Canine companions can be effective emotional support dogs

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Establishing a strong support network is a key ingredient in any type of recovery. Typically, support might consist of medical professionals, peers, religious organizations, family, friends and even social media.

What might be just as beneficial is thinking slightly outside the box and relying on animal companions as support.

Veronica Morris, a founder of the nonprofit Psychiatric Service Dog Partners (PSDP), headquartered in Rock Hill, explains, "Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, three things are required for a dog to be a service dog. 1. The handler must have a disability. 2. The dog must be trained to do work or tasks that help with the disability. 3. The dog must be well behaved in public, because if it isn't, the dog can legally be kicked out of the public place."

Psychiatric Service Dog Partners, founded in 2012, is unlike traditional service dog organizations because it is completely volunteer run by people with disabilities. Its mission is to promote the mental health of people using service dogs for psychiatric disabilities by educating, advocating, providing expertise, facilitating peer support, and promoting responsible service dog training and handling. The organization's main avenues of support are an extensive website and a free online peer guidance group.

Service animals are specifically trained to help a person with their disability, whereas emotional support animals (ESAs) help their disabled handlers by just being there to provide comfort and companionship.

ESAs, also called "emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companion animals" by the Americans with Disabilities Act, are not allowed in public no-pet areas, with the exception of flying, but are allowed in no-pet housing.

Unfortunately, there are several websites offering to "certify" animals; although they aren't breaking any laws, there is no legal meaning in what they do. This is something of which people should be aware. These scams, as well as people claiming their animal companions are Service Animals when they are not, make things even more challenging for legitimate service animals.

Morris faced discrimination with her service dog, Hestia, especially having an invisible disability. She was once kicked off a city bus by the driver who didn't believe she had the right to have her service dog ride with her. This driver decided to dispatch all the other local bus drivers to refuse to pick Morris up.

Morris experienced a panic attack and didn't feel comfortable riding the bus for months after the incident. Hestia is trained to intensely lick Morris when she senses a rise in anxiety levels, cueing Morris to utilize coping techniques to deescalate her symptoms.

Secondly, Hestia is trained to press off Morris arm and into her chest, called pressure therapy, which has been shown to release oxytocin and serotonin to help mitigate some symptoms.

If you have a disability that could be helped by a dog and enjoy dogs, then a service animal might be an important addition to your recovery. However, it is important to do the research first as it's a huge lifestyle change, can be expensive, and the proper training requires plenty of time and patience.

For more information, visitPSDP's website at psych.dog.

Laura Kaponer is a mental health advocate and social media blogger, as well as a volunteer with the local chapter of NAMI. #LauraKaponeris1in5 (as 1 in 5 Americans have a mental illness).

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