What It Is Like to Have a Psychiatric Service Dog

“You always mess up.”

“Everyone’s going to think you’re stupid.” 

“Of course that didn’t go well, you’re a failure.”

These thoughts race through my head anytime I feel things don’t go exactly right or when I make a mistake. There are times when I won’t go somewhere because I worry everyone’s going to judge me. Panic sets in, and I start crying because of all the negative self-talk. At night when I’m trying to go to bed, “what-if” scenarios pop into my head, and I think how I would handle them. I can’t go to sleep because I have to plan what I would do in these scenarios that most likely would never happen.

When you look at me, you don’t see this.

You see a shy woman who seems to have her life together: a loving husband, pursuing her advanced degree, and a fulfilling job. The only thing that hints at something more is a German Shepherd next to me with a patch that says “service dog.”

When people think of a service dog, they will often think of people who are blind, hearing-impaired or need other physical assistance. They think of people who have a more visible disability.

The purpose of a psychiatric service dogs might not always be so obvious, and therefore the public may ask a question, such as, “Are you training him?” or “What does he do?” For some individuals, these questions can be too invasive and range from a minor annoyance to feelings of their privacy being invaded. Asking if a service dog is still in training can make the individual feel that their illness seems trivial or is not genuine. I have found that when asked what my service dog is trained to do, it is usually just the public being curious, but some people do not want to discuss their disability to people they do not know.

As a Master’s student in a Clinical Mental Health program, I am more open to educating people about my disability and how my service dog helps me. I still teeter-totter between finding that balance of privacy and embracing my role as an advocate in the mental health field. On one hand, I like being able to just have my dog with me and go about my business. On the other hand, I know people are curious and if not educated will sometimes come to the wrong conclusions. While I have learned to keep most physical manifestations of my illness from coming to the surface, my service dog is not fooled by my poker face. He can sense when my heart rate starts to rise and can calm me down or allow me to remove myself from the situation before it becomes a full-blown panic attack. So while on the outside I may seem “normal,” my service dog sees a different story.

While I am advocating for mental health, I also feel that I have to advocate for legitimate service dogs. It seems more people who are not disabled are wanting to take their dogs with them so they just put a service dog vest on their dog and try to bypass the laws. This is a big issue in the service dog community. Since these dogs may not be properly trained, it can give the public a negative view of service dogs.

By educating the public about how some disabilities are not always apparently obvious, it helps them know that just because an individual does not look sick or physically disabled, it does not mean their service dog is not legitimate. How you decide to handle questions about your illness is your personal decision. For myself, I will keep advocating for mental health and the importance of psychiatric service dogs.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo by Wiggle Butts Photo

Find this story helpful? Share it with someone you care about.

Related to Mental Health

Graphic vector hand-drawn illustration of woman

When a Person With Mental Illness Hears, 'It Must Be Nice...'

“It must be nice” is often heard when someone feels another person’s “situation” is better than there’s; it also comes in varying levels of sarcasm. As someone with a mental illness, this phrase can send me into an anxiety attack. “It must be nice to sleep in.” I have to take anti-nightmare medication because my nightmares [...]
Photo of Kristen Bell and David Tennent

BBC3's #1in4 Campaign Has Celebrities Posting About Mental Illness on Social Media

If you see your favorite actor holding up four fingers on social media, it’s for a good cause. As part of its Minds Matter programming, BBC has launched a campaign, #1in4, to shed light on the prevalence of mental illness. #1in4 of us will experience mental health issues. Don’t ignore your symptoms. I’m helping @bbcthree [...]
man reaching out holding woman's hand at cliff edge with view of ocean support

To Those Struggling in Silence With Mental Illness

This one’s for the hopeless, the hopeful and everyone struggling in silence with mental illness. I know you’re hurting. I know how hard you’re fighting just to keep your head above water. I know how hard it is to fight a battle where your opponent is your own mind. I know you feel damaged and [...]
man on the phone

10 Ways to Support a Friend With Mental Illness When You're Apart

“My computer is three feet from my bed. When I can’t make it that far I take my laptop to bed with me. If I can’t sit up I use my phone. I guess connection is important to me.” — Fran Houston Connection is important to us all, but those who live with mental illness [...]