(This article was written back in April. I revised it so it could be used as part of a teaching manual for Freedom Service Dogs.
Much more attention needs to be paid to the mindset, environment and special emotional and psychological needs of anyone getting a service dog. we are, after all, in the process of healing. A dog is not a cure-all and cannot replace psychotherapy. It is a valuable adjunct and counselors, social workers and psychologists,especially those working with PTSD and trauma clients, need to be briefed on how best to anticipate issues and to enable solutions to make for the best possible outcomes for both client and service dog.)
So, you think you want a service dog? Think again….
I was reading a story on Facebook about a woman with Lupus. She illustrated for friends how hard life can be when you have to accommodate a debilitating, unseen illness. Her examples especially hit home as I remembered a dear friend from high school who took his own life rather than endure the primitive treatment available at that time. He could not handle a lifetime of shielding himself from the sun and the outdoors he loved so much. And he did not want to face the judgement of those who couldn’t understand his suffering, much of which was invisible, even to his friends.
The author of the post used dinner spoons as a metaphor. She gave the same number of spoons to each member of a group of friends. They were amused at first when she verbally walked them through a day and took away a spoon to represent the terrible toll taken by every simple task they normally took for granted. She let them make decisions in her stead and then assessed the difficulty of each decision from her own experience until they were all soon out of utensils and forced to decide whether or not to borrow from the next day’s rations.
The analogy, as simple as it was, rang true for me. I have often likened my day to the nearly worthless battery on my iPhone: I have to ration my energy over a variety of tasks: a movie requires me to choose a time and place with few people, easy entry and exit and now, a place for Gander, my service dog, to rest comfortably where people won’t stumble over him. A restaurant has to have a booth, an understanding proprietor, and be open at at non-peak hours so I don’t encounter too many people who might not like the idea of a dog in their eatery. I do not invite conflict and don’t feel I have anything to prove or teach when all I really want is a meal.
And there are many new and old preparations in advance: emergency medications ( I used to carry pills in every pocket and keep them in every drawer to avoid the possibility of a panic attack), a water bowl for Gander, snacks, service vest, bathroom breaks and so on. A day in public has been and still is exhausting for me. The first few weeks with Gander were infinitely worse: The added stress took a savage toll on my body and my serenity. And all of this while people assume I am training my service dog because I don’t appear to need one. As silly as it might sound: Having a service dog is like being pregnant. For women it is the first time you publicly show people you engage in sex. For me, it is an admission that something in my life is under repair.
Yesterday, I stopped to eat at a restaurant not far from the hotel where I stay. I sat outside in the car for a few moments and brought the anxiety of venturing into a new place down from a boil to a simmer. I have my usual haunts and stick to them. That night I wanted a change of pace. But Gander is a handsome and lovable mutt who draws attention, and it may come as a shock to some that attention is something I have loathed for years. And he sparks conversations about feelings and elicits memories that are not often shared with strangers in public venues. I brace for the usual questions: “What breed is he? How old is he? How long have you had him? Why do you need him? What does he do? Can I pet him?…” And then I wait, The conversation will end, become deeply personal or we will be rejected and asked to leave because Gander is one of only two service dogs I know of in Lake County, so few people have an understanding of service dogs and certainly not his role in my life–especially since I “look normal”.
The manager, an attractive lady, appeared quickly and immediately wanted to know if Gander was a “blind dog.” I resisted the urge to tell her that while he might have some hearing issues I thought his sight was fine. Then she wanted to see his service dog certification. Keeping with the battery analogy: My system was now flooded with current. I was working hard to keep from marching, like an overwound Christmas toy, into an emotional or wall or to angrily let her know that asking such questions is illegal in Illinois. Gander sensed that all was not well and leaned against me. He provided a way for me to ground and discharge excess energy. I calmly explained state rules about assistance animals and went about my dining business. During that particular meal I was asked several questions by people at distant tables and a young Indian boy racing by shrieked after realizing he’d seen an animal under the table. It was not a relaxing meal.
After dinner, the manager stopped me to invite me the two of us back sometime. And then she owned up to her discomfort: she disclosed severe physical, familial and care related difficulties she was facing in her own life. She has a lot on her plate: late stage cancer, a blind grandmother, a recent divorce and more. She expressed a longing for a pet to be there for her in what must she described as very difficult evenings alone. I give her a couple of suggestions and a card and told her to call me with any questions. I hope she does.
At our frequent visits to the area VA hospital, Gander brings literally dozens of smiles to the faces of people in the halls, and waiting rooms and especially those lost in thought and preoccupied with health concerns. Several vets have asked me how to get a dog because they are alone, lonely or just in need of something to do with the excess of time illness demands for recovery. Others have balance issues, relentless anxiety or problems picking things up…
When veterans say they want a dog, I generally ask them to ask themselves if it is a service dog, a canine buddy, a good friend or a girl/boyfriend that is really needed.
I explain that a dog becomes an extension of self and will immediately be one more thing to take care of to in the course of a difficult day. And I ask them to remember that not everyone in their lives, kind and generous friends they might be, are going to feel the same way about their dog. Other people have trauma associated with their past that has nothing to do and everything to do with you if you bring a symbol of their trauma into their life. And other cultures are not as devoted to their canine companions as we are. Some religions restrict contact with dogs and you are likely to get a less than warm welcome from a Muslim cabbie, the law not withstanding, because adhere to teachings you find superstitious or disrespectful.
Not only will you need to prepare better for your day and yield to new limitations, but now you will have a sentient being that requires you to attend to a multitude of needs: It is a lot like having an infant with you. You are now responsible for a life other than your own. It can help heal or help hinder you depending on your needs and your ability to accommodate these changes. a lot of owners blame the difficulties on bad training, or a poorly performing dog. It is neither. You need to discover when, where and how this new piece of living equipment can best assist you as you honor his or her limitations and respect his or her need for love and care.
Scientists have known for years, what the VA pretends it has never heard about: that the body’s chemistry is dramatically and positively changed by just by stroking the fur of a animal. It effects the release of important hormones like serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin and the results are lower blood pressure, decreased levels of the primary stress hormone cortisol which is the adrenal chemical responsible for regulating appetite and cravings for carbohydrates. And if you are spiritually inclined you might believe that the compassion and unconditional love of a pet is a direct link to the divine.
I think that Gander and I were fated to meet. I think he was a Tibetan Lama in a past life who decided to hang around this world wagging, kissing and loving me into a better understanding of compassion and unconditional love. A dog in your life is a blessing you can cherish forever if you have reasonable expectations and a commitment to loving and caring for a new member of your family.
One of the tasks Gander was taught to perform was to flank me on the side open to height to give me some distance and comfort. What happened was he became so tuned to my emotional state that he began to avoid heights himself. My wife says I have given my dog PTSD. I did make him more cautious of open spaces. Is he failing me? Should I be angry or disappointed? No. I now walk down the center of bridges so we both feel more comfortable. I don’t take elevators with glass floors. The scope of his aid to me goes far beyond these simple things. we will work on them together as a team. My guess? As I heal and become less anxious, so will he. He will be a living barometer of my progress. We have important things to do. And I am not about to stress my best friend needlessly as we romp though these rough trails together.
Spend some time visiting with others that have dogs. Volunteer at an organization like Freedom Service Dogs, read as much as you can, speak to the proprietors at places you frequent, talk to your treatment team, review your finances–this will be expensive especially if there are medical needs later! Treat this like you might an adoption of a child from a foreign country. It is an enormous undertaking that is done thoughtfully and honestly will teach you more about yourself, your disability than you can possibly imagine. It will positively inform your future relationships and make you a better friend, a better employee and a better person.