When I was nineteen my manic / psychotic symptoms began. In the summer of 2010 we stayed with my partner’s parents, at their house; we were struggling with my new symptoms and we couldn’t find a place to live before our current lease ran out, so we moved in with them.
They had a dog, which for me was a truly amazing experience. I had wanted a dog since I was a very young child, but this was my first time living with one. We found that having a dog was hugely beneficial for me…not only was the petting and interaction very calming, but we soon learned that the responsibility of walking the dog got me out of the house and kept me safe when I was out there.
Once we were back living on our own and my symptoms worsened, we looked into getting an Assistance Dog. I contacted many charities that either trained or partnered disabled people with service dogs. Not only did none of them provide assistance dogs for people with mental disabilities, but they also said there was no such service in the UK. Um…why?
Dogs really can help people who suffer from mental disabilities, just as they can people with physical disabilities.
I’ve heard and read people say many times “but how could a dog really help a mentally ill person?”…well, I suffer from Bipolar Disorder and Generalised Anxiety Disorder. Here’s a quick list (that I created literally two minutes ago) of the useful things an assistant dog could do for me:
- Fetch medication – either when asked or at the sound of an alarm / timer. This could be from a shelf, cupboard, etc
- Fetch emergency contact – similar to above, the dog is trained to fetch an emergency mobile phone that is left in a specific location when asked. Useful for panic attacks, strong suicidal thoughts or if you have harmed yourself
- Getting help when asked – be it physically fetching / waking Gog, or alerting him by barking if he’s upstairs or there’s a barrier in the way
- Getting my attention – when depressed or manic, I can ‘zone out’. I will lose track of reality and sit, not moving or paying attention to my surroundings. People can talk to me but I won’t react unless they touch or shake me. An assistance dog could be taught to recognise this state and either lick or paw my hand / face
- Trained interruptions – when I was visibly upset the dog could paw / whine until I am paying attention and stroking him. Great for calming, re-focusing and passing time.
- Grounding – similar to ‘zoning out’, when hallucinating or dissociating the dog can be trained to paw or sit on my lap. His presence has a calming influence and can help pull me back to reality
- Road safety – sometimes when ill I am terrible at crossing roads (this is why Gog refuses to let me go out alone). I will forget to look before I cross, only look one way or look but not recognise cars are coming. I was hit or almost hit by numerous cars in the space of two years, but luckily the worst I got were bruises and a split lip! The dog could be trained to stop a few feet from the curbside and refuse to move until I recognise where I am and give a release cue.
- Create space – I don’t do well with strangers or in crowds. An assistance dog could create space by being taught to lie in front or behind me, or to walk around me in a circle.
- Escape – this is something that could be extremely useful. I get very nervous with people, be it at appointments, visiting people I don’t know very well or just plain feeling uncomfortable with family. I could train the dog a ‘secret signal’ to get the dog to begin whining / pawing at me. This would mean I could say “oh I have to go, he needs the toilet!” and either leave and go home or take a break, depending on where we are.
It’s sad that mental disabilities are still so stigmatised that you don’t qualify for an assistance dog. The only thing I could find was www.padogsuk.org I know quite a few people who live in various other countries who have Bipolar and assistance dogs, and find them very helpful.
Of course, you could train your dog to do these things and accompany you in public…but obviously you won’t have the same rights as a service dog would. For example you can be refused entry to shops, places that serve food, hotels, and buses. Some buses will even charge you a fair for your dog, although obviously service dogs go free.
To finish up, I’ll leave you with a few questions and my answers from a survey I filled in today. I was looking up training organisations for emotional support animals…I don’t think ESAs exist in the UK either, as far as I can tell.
How would you describe your diagnosed mental health condition? (eg. Depression for 10 years)
Depression & Generalised Anxiety Disorder for 15 years, Bipolar for 6 years
Are you registered disabled as a result of ONLY your mental health condition?
How would you describe how your dog provides support for you? **updated early 2016 to include our puppy**
- Calming influence – stroking / grooming / interacting with them is calming in itself
- Motivation – if I am in a mild-moderate depressive episode, the fact that the dogs need walking is a good motivator to get up and outside
- Focus – when I am manic I am full of ambition and energy. Training is a great way to be productive, creative and interact with my dogs. I have a real interest and passion in dog training, so training the dogs (which forces me to focus whilst manic) is extremely helpful
- Responsibility – In the early stages of suicidal ideation, the thought of ‘how would my dogs be looked after if I wasn’t here?’ helps keep me safe
- Walking – gets me exercise daily and helps provide a reason to leave the house
- Helps my anxiety stay low & keep focus on them when I’m out the house walking them, especially my youngest dog who offers interaction a lot on walks
- By reacting to things that are real, but ignoring things that obviously aren’t real – awesome for when I’m suffering psychosis; if I see something on a walk I automatically turn to my puppy to see if he has reacted