Canine Lifelines

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Dexter, my unofficial service dog (SOURCE: ALICE STOBART)

We’ve all had that feeling when we’re stroking a puppy and for that one moment it feels as if nothing in the world matters, or when we see an old dog and our hearts melt.

Having a pet around the house has been proven to increase general mental wellbeing, and most pet-owners will confirm this statement. But for people with service dogs, the experience of having a faithful four-legged friend is actually life-saving.

Florence Nightingale first noticed the therapeutic potential of animals, and wrote in her book Notes on Nursing that small animals could help psychiatric patients require. Sigmund Freud, one of the most notorious psychologists to have lived, used to use his dog, Jofi, during his therapy sessions. Jofi would use spacial distance to signify the tension in the patient, and Freud also used him as a means of communication with his patients.

Service dogs for physical disabilities have been officially used since 1982, when hearing Dogs for Deaf People started up, training dogs to alert their hearing impaired owners to a number of sounds. In 1988, Dogs for the Disabled began training mobility dogs for people suffering with physical disability. Non-psychiatric service dogs have been more prominent in previous years, but there has been a dramatic rise in the use of service dogs for psychiatric disorders.

Psychiatric Service Dog is a dog that has been trained to perform tasks that assist individuals with disabilities to detect the onset of psychiatric episodes and lessen their effects. Tasks performed by psychiatric service animals may include reminding the handler to take medicine, providing safety checks or room searches, or turning on lights for persons with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, interrupting self-mutilation by persons with dissociative identity disorders, and keeping disoriented individuals from danger. – American Disabilities Act, 2014

Emotional support animals (ESAs) are not registered by the ADA, but they are deemed ‘official’ if a medical professional has said that the animal provides benefit for an individual with a disability.

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My first beautiful boy, Barney (SOURCE: ALICE STOBART)

For my 2nd birthday, I was given a beautiful black Labrador named Barney (after the kids TV show that I was unhealthily obsessed with); I had my faithful companion for 15 years until he sadly passed away in 2012. That dog was like a real brother to me, and I would say that he was in fact a service dog to me. He seemed to sense when I was going through an episode, he knew when I was having panic attacks, he knew when I was in emotional distress – and he would always react accordingly. He would nuzzle me, lick my face, lie on me, paw my hands… He would do everything he could to calm me down, and he had had no official ‘training’ to do this.

Now, I have a wonderful five-month-old puppy called Dexter, and he does exactly the same thing. We don’t actually know what breed he is as he was rescued from a Township here in Cape Town, but his ‘sixth sense’ abilities are exactly the same as Barney’s. This led me to question whether all dogs are innately gifted with the ability to sense their human’s mental wellbeing.

One of the most amazing things to have captured the internet recently is the use of service dogs and sufferers of PTSD. Videos pop up on my Facebook feed every now and again of people who were in the military who now suffer from PTSD and their service dogs, who are able to help calm their human down. The Telegraph has just written an article all about this phenomenon, and to me it is pretty amazing. I’ve always felt that dogs (and pets in general, to all you cat people) have this almost magic healing power, but seeing it work so well for so many people is highly moving.

In a survey I conducted online, 82% of people thought that service dogs were beneficial. However, 72% of people didn’t know that there were service dogs for psychological or psychiatric disorders. Only one pet owner that responded said that their pet did not sense emotional distress; the other participants all said that their pet recognises when their owner is upset or agitated, and react to the owner’s troubles.

As I type, Dexter has his head on my lap – which is a tad inconvenient, if I’m honest, but he makes me feel warm and safe. Official or not, service animals are hugely beneficial regarding mental health, and deserve higher recognition.

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