Sometimes a dog is better than Prozac
By Suzanne Walker
I stretched, and the book at the edge of the couch toppled off. The instant it clapped on the hardwood floor, Simon jerked to attention and scuttled halfway across the room. From a safe vantage under a table, he warily eyed the fallen book. I nodded ruefully, “You’re my emotional support dog and you’re ten times more anxiety-ridden than I am!”
Two months before, my therapist had explained to me that an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) could provide therapeutic support for a person suffering from a mental illness, such as my bipolar disorder.
“They don’t have any particular training,” Christine Denning had elaborated. “An ESA will not walk you across the street or open your fridge for you. Instead, the relationship between you and your dog is what will be beneficial. If you’re feeling so low that you think you just can’t get out of bed today . . . now that’s not an option. Your dog will need a walk! And his companionship may generally put you more at ease.”
ESAs are different from the task-trained Labradors and German Shepherds we’ve seen at intersections, waiting to signal their owners when it’s safe to cross. Service Dog Central, an online community of service dog partners and trainers (www.servicedogcentral.org), advises there is no specific skill requirement for an ESA beyond being “reasonably well behaved by pet standards.” As a result, the process surrounding an ESA can be much smoother.
However, there are guidelines. A medical doctor (psychiatrist) must write a “prescription” letter supporting a patient’s need to keep an ESA. This documentation legally defines the animal, allowing the dog owner to request accommodation for the ESA in housing and on airplanes. It must include both the patient’s diagnosed mental illness and an explanation of symptoms that obstruct the carrying out of “major life activities.” My own letter, for example, addresses my anxiety that escalates when I’m working alone at home. “The supportive presence of Ms. Walker’s ESA,” my letter states, “will make the apartment a safe and secure environment for her.” Other examples of psychiatric benefits include nonjudgmental, positive interaction and unconditional affection. Perhaps most important is the “reality check” that can help short-circuit an emotional spin cycle; interacting with the dog can help the patient stay centered and calm.
Once documentation is handled, the search for the right dog can begin. The American Kennel Club (www.akc.org) offers help finding a responsible breeder, as well as details about breed characteristics and how to choose a dog suited for your lifestyle. Alternatively, ESAs can be found at a shelter or rescue agency. In LA County there are six Department of Animal Control adoption centers, located in Agoura, Baldwin Park, Gardena, Castaic, Downey and Lancaster. Other non-profit rescue organizations, such as KenMar, can be found online (also see www.Petfinder.com). Tamara Clark, founder and head trainer of the LA dog obedience school Bark & Clark, suggests getting a mature dog. While raising a puppy can be an amazing bonding experience, Clark notes it has inherent challenges—potty training, teaching the animal to walk on a leash, and the teething phase. Given the stressful nature of the puppy-raising process, Clark concludes that “a puppy may not be best for an emotional support dog.”
Does this mean a shelter or rescue dog is the best option for an ESA? Perhaps, says Clark, but you have to be aware of the dog’s personal history. My ESA Simon, for example, is sensitive to loud noises and abrupt movements, and is fearful of men. None of this could be readily detected on meeting him once at the shelter. Private rescues often place their dogs in foster homes, where they can be “interviewed” in a more relaxed environment than a crowded shelterkennel. Ultimately, Clark recommends, try to find a “clean dog” with the least amount of baggage.
Even though Simon was not required to have specific training, I signed up for a local obedience class. As Clark explained, it teaches “how to communicate to your dog effectively and clearly.” I worried that tackling new and intimidating experiences while training would make us both nervous, but was assured that, “Getting through those hurdles draws you closer together.” Clark was right on all counts.
As I take one small step after another with Simon, I have come to realize that he may never be the poised service dog I envisioned, just as I may never completely conquer my bipolar symptoms. Still, he’s a great ESA for me and has taught me acceptance of both his challenges and my own.
Photos by Viliam Klein
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~ The Child Whisperer, Harry the Catanimal support dog, ESA, rescue dog