Inside the misunderstood world of psychiatric service dogs
Service dogs for people with psychiatric disabilities and mental illnesses play a complex role in society and struggle for legitimacy. Hopes&Fears meets with the trainers of the canine companions most qualified to deal with the nuanced needs of people with PTSD and other "invisible" disabilities.
On an overcast Wednesday morning in Dobbs Ferry, New York, Lu and Dale Picard greet us at the door to the center for ECAD, or Educated Canines Assisting With Disabilities. The Picards founded the nonprofit organization in 1995 to train service dogs for people with different disabilities, from children with autism spectrum disorders to people with Parkinsons. Of the 300 dogs the Picards have bred, trained, and looked after, 40 have been for veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. While service dogs for people with physical disabilities are readily incorporated into our society, service dogs for people with psychiatric disabilities or, as Dale puts it “invisible disabilities,” like PTSD have yet to see the same acceptance.
Service dogs weren’t always an option for those with psychiatric problems or brain injuries, but these programs have gained a certain momentum over the last decade. “When it came up big time was during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s when it started becoming popular,” Dale notes.
While guide dogs for the blind have a seemingly obvious function, service dogs for those with PTSD are trained to aid their owners in more nuanced ways. Dale explains, “I think the reason why it works for soldiers is that their PTS happened at a specific time in their lives and in a specific place, which wasn’t the United States. A dog can keep you grounded; you see the dog and know ‘I’m not in Iraq, I’m back here.’ Or you know something isn’t a bomb when someone leaves their coat over a rail somewhere. You wake up in the middle of the night because you thought you heard something, but your dog is still sleeping.”
ECAD (Educated Canines Assisting with Disabilities) was founded in 1995 by Lu and Dale Picard. ECAD's mission is to educate and place Assistance Dogs to help people with disabilities gain independence and mobility. ECAD has placed over 200 dogs, in over 25 states, which is made possible by more than 750 teens that have participated in their ECADemy Program. There are over 60 dogs in training at one time and over 30 people waiting to receive a dog.
The facility is located on the campus of The Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry. Founded in 1851, the Children's Village helps children and families who are struggling become productive, independent citizens who will enrich their communities and their future families.
↑ The ECAD (Educated Canines Assisting With Disabilities) facility located on the campus of The Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry, New York. October 14, 2015.
Iraq War veteran Charles Hernandez, a Bronx resident who suffers from PTSD, has been aided by his dog Valor, a Labrador-Great Dane mix, for the past four and a half years. Beyond the unconditional love of a dog, Valor, trained by ECAD, guides Charles away from potential conflict or triggering situations in his everyday travels, and reassures and calms him when his PTSD acts up. “Valor has spidey senses,” Charles says. “He can tell when someone’s coming to the door. He knows when someone’s a bad person. He lets me know what I should be prepared for. They have that extra sense in them, that power of intuition.”
Valor is invaluable to Charles, but he isn't welcome everywhere. Around the country, instances of veterans being denied the right to enter public spaces with service dogs are all too common. Charles blames a lack of education. “People don’t understand the laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The resistance I get when my dog isn’t allowed into a space is, ‘What are you doing? You’re not blind.’” The stigma associated with identifying yourself as a person with a mental illness or a psychiatric disability can be further damaging.
Dale recounts a specific incident with a veteran client: “William was trying to go to a restaurant about a year and a half after receiving his service dog. The restaurant owner was not letting him in. He got frustrated, his PTSD kicked in, and he was getting ready to start swinging. He'll be very quick to tell you that he had lost sight. The dog came up and put his paws on William’s shoulders, in between him and the person he was swinging at. The dog prevented the swing, and then started licking his face... William now frequents that restaurant. The restaurant owner was not aware of what it was, and he was going to kick him out before knowing anything about it.”
↑ Yellow lab Champagne goes down a slide at ECAD on October 14, 2015. Support animals for children with psychiatric disabilities are typically trained to participate on the playground. Brandy, a the black lab, pictured on the right, retrieves an aluminum can and other household items for ECAD co-founder Lu Picard, who is demonstrating typical tasks for support animals of people with physical disabilities.
Teaching clients to communicate with their service dog, and to ask for various forms of assistance depending on their disability, takes two weeks. The dogs themselves are intensively trained for a long period of time. “Assistance Dogs International (ADI) requires service dogs to have a minimum of 300 hours, but for our dogs, it’s 1,500 hours,” Dale explains. It costs ECAD approximately $25,000, per dog which includes housing, educating, feeding, and covering the animals vet costs, which they fundraise for.
The ECAD develops their dogs as caregivers throughout their entire lives, but there are people without disabilities who simply want to exploit other peoples' need for service animals and game the system just to get their canines wherever they please.
“Senior citizens with dogs in pet crates, lap dogs in pet crates sitting on airplanes, calling them emotional support dogs; it's confused the whole outside world as to what a service dog is,” Dale says.
The current controversy over “comfort animals” in college dorm rooms only adds to the confusion. (“A comfort animal is not a Service Dog according to Service Dog industry standards,” Dale notes. “The animals living in dorms are fine as long as they don't attend classes, go to the cafeteria or any where a professional SD goes.”) There's also the issue of inconsistencies of mental health practioners, when it comes to emotional support animals. Lu says that “doctors sign prescriptions left and right.” This too harms the community. “There are a lot of emotions that aren’t a disability. There’s a difference. You can have stress after seeing a car accident, but that doesn’t mean you’re disabled by it. If you have anxieties, to what effect? I think every kid in the world has anxieties the first day of school, but it doesn’t mean they have an emotional disability.”
Some will even try to bribe ECAD for their service dog uniforms. Lu notes, “We've had askers that have called willing to give us $10,000 for our capes so they could take their dog around the world with them because ‘it's a service dog’. They had no disability. It makes it hard for everybody else who needs these dogs.”
Others will try to sell untrained animals as service dogs. The Picards recently received a phone call from a dog warden in Florida. “A man was selling his dog claiming it was an ECAD service dog,” Lu recounts. “He sold it to a man, and this man called wanting to know if he could get a cape. I asked him, ‘What’s the breed?’ and he said ‘Oh, you know, it’s a little teacup poodle.’ I’m like ‘a teacup poodle’? How’s that taking care of you for your PTSD?” The Picards notified the local police department and threatened to press charges.
↑ Champagne received a scar on her nose from her mother Malibu, who became violent because of irritated mammary glands during nursing. Malibu had killed another one of her puppies in this process.
While people with serious psychiatric disabilities and mental illnesses benefit from their service dogs, the service dogs don’t always benefit from their masters.
“We come to find some of them are 30 pounds overweight,” Dale says. That's the other problem with psychiatric disabilities. “They like to make themselves feel good, and by feeding the dog, it makes them feel good. So they keep feeding the dog and now the dog is about 30 or 40 pounds overweight.” Conversely, sometimes the owners are trained enough to fully appreciate the dog’s capabilities and, in the process of taking care of the dogs, break their training. When the owners can’t take the dog’s cues, “the dog will either eventually take over and become the guard dog while this person is falling apart in public, or it will fall apart itself.”
“People don’t realize that the job goes beyond the training and placing of the dog. That’s the easiest part of the job,” Lu says. “You have to follow up on those people after that; that’s the hard part.” Recently, ECAD identified a blind client as having an emotional disability incompatible with service animals. “She’s had a lot of dogs over the years because she isn’t able to realize when the dog is working for her. She’s telling the dog to do other things, and the dog is getting emotionally disturbed itself and overeacting. When they don’t want to lead anymore, they may start biting their fur and other quirks showing they can’t take it anymore.”
For the past 15 years, ECAD’s facility in Dobbs Ferry has been on the campus of Children's Village, a residential treatment center for at risk, displaced youth. Whether they are underperforming in school, having behavior issues or suffering from neglect, abuse or a family history of drug addiction, the Children’s Village is committed to housing and schooling them. For awhile, this included training dogs with ECAD during their school days. “Since the recession, we no longer have those,” Dale says, disheartened. “The last of those classes shut down last winter. I have an after school program here that still teaches kennel management. That's all I have going now. I used to have kids teach 100% of the commands and work with the dogs. That is no longer the case today, which is very sad because it was very beneficial for the kids.”
What had been 90 minute vocational classes, teaching the kids to train and groom the dogs, has been all but eliminated due to budget cuts in the school system. “We’d spend 20 minutes a day teaching, 20 minutes a day grooming, about 40 to 50 minutes a day on training, with the last 10 to 15 minutes of class dedicated to just hanging out relaxing with your dog. They’re petting the dogs, getting themselves calm, and going back to class,” Dale told me.
As Dale shows me a picture of his last graduating class, he grimly admits, “three of these children are now dead,” having been returned to a troubled situation at home, now lives lost to gang violence. “We were the last program they let get cut, about three years ago.” Lu added, “It was good for everybody. Over time, the children started to open up, they started to learn.”
With school funding for the program dwindling, the Picards have had to refocus their mission on fundraising rather than teaching.
But their dogs have had their days. In 2011, the Picard’s dog Rosie, a golden retriever therapy dog, was the first canine in New York to become judicially approved to sit in the witness box to help a traumatized 15-year-old girl testify against her father who had allegedly raped and impregnated her. Rosie had helped the teen by nudging her when she was too scared to move and, in the process, sparked a national conversation about the use of service dogs in the courtroom.
“My dogs have gone to see the White House,” Dale says, proudly.
While the federal government and nonprofits around the country spend millions on experimental therapies between dogs and those with PTSD, the Department of Veterans Affairs still won’t cover the cost of these animals saying there is lacking research substantiating the efficacy of mental health service dogs.
"You look at a dog, you smile at the dog, you get a shot of oxytocin in your brain. It makes you more open, more willing to realize people. The veterans in Afghanistan and Iraq, their adrenaline was so high for so long, they can’t rebalance it. They receive medication to bring the adrenaline down, and they still need the oxytocin to go up. Babies do the same thing for people.” Taking one of the dogs outside to train, Lu throws an inflatable remote control across the empty schoolyard. Lu grabs the remote control. She says, “No one wants to be a soldier, day in, day out.”
↑ Dale and Lu's last full class from the Children's Village (left). Dale notes that three of these children lost their lives to gang violence after returning to their homes outside the treatment center. The capes ECAD provides to identify their service dogs (right).
A few service dog commands
YES – Marks the exact moment the dog completes the task correctly.
no – Marks the exact moment the dog fails to do the task or does something wrong.
OKAY – Lets to dog know that one task is finished so that it can go on to another one.
THAT'S IT – Let's the dog know he's on the right track and should keep trying.
DOG'S NAME - Gets the dog's attention and lets it know that a command is coming.
COME - The dog has to get close enough to touch you.
LET'S GO - Tells the dog we're moving together.
EASY - Tells the dog to be calm so he can focus on you.
MY LAP - Dog should put its paws on your legs (used when sitting).
SNUGGLE - Tells the dog you're going to hug him.
OFF - Dog must put its feet back on the floor (not on an object or person).
DOWN - Dog lies with its entire body flat on the floor.
WATCH ME - Dog should make eye contact with you.
FRONT - The dog positions facing your knees with its body lined up straight ahead of you.
STAND - Only the dogs four feet are touching the ground.
TURN AROUND - Dog faces the opposite direction.
DRESS - The dog must put its head through the backpack or collar.
KISS - Dog licks your hand or face.
BEHIND – Dog positions with its body lined up straight in back of you.
MOVE - Dog has to get out of your way, but not to any specific place.
UP - Dog places its front paws on a wall, table, counter, or object (not you!)
CLOSER - Dog moves in nearer to you.
GO IN - Dog crawls into a small space, like under a table or chair.
LEAVE IT - Dog must not even sniff, taste or even look at an interesting item.
GO - Means that the command that follows will be done at a distance from the handler.
FIX IT - Dog must untangle the leash from its legs.
GO TO BED - Sends the dog to its own place or bed (there can be more than one).
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post had mislabeled "psychiatric service dogs" as "emotional support dogs."