Sometimes, the best doctor for those facing physical or mental disabilities can actually be a dog. Service dogs are dogs that are trained to perform specific tasks for one person whose general life activities are inhibited by a disability.
According to Robin Levy, the head of Mid-Peninsula Puppy Guides, a service dog can be trained to help a person in a variety of ways. Some examples are guide dogs for blind or visually impaired people, hearing dogs for people with hearing problems, seizure alert dogs, diabetes alert dogs, dogs to assist people in wheelchairs, dogs to help people with PTSD and many more.
Every service dog helps their handler in a different and specific way, making the various categories incredibly diverse. However, upon hearing the words “service dog,” many fail to consider the equally dangerous “invisible disability” of mental and psychiatric conditions, which can be just as debilitating as a purely physical disability.
A psychiatric service dog has the ability to detect life-threatening psychiatric episodes before they can occur, as well as prevent them or mitigate their effects.
These episodes are a response from the sympathetic nervous system that can occur randomly and without warning. During this, adrenaline, the hormone behind the “fight-or-flight” response, floods the body. The heart pounds rapidly, increasing blood flow to muscles and causing uncontrollable trembling. Breathing quickens and shallows to increase oxygen intake for the heavy blood flow, leading to dizziness or faintness. The increased adrenaline can also cause sweating, chest pains and numbness.
A random episode can be extremely dangerous for handlers, which is where a service dog comes in.
“Dogs have very great senses of smell. The dog is able to pick up when [their owner’s] pheromones are low or high and [act accordingly].”
The beginning symptoms of a psychiatric episode are imperceptible to humans but recognizable by service dogs, who can smell the rise in adrenaline, and sense an increase in heart rate, breathing and tremors. Additionally, dogs can notice tics before psychiatric episodes that people themselves are not aware of.
A typical service dog will know 15 to 20 minutes before someone has a medical episode, while the handler will know probably 30 seconds before it happens. Psychiatric service dogs are also trained to bring medication, perform deep pressure therapy and “ground” their owners, ensuring that they do not go into a psychiatric episode.
Deep pressure therapy is done by applying equal force across the body, which calms the autonomic nervous system. This involves a service dog lying on top of its owner during a psychiatric episode and using its weight and warmth to mitigate symptoms and calm them, in place of a therapeutic weighted blanket.
The various life-saving tasks a service dog is trained to perform creates an important distinction between them and therapy dogs or emotional support dogs.
“Service dogs fulfill the [Americans with Disabilities Act] requirements and are legally required to be given access, with their human partners, to any location accessible to the general public. Therapy dogs or emotional support dogs are not service dogs and can be legally denied access to public spaces.”
However, no dog is perfect, nor is any human or any other creature. This is why no one should ever pet or otherwise distract a service dog while it is working. So the next time you see someone wandering around with a service dog, make sure to admire this hero from afar.