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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.

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Thinkstock photo by Wiggle Butts Photo

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