tactically by petting him, rather than by doing things that are less healthy.
- Having Restless Leg Syndrome with anxiety is a fun mix. Sometimes my legs shake because I’m nervous and sometimes it’s because I cannot physically hold still.
- This was trained very similar to the hand interruptions, by teaching him to target things with his paw and then moving to a physical cue.
- Atlas paws my knee a couple times and if ignored, he will try to offer pressure therapy to help me relax and hold still.
- General Psychiatric Tasks
- Pressure Therapy (DPT and LPT)
- Deep Pressure Therapy (DPT) is when Atlas puts his whole body on me to apply pressure and help keep me in place or keep me calm.
- Light Pressure Therapy (LPT) is when Atlas uses his face or paws to apply slight pressure to a part of my body, we use it mostly for calming.
- I trained this by teaching “down” and “paw” and then slowly adding duration and pressure.
- Guide Work or “Find”
- Often during panic I become unaware of what’s going around me and where things are.
- I taught Atlas how to find exits and my boyfriend by standing near by the item and asking him to find the object, then rewarding when he touched it with his nose or lead me through the door. Over time more obstacles and distance are added.
- Atlas leads me by walking in front and applying pressure to an attachment on his harness. He can now “Find Dad” reliably as long as he is within site or smell. He can also “Exit” from anywhere in a store he is used to, or if can see the door. We keep building distance and reliability on this.
- Dissociation Interruptions and Grounding
- Where Atlas helps me keep in touch with reality as I start to lose touch with what is real and what isn’t.
- Atlas pushes into my sides, asks for pets, or nuzzles me to keep me tactilely stimulated and in the present.
- He naturally picked up on this and I started reinforcing it. This is often coupled with other tasks.
- Pressure Therapy (DPT and LPT)
- Cardiac Alerts