Pets as therapy
Any animal owner understands the joy that their pets can give. But what about additional support? More assistance dogs are being trained to help owners with mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, panic attacks and much more. We spoke to owners of assistance dogs, Abigail, Natalie, Alex and Ol, who explain the difference their pets have made in their lives.
Could you introduce yourself and your dog?
I am called Abigail, and I'm an equine student. Faith, my assistance dog is an 18 month old blue merle Border Collie and is primarily for autism and anxiety.
I'm Natalie, I'm 23 and my assistance dog is called Mitsy. She is a 2 year old Patterdale Terrier, and is a trained mental health recovery assistance dog for wellbeing.
I'm Alex, I'm 21 and my dog is Archie, an 11 month old Lurcher who is in training to be a psychiatric assistance dog.
My name is Ol, and I have 2 year old Vincent who is a Border Collie x Mini Poodle.
Natalie's Assistance Dog, Mitsy
How does your assistance dog help with day to day tasks?
Natalie: She makes sure I get up in the morning, so I don't stay in bed all day. She gets the post for me, and helps with daily tasks such as getting dressed and reminding me to take medication in the evening.
Abigail: Faith helps me to make and maintain routines; in the morning she helps me to get out of bed. During the day, while I am working on my computer doing coursework, she sits with me to monitor my stress levels. If my stress becomes too high, she closes my computer screen and lays on top of it. Throughout the day, she regularly performs deep pressure therapy to help me manage my anxiety. In the evening, she will help me remember to eat dinner by bringing me her food bowl, and she will remind me to take my medication.
Alex: Archie has a huge impact on me everyday. We enjoy days out, where his tasks will include crowd control (keeping me calm in crowds), guiding me in the right direction, and doing deep pressure therapy if needed. He is also training to alert to panic attacks, and to do medication reminders. If we are just at home he will still do deep pressure therapy and fetching things around the house.
Alex's Assistance Dog in Training, 11 month old Archie.
How does your dog help with your mental health?
Ol: Because of Vin I've been able to get through my first full course of therapy since starting in 2011. He makes me more comfortable and feel better about people looking at me and talking to me. He interrupts attacks and because of him I've been able to travel to places which were impossible before.
Alex: In the 9 months I have had Archie he has made a significant and almost unbelievable impact on my mental health. When I first saw him advertised for sale I was in and out of hospital. In those 9 months I have managed to get back into work, started studying and focusing on a career, made friends and made more of an effort with self care.
Assistance Dog Vincent, with owner Ol.
How does your dog help you through triggers, or bad situations?
Abigail: I struggle with sensory overload so when a classroom environment becomes too much, she will firstly alert me to the overload and if I am unable to "Snap out" of the overload, she will alert a member of staff. She will help me to get out of the building through guide work, help me to calm down using DPT (Deep Pressure Therapy) or tug, depending if I am in shutdown or meltdown, most importantly, she helps me to return to the situation by giving a small amount of forward momentum through guide work.
Abigail's Assistance Dog in Training, Faith.
Natalie: I have social anxiety so going to do food shopping is a big challenge for me. If it's really busy, Mitsy will sense my anxiety and if she can't bring me back to reality, she will take me out of the shop to a quiet area so she can ground me by doing DPT. She will also block people from coming close to me or behind me.
Deep Pressure Therapy is carried out by assistance dogs whereby they will use their weight to put pressure on their handler. This can be done by the dog resting their head, or leaning against or onto the handler which creates a calming and grounding effect.
Assistance Dog Flossie. As you can see, Assistance Dogs come in all shapes and sizes!
Are there any charities or schemes you would like to mention?
Natalie: Recovery Assistance Dogs for Wellbeing, which is the charity my girl is with. They help people to recover their wellbeing, and are registered Assistance Dogs. They have intensive training that helps protect their owner from anxiety, loneliness, panic attacks and much more. Recovery Assistance Dogs go through rigorous training that use modern training standards upheld by Kennel Club Accredited Instructors, and Association of Pet Dog Trainers that use positive reinforcement.
Abigail: I started an organisation called PAWtected as I found I was providing a lot of support to other community members with both pet and assistance dogs. This organisation has 9 stages which work through to and provide advice on training. Many have found this beneficial and have progressed with their training more than when they were with other organisations.
Here at The Innocent Hound, we were in awe of what these dogs are doing for their owners and handlers. As dog owners we understand the love that is shared between man and his best friend, but hearing how much pets can change someone's life is truly incredible. We would like to thank everyone who shared their stories with us, and wish Abigail, Natalie, Ol and Alex every success for the future with their four legged friends.
You can find out more about Assistance Dogs, by going to www.assistancedogs.org.uk