In my last blog post, I discussed my experience of being on the placement wait list for a psychiatric service dog. I had stated that being on the placement wait list is tough. I found handler training even more difficult. The first few months home were more taxing than the other two experiences combined.
In this blog post, I am going to discuss why I found the first few months after handler training hard.
I think there is a common misperception that once a person leaves handler training, the training is complete, little work is required, and the service dog is going to provide instant relief to a psychiatric disability.
Although I worked hard to not have this expectation, somewhere deep inside, I believe I was still looking for a magical relief, with little work, to improve my mental health.
Don’t get me wrong. Mollie has significantly changed my life since we were matched in January 2018. (I will discuss the positive life changes in a future blog post). However, as I left handler training, I simply did not comprehend the amount of time, the patience and the daily training it would take to get to the incredible improvement Mollie has made in my life over the past year.
I left handler training physically and emotionally exhausted. Yet, I was excited and full of vigor to start a new life with Mollie.
Then came the 2 1/2-hour flight home. Both our lives changed in an instant when we touched down in Seattle.
I was now living with a psychiatric service dog. While being on the waitlist, I had only fantasized about the incredible help Mollie was going to bring to my life. I did not spend enough time considering the significant changes I would be making in my own daily activities when having a service dog at my side. Changes that are unlike having a pet dog.
Extra time had to be added into all my daily tasks. I had to think about Mollie. Where was I going to park my car for the ease and safety of Mollie? Where was I going to sit on public transportation so that Mollie could ride comfortably? Where was there green space for Mollie to potty prior to entering a building? Where can I properly dispose of Mollie’s waste when we are out, or would I have to carry it with me? How was I going to handle the high volume of people and dogs approaching us out of fascination? How would I deal with the frequent requests to pet Mollie? How would I deal with people staring at Mollie trying to get her attention? How would I deal with the uncomfortable feeling of having to correct Mollie’s behavior in public with others watching? How would Mollie do with sitting quietly in multiple therapy and twelve step meetings each week? How do I deal with all types of weather conditions that I could previously avoid?
As a team, we were constantly working through these and many other new situations the first few months. In addition, I had to remind myself that everything in Mollie’s environment was new. New smells. New noises. New experiences. New routines.
LASD does an incredible job training our dogs. There is no way that LASD can train for all of the experiences a service dog will encounter when placed with their handler. It is up to the handler to take the extensive information learned during handler training and apply it to their lives. It is not easy. It takes time, consistency, persistency and patience.
In addition to the new routines and new experiences we were learning to manage together, there was also the “alert” game that had to be taken into consideration when we first came home.
If you haven’t read Katie’s blog post about alerting to medical conditions, please read that now. It is important to understand what LASD can train a service dog to alert to prior to handler training and what type of conditions will need to be trained by the handler once you are home.
Psychiatric conditions vary greatly. Alerting to psychiatric conditions is one area that LASD cannot train a dog for prior to handler training. What I did learn in handler training, was how to train Mollie, through repetition, to recognize my psychiatric conditions once I was home. It was important for me to understand the signs of my conditions and when I wanted Mollie to alert to them.
For me, the psychiatric conditions I want Mollie to alert to are potential panic attacks, potential dissociative episodes, and potential flashbacks. It is important to know that Mollie’s alert does NOT stop any of the above from happening. The alert tells me that something is coming. I then have time to use tools (paws up, breathing, grounding, call a support person, music, etc.) to prevent the occurrence or to leave the situation all together to have my episode in a safe space.
This is similar to a low blood sugar alert. Mollie’s low blood sugar alert does not stop my blood sugar from continuing to drop. Mollie’s alert lets me know I need to take action. I need to stop my activity, eat something, and stabilize my blood sugar prior to resuming any activity.
During the first few months, I had to be hyper aware of when I was getting to a point that I would like Mollie to alert to a psychiatric condition. I would then play the “alert” game with Mollie. I had to do this every time I thought I was about to have an episode. This was to train Mollie to alert me at the specific point I wanted to be alerted to in the future. This took time. Months, not days. Even more so because I wanted Mollie to catch three very different types of episodes.
I want to stress that Mollie does not stop any of these conditions from happening. What Mollie does is that she alerts me to the potential of one of my conditions occurring. Only I can actually stop an event. Sometimes I need multiple tools to stop or slow down an event from happening. Paws up is only one available tool.
The “alert” game can be exhausting. However, it was essential for the first few months if I wanted Mollie to alert me to my psychiatric conditions.
Now add in my previous discussion about dealing with new experiences as a handler team. Then throw in the fact that Mollie is my psychiatric service dog after all. I could not forget about the additional variable of my daily mental health symptoms. Stress tends to increase my mental health symptoms.
The stress of the first few months can compound quickly and feel overwhelming. Regardless of how I am feeling, Mollie still needs consistency in routines, exercise, work and love. This is where support systems can help significantly.
It was the combination of all of the above discussed that made the first few months home more taxing than being on the placement wait list and handler training combined.
As Mollie and I worked through our first few months together, our bond continued to grow. Yes, I felt an instant connection with Mollie when we first met. After two intensive weeks of handler training, I felt even closer to Mollie. The depth of the bond required for a service dog team to work seamlessly together took many more months.
Bringing a service dog home is like moving in with a significant other for the first time. Now imagine moving in with a significant other after knowing each other for two weeks. There is always turmoil as each individual adjusts to the other’s idiosyncrasies. Each test each other’s boundaries. However, as a service dog handler, I had to set the rules in the relationship for our relationship to work. Something I wasn’t accustomed to.
Like any relationship, as life becomes consistent and predictable for each party, boundaries are established, and each day comes with a little more ease. Before you know it, the bond seems unbreakable. It simply takes time with a service dog. For Mollie and me, it was around the 11-month time frame that I could feel the difference in our bond. It is hard to quantify or explain. I could tell it was different. Our bond had reached a deeper level than I had felt, and we were truly in sync.
As I stated at the beginning, being a psychiatric service dog handler is as hard. Especially, the first few months.
With the willingness to work hard and the patience for growth, having a psychiatric service dog is extremely rewarding. I only wish I had spent more of my wait list time adding support tools and systems to improve my mental health as much as I could. Having every tool and support system available at the time of being matched can only help ease the transition into being a successful psychiatric service dog team.