Dogs help people with psychiatric illness

Dogs are increasingly being valued for the help they give to people with psychiatric illnesses

Goodshoot/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) — Through her years as a canine search-and-rescue handler, Susannah Charleson unexpectedly came upon a grim scene in 2003 that left her emotionally scarred.

“I believe it may have been the remaining remnants of a dog-fighting ring, with evidence of tremendous cruelty and great suffering,” said Charleson.  “As many first responders report, it’s the things you don’t expect that actually get to you.”

The discovery so affected her that for about a year she began fearing her own five dogs would be harmed.  She became very anxious whenever she had to leave home and checked her locked door repeatedly and obsessively.  Charleson was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

What ultimately brought her out of her trauma was her own dog.

“My search and rescue dog Puzzle was an extremely forceful personality,” said Charleson.  “She could actually intervene and redirect the emotions I was having.”

Her experience inspired Charleson to train rescue and shelter dogs for service to people with mobility disorders and psychiatric disorders such as PTSD, trauma response disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and disorientation.

Each dog she trains is tailored to the particular need of the client.  In every case, though, the dog’s job is to focus on, and be reliably responsive to, his human partner.

It’s not every dog that can be trained for this type of service, with estimates varying from one in 30 to one in 1,000 dogs that can be trained.

The training itself can take as long as two years.

Service dogs can be prescribed by a mental health professional, and they assist people during nearly every minute of their day.

Charleson said an example of who might benefit from service dogs are people diagnosed with PTSD who may have a situational fear that make them constantly anxious about someone behind them.  In that case, the dog tails the person to act as eyes in the back of his head.

In other cases, PTSD may manifest itself as extreme sensitivity to sound.

“They hear certain sounds and it triggers the flashback episode,” she said.  “So the dog can have a task that actually supports and embraces them until the clients will crumple, and the dog will actually stabilize them when they crumple.”

Regardless of the person’s particular mobility, psychiatric or emotional issue, every companion service dog provides a reassuring presence.

“I think a dog provides a constancy and a lack of judgment,” said Charleson.  “I think one of the psychiatric benefits is that a dog is here for you and they don’t have a human level of expectation.  They’re not going to be the one who says, ‘Snap out of it,’ or roll their eyes and say, ‘Oh it’s going to be another bad day with you.’  A dog is just here where you are, in the moment, and they don’t have that level of expectation, that level of judgment, that level of attitude that we sometimes give each other as humans.”

“So I think there is a comfort, and there is a peace in that relationship — that I can develop, that I can heal at my own pace, and I think my dog will support that,” Charleson added.


About transformational1

I have many interests and I have had a varied career. I am a semi-retired professional dog trainer, specialising in the use of positive reinforcement. I do some consultations, I run instructor workshops and I am setting up a Dogs and Psychotherapy Research Project. I have a law degree from Melbourne University (but have never practiced) and I am passionate about Human Rights. My first degree was in Sociology. I worked as a social researcher on issues such as low income housing, women's refuges and women in the workforce. I live in an inner suburb of Melbourne, Australia, and I have a German Shepherd called Chance.
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One Response to Dogs help people with psychiatric illness

  1. Marcela says:

    Excellent post and information. My Alex, an 11 year old mix breed, is the only being that can get me from being enraged to peaceful in a matter of seconds. I did not notice that until my girlfriend, Cynthia, pointed this out to me. After that, I started to pay more attention at my moods, and more than once she has come to me with a big smile on her face, for no apparent reason, and I have to check myself and you know what? I am angry. To me is like Alex telling me, “mom, don’t get angry,” and she is not trained to do this. Some dogs are just so in tune with their pet parents that to me this makes them more amazing than what I already thought they were:) Also, human cruelty, many times leaves me in shock and horror, but again, a dog, my first one, Casey, taught me how to forgive someone I just couldn’t find the heart to forgive:)


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