I Was Denied a Service Dog Because of My Mental Illness
I have a psychiatric and medical alert/response service dog who has helped me with tasks that I’m unable to do alone. My service dog is 11 years old and has arthritis in his hips and shoulders, he is on pain medications, and he has stopped wanting to work in public. So I took his lead, and retired him from public access work.
My health has declined since I trained him in 2013-2015, and I realize that I don’t have the energy it takes to train another dog on my own, but I definitely need a service dog to maintain my independence.
How a service dog has helped me.
He nudged me in public every few minutes to keep me grounded, he lay across my chest and lap to help with panic attacks, he guided me to safety if I dissociated out in public, and he stood in lines behind me to make space between me and the person behind me, creating a safer environment. I also have a bunch of medical conditions and he did other tasks for me around those illnesses, like getting help, picking up dropped items, interrupting self destructive behaviors like binging and purging food.
He is happy staying home now since I am mostly home, but he is comfortable staying at my condo alone too. He still will perform tasks at home on his own accord, and he is happy, healthy, and oh so loved.
When I applied to a new service dog program.
I applied to a service dog program that trains a dog for you, and you pay a lot of money for that dog. It seemed like the only option since I would fail a puppy at this point since I don’t have the energy to potty train and socialize the dog properly. Training would be super slow, and I might give up altogether. I was hopeful that paying for a program service dog would achieve my goal without wearing me down.
I filled out an extensive application and sent it to the program with the application fee. In the application I let them know I have dissociative identity disorder (see below to learn more about DID). I got an email back from them rejecting my application because my “health far exceeds what a service dog can do,” and that my “DID could overwhelm and stress a dog out.”
I have been told far too many times that I am too sick to be helped and this email harped on that wound. It reminded me of when I was at a terrible treatment center for eating disorders and my therapist there, and the clinical director told me I was “too sick to be helped.” And then they kicked me out of the program.
When I read the email, I started to wonder if I was overwhelming and stressing my dog out. I started wondering if I’ve hurt him by simply existing. And I’m incredibly angry and defeated because I was brutally honest in my application for this service dog program. I told them everything because I value honesty, and I’m not ashamed of my diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder. But maybe I should be ashamed.
My team treats me with the utmost respect and they treat all my parts with respect as well. They love all of my parts and they do not pass judgment. In fact, they go out of their way to make me comfortable and to help me because they know what I’ve survived as a child and as an adult, and they are adamant that they don’t contribute to the violence I’ve lived through.
I feel misunderstood by the service dog program. I feel judged without even meeting with them. And it’s really not OK that a service dog program who trains psychiatric service dogs is unwilling to train a dog for someone with dissociative identity disorder based solely on a misconception about this disorder.
I could revert back to ignoring my parts. I could apply somewhere else and just not tell them the part about DID. Or I could write this article shedding light on dissociative identity disorder and explain what it really is and what it really is not.
Nobody with a history of severe and ongoing trauma should ever be blamed for developing DID. And my family can assure you that my dog is calmer when I’m around. I don’t stress him out. In fact, he pouts if I have to leave him with family for the day. He acts like the world is ending, he ignores people who try to pet him, he sulks, and acts sleepy and unsatisfied. But as soon as he sees me return, he lights up like a Christmas tree. He smiles and squeals as he runs right into my arms. He licks my face until my skin is wet and almost raw. He presses his head into my chest and leans his whole body in to give me a grounding hug. As soon as he hugs me, my anxiety lessens, and I can take a deep breath. He gets so happy he runs in circles and jumps beside me as we walk inside from my car.
My diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder does not harmfully impact my dog, nor would it harm another dog. I am not violent (none of my parts are violent), in fact it’s much the opposite — my parts will do anything to keep the peace and resolve conflict. I have never once had an anger outburst, I have never treated my dog with anything but love and respect. It’s true I live alone and go to the hospital often, but my parents live five minutes away and take care of my dog when I am in the hospital or am too tired and symptomatic to take him for a walk. I also have an amazing dog walker who walks my dog every day, and my dog absolutely loves her and her dog. I feed my dog re-hydrated raw meat and a veggie and fruit mixture. He gets his favorite kind of chew/bone after dinner, and I give him his pills in cream cheese because he’s not a fan of peanut butter. He gets a puppuccino when we go to Starbucks, and he gets snackin’ bacon or munchkins when we go to Dunkin Donuts.
He has his own twin bed in the guest room that he naps on, he has a king sized bed in his playroom with blankets so he can dig and make a nest at night. He has a zillion toys, multiple dog beds, and is allowed on all the furniture in my house and my parents’ houses. He won’t get on furniture in another person’s house unless I give him the OK. And he has only experienced positive reinforcement as a training tool. I do use the word “No” but never harshly. When he’s doing something he shouldn’t be doing, I remove him from the situation calmly and gently.
I’m sad the service dog program didn’t even offer me an interview to hear how my dog lives his best life. I didn’t get to explain to them that I have a lot of help. I wish they had talked with me in person to tell me that my tasks are too complex for them to train. I wish they hadn’t said that my dissociative identity disorder is the reason they don’t want to even entertain me getting one of their dogs, so that I could educate them on what DID really is, and what it is not. Surely some people with DID can be violent, but that’s true of someone without DID as well.
I know I’ll find a way to train a service dog after my current retired service dog passes the rainbow bridge, but I’ll have to hire my own help. I’ll have to train someone to help me. But if that’s the only way I can have a service dog, I’ll make it work, because that’s what I do when life knocks me down; I get up and get creative. At least this way I’ll get to adopt another pit bull mix as a service dog prospect, and I won’t have to accept a dog breed I don’t care for. And so be it if people judge me even more because of the breed of my future dog. My current dog is part pit bull/part vizsla, and he is the gentlest, calmest dog I know, even when really tested by nipping, barking puppies and toddlers who pull his tail and toes.
If you take anything away from this article, I want you to hear that dissociative identity disorder doesn’t necessarily make a person “crazy” or violent, and unsafe for dogs. All that DID means is that your memory is not linear and you have times of amnesia, and there are a lot of conflicting opinions and feelings inside. But personally, my dog has been my saving grace. I would never harm a canine — I believe them to be saints sent to Earth to help ease the pain of life.
This is just one tiny example of the misunderstandings of mental health conditions. I’m saddened to know that a service dog program who trains psychiatric service dogs will not train a dog for someone with dissociative identity disorder. The stigma associated with this illness complicates an already complicated life for the struggling person. I hope we can do better someday as a culture to accept those who are diagnosed with disorders that are highly stigmatized.
Everyone has parts of themselves, trauma or not. We say “a part of me wants to go swimming, but another part doesn’t want to get wet and cold.” Just like everyone else, those with dissociative identity disorder also have parts of ourselves, but in the case of a patient with DID, these parts have taken extreme roles in our system to try to keep us safe.
We are not automatically more dangerous or unpredictable than anyone else. The other aspect of dissociative identity disorder that is different from any other human, is that we experience amnesia when certain parts take the reins. In therapy, I work to integrate these parts so that they are all communicating and agreeing on decisions I have to make throughout the day.
Dissociative identity disorder is a protective mechanism to keep a child from the horrific trauma they experience, to keep it locked away so that the child can keep living life as normally as possible. Most people wouldn’t be able to tell I have DID. It is often secretive and all parts try to pass as a singular being because if people knew about my parts they could hurt me again. Dissociative identity disorder is usually not covert, unless the person with DID is with super safe people who are knowledgeable about DID. The person struggling has to go through a ton of therapy, and test the waters to know it’s safe to be who we are. Personally, I am only able to allow my dissociative identity disorder to be witnessed when I’m in a therapy session with my team of providers who I trust completely.
Needless to say, we aren’t all violent, impulsive and dangerous. We have been shattered at the hands of an abuser, we need help, and mostly we need safety, love, and acceptance.
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