July 2010 Issue
Canines of Comfort
Ohio author Jane Miller explores how psychiatric service dogs are improving the lives
of veterans, abuse survivors and other individuals with extreme emotional distress.
Six years ago, Nancy Tucker was in the middle of a debilitating panic attack when an unexpected ally came to her aid. “Panic attacks are a very visceral experience; mine are a sick feeling in my abdomen,” Tucker says from her Upstate New York home. “I was in the middle of the attack when Windy jumped into my lap and put her weight up on my chest. She stayed there until the attack was over and I could function again.”
Windy is Tucker’s Nova Scotia Duck Tolling retriever, and since that moment, the dog has been an indispensable tool for helping Tucker deal with the severe panic attacks, depression and agoraphobia that make her everyday life a constant struggle. “I’ve had Windy for seven years, so she wasn’t trained to help me with my attacks when they first started [six years ago],” she says. “But after that incident, I just discovered that she could help me. She’s a natural alerter — some dogs can predict a thunderstorm, Windy can tell when I’m about to have an attack.”
Windy and psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) like her are the subject of a new book, Healing Companions: Ordinary Dogs and Their Extraordinary Power to Transform Lives
, by Oberlin-based clinical psychotherapist and licensed social worker Jane Miller.
In it, Miller, 50, explores not only the human, but also the clinical, legal, ethical and practical sides of working with PSDs. “For people suffering from diseases such as severe depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), activities are a problem,” says Miller. “Get dressed, take a shower, take a walk — these are challenges.” Miller says service dogs are trained to assist individuals who are disabled by a range of mental disorders including bipolar disorder, PTSD and severe depression.
By putting her paws on Tucker’s shoulders and resting her weight on her abdomen, Windy was offering Tucker a form of deep pressure stimulation that Miller says can be very calming and lessen the effects of an extreme panic attack. Since that event, Tucker has trained Windy to help her with other tasks that enhance her ability to meet life’s demands. “I have sleep disturbances that go along with the panic attacks, and I get a lot of depression,” says Tucker. “I can sleep through two alarms and a phone.” For that reason, Windy is trained to wake her up at 6:30 a.m. each morning.
“Another really important thing for me is crowd control,” says Tucker. “I was avoiding all social and work situations because I was extremely agoraphobic.” Using subtle hand motions, Tucker can cue Windy to position herself between her owner and others, which helps to keep people at a distance that is comfortable for Tucker.
“It gives me enough of a comfort zone to be able to go more places,” she says.
Seated comfortably in her office and flanked by her “co-therapists” — a pair of energetic golden retrievers named Ahava and Simcha — Miller, who has been in private practice for 20 years, recalls her own discovery of how dogs could have a transformative effect on the healing process of her patients. “My dog [at the time], Umaya, was undergoing chemotherapy, and to be able to keep her appointments, I began bringing her into the office with me,” she says. Miller says she soon noticed that if a client was angry, Umaya would walk away. If he or she was anxious, she would pace. “Clients learned they couldn’t hide their feelings because Umaya would mirror them,” she says.
For other clients, Umaya provided the initial steppingstone on the difficult path of opening up after decades of silence.
A survivor of childhood abuse, Oberlin resident Tracy Corso’s deep depression and obsessive-compulsive behaviors made life as most of us know it impossible. “When I think about life before my dogs, I would have to say I was severely depressed,” says Corso. “I had a partner who would do everything for me. I would just lie on the couch and avoid society.”
Eight years ago, Corso found herself in Miller’s office, unable to speak about the childhood scars left by her adoptive parents. “I was very distant to any human being, and to any animal,” says Corso. “But Umaya had such a calm demeanor, I was able to pet her, and when I petted her I finally started to be able to talk and open up.”
Eventually, with Miller’s help, Corso adopted and trained Baron, a brown Labrador retriever that helped her accomplish daily routines as well as temper the symptoms of her eating and obsessive-compulsive disorders. “For example, he was trained to sit and watch me while I was eating until it made me uncomfortable, and it would cue me to stop eating,” she says.
Corso soon discovered that Baron also provided a comfortable means for her to begin to reintegrate into society. “It started with going to dog events,” she says. “I was not very good at talking to people, but I discovered I was very comfortable talking to people about my dog.” Corso says Baron died recently, but her other service dog, Finola, is being trained to provide her with the assistance she needs.
There are an estimated 10,000 PSD teams in place today, a number that is expected to continue to grow as public awareness surrounding their use increases. Recently, the subject received favorable attention from media outlets such as CNN and The New York Times
, largely due to the success Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are finding in using PSDs to help them deal with both their physical and psychological battle scars.
“I think people understand the idea of therapy dogs, who might visit veterans in the hospital, or service dogs that help a soldier who has lost his legs function in life,” says Miller. “But the concept of psychiatric service dogs is still being understood.” Research on the subject is still in its infancy. According to a report in The New York Times
, the federal government plans to invest several million dollars studying the psychological effects of service dogs for veterans. The report also cites a bill written by Senator Al Franken that will provide service dogs for veterans with PTSD as part of a pilot program run by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Currently, Miller, along with Ahava and Simcha (both certified therapy dogs), volunteers at the Recovery Resource Center at the Lewis Stokes Cleveland Department of Veterans Affairs in Brecksville. Yet she stresses that vets are the most public, but not the only group, likely to benefit from service dogs. “Ten years of therapy wouldn’t do for my clients what their dogs do for them,” she says.
Nor are service dogs the right solution for all sufferers of PTSD and other mental disorders. Some clients are able to train their own dogs, but others must work with a trainer.
“It’s a process,” cautions Miller, who says it can take one and a half to two years to train a dog. “This is not meant for everybody, but for that group, it opens a window into the world that would not have been opened without a dog.”
That’s certainly the case for Corso, who now travels to speak to groups of health-care providers, dog trainers and other individuals about her experience with Baron and Finola.
“I hope that by sharing my story, other people will be helped,” she says.
But Corso is still on her journey to healing, and even after eight years, she isn’t sure if her path will ever take her in a direction that doesn’t include a service companion.
“I’d say it’s like people who use medication and when they try to stop using it they realize it’s something they really need,” she says. “But I feel joy, happiness and gratitude when I speak in front of people,” she says. “For me, that’s a new thing.”
For More Information:
To find out more about psychiatric service dogs, contact the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (iaadp.org
Miller’s new book, Healing Companions: Ordinary Dogs and Their Extraordinary Power to Transform Lives
is available at online bookstores including amazon.com
. For a list of book signings and Miller’s other upcoming appearances, visit healing-companions.com