Thursday, April 18, 2013

Service 2/3

Welcome back – this is part two of a three part blog post about Mac as a service dog.  If you missed post number one, click here to read that.  (also just because I love this song, here’s the soundtrack from that post again if you want to bop along to something as you read)


Let's take a second to go off on a tangent that will eventually tie-in.  Namely, a few months back when I started working as a dog trainer.  I got a question about Service Dogs one day, and what it would take to train one.  And being newer to the field (I'm coming to realize this is a really common thing for any dog trainer to work with), I said "I'm not sure, but I'll do some research."

Here's the very condensed version; my research turned up that a Service Dog has but two requirements: 
1. they must be well-behaved in public (though there is no requirement for them to pass any kind of certification**).
2. they must provide a service that the handler/owner is unable to do for themselves, which helps them live a quality life (though there is no requirement for them to pass any kind of certification**).  

This does not mean the dog is just happy and comforts them in times of emotional distress.  It means the dog does something very specific which helps the person, and is something the person is incapable of doing themselves.  There are obvious examples of this; Guide Dogs help the blind navigate a sighted world.  Alert Dogs help the deaf know when there's an sound or alarm to signify a fire, a phone call, or a doorbell.  Those dogs are very specifically trained in a program to identify their handler's needs.

Then there are dogs who perform a service which they may have been trained for, or that the dog itself has identified as a need in their handler.  There are dogs who can smell when their diabetic handler's glucose levels are low and alert them to take their insulin.  There are dogs who can sense abnormalities in their handler's heartbeats.  There are dogs who sense an impending psychiatric episode in their person, and give them something else to focus on so they can avoid a damaging incident.***

I read that and I got a bit of a hitch in my throat.  And I immediately wrote the Mister at work with what I thought was a hair-brained idea.  But his response was a pretty straight forward: yes. yes you're right, it is a good idea.  let's go for it.

Mac has been a foot-sitter since he was a puppy.  I joke that it is a good way for him to pin a person down so they have to keep petting him.  He just wiggles his butt into your legs and plunks down on top of your sneakers while giving you a "Please sir, can I have s'more?" sort of look.  Because he's a fairly big guy, that weight settling on your foot will almost certainly get your attention.  Mac will do this to darn near anyone given the chance.  And yes, he does it to me.

But for me, he saves foot-sitting for one occasion:  I start to get that intense focus, I start heading down the hill into a panic attack, and Mac will get up from wherever he is, calmly walk over, sit on my foot, press his body into my legs, and make sure I see the "Shift to low-gear or $50 fine" sign.  As I pet him, or take him for a walk, or otherwise switch from focusing on something inane, to him, the tension relaxes just a little bit, and more than once, he has helped me avoid an attack altogether.  On other occasions, he stays with me through the attack portion, and during that time his behavior shifts - he will make a point of pushing his body into me - a sort of "swaddling of dog" for me.

This is not just a dog being comforting. This is a dog letting me know that I need to take action to avoid a panic attack.  And if the Mister sees him do it, he helps me get out of that head-space too.  This is a dog doing a very specific thing to help me in a way that I can’t help myself.  

So back to this doctor I went to see.  

I described my panic attacks, saying something to the affect of "I struggle to call them panic attacks, because I have no desire to be my own personal version of WebMD and make myself a hypochondriac through self-diagnosing."  He responded with [and I paraphrased a bit here, obviously]:

While I appreciate the sentiment, you are spot on.  You are having panic attacks, that description is on par with a legitimate anxiety disorder.  It is common.  What is less common is the way you have begun to manage that phenomena.  If your dog truly does what you say, and he truly alerts you in a way that helps you avoid or better navigate an attack, he is doing something for you that you cannot do for yourself.  He appears to fit the criteria laid out for a Service Dog.  But less common or not, I am happy to help you in continuing that practice, because it sounds very beneficial to you and your lifestyle. 

And then I cried in the middle of the doctor's office.  Because Mac is a great dog.  A fantastic dog.  I am so proud of him that a doctor has agreed with me that he is providing this service to me, and is validating that service from a medical professional's standpoint.  But I am again, ashamed to admit just how much this helps me, and how often.  Like I am disappointing others by admitting I benefit from a dog's actions.  I guess I had hoped in some little corner of my mind that he would be all "Naw, you're fine.  That's not a panic attack, those dishes really DID need to get done to avoid death and destruction.  Don't worry about it.  Totally normal.  Everyone does that."

So he was kind enough to write out a note which validates Mac's service to me (in my research I found this is helpful for Service Dogs who provide a service which is not immediately recognizable, though I am not by law required to ever show anyone this note, it's sort of a comfort blanket for me.)  I have basically been prescribed Mac.

*Just in case you’re new here, I want to be very clear:  The information contained in this blog reflects only my PERSONAL opinions, and not those of any corporate entity which employs me to train pets.  I do not represent the pet store I work for here.

**I understand both sides of this non-requirement in the Service Dog world.  If someone benefits from a Service Dog, they should have the easiest path to that assistance as possible.  But in using that dog, I would personally really like to know that there are expectations I can have of that dog's behavior which will be maintained.  Now, guide-dogs certainly have programs for blind and alerting training.  But other types of service dogs do not have this kind of organization, and I just... Maybe this thought process needs to be another post for another time.  What I'm getting at here is please don't read this post and go "oh, so my dog can be a service dog just because I say it is."  Because that's really the wrong message to take away here.  And also it’s a federal crime to misrepresent your pet in such a way.

***Other examples I found in my research of Psychiatric Service Dogs:  Dogs who will lead a handler with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder out of a triggering situation.  Dogs who will remind handlers with depression to take their medication.  Dogs who will distract their handler with OCD to brush or walk them if they start self-harming rituals like picking at their skin.

Click here to read part 1 of this post
Click here to read part 3 of this post


Danielle said...

This is really interesting! I had no idea and thanks for helping me understand more fully about how your dog is part of it all.

Also, thanks for opening up about all of this. =)

Kp said...

Thanks for reading such giant chunks of serious text!