Students at Newton High School in Connecticut are working to break the stigmas associated with mental illness by becoming peer advocates in their community. Through an extracurricular course, called the Exceptional Sidekick Teen Advocate Program, students who have expressed an interest in mental health, recovery and service dogs are selected to participate in the Dog Squad.
The selected students work directly with two young psychiatric service dogs in training: Harry and Jake. The one-year-old black Labrador retriever siblings spend school days with the students who take care of them. As members of the Dog Squad, after class the students attend mandatory workshops twice a week for Mental Health Peer Advocate Training and Psychiatric service Dog Training.
Students learn how to take the dogs out to the bathroom, how to walk them on a leash, how to get them in and out of their crates properly and are also responsible for learning what to do if someone wants to pet one of the dogs. The work they do to incorporate and maintain the specific trainings is vital in helping Harry and Jake to become successful service dogs.
The students are also taught about mental health topics that they may come across in their community, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, psychosis, eating disorders, recovery and how recognize that everyone struggles with mental illness differently. They also learn effective listening skills and self-care practices. The goal of the program is to educate the students on mental health so they can go out into their communities and be confident in helping those struggling to feel comfortable talking about what they are experiencing. After Harry and Jake graduate from their training programs, they will each go on to become service dogs to people in need of their abilities to help them cope with their mental illness.
Mental illness comes in many forms and is experienced by each person differently. Many times the symptoms of the illness or the consequences of the symptoms can leave a person anxious, depressed, hopeless and isolated. Service dogs offer a unique, non-judgmental, ever-present comfort and can even serve as an early alert system to mood swings, emotional changes and even seizures. They can lessen the severity of anxiety-type symptoms by offering a variety of calming behaviors. The consistency of the service dog also eases fear of the unknown because they are always available to go to for assistance or even rescue medication.
The way a service dog responds to their handler depends on the symptoms their handler presents. For anxiety symptoms, the service dog will provide deep pressure, alert the handler to behavioral changes and provide grounding. When a handler is experiencing mood swings, the service dog alerts the handler to the upcoming behavior change and also provides a distraction to the swing. For symptoms of apathy, the service dog responds with tactile stimulation and playful behaviors. In response to self-mutilation, service dogs will interrupt the behavior and provide grounding and a deep calming pressure. For those experiencing hypersomnia, the service dog will wake the handler up. Some individuals will have memory loss or memory problems. In situations when this happens the service dog will remind the handler about medications, prompt the handler about important routines and find lost items. When a handler is withdrawn, the service dog will initiate interactions, encourage the handler, and serve as a social ice-breaker in public. These descriptions do not include every single way in which a service dog provides assistance to their handlers, but rather serve to show just how much service dogs can do for people with various mental health illnesses.
(June 4, 2015). Psychological/ Psychiatric Service Dogs (Bipolar, Anxiety disorders, PTSD). Wilderwood Service Dogs. Retrieved from http://wilderwood.org/psychological/index.html
Silber, A. (May 20, 2017). NHS Teen Mental Health Advocates Help Train Exceptional Sidekick Service Dogs. The Newton Bee. Retrieved from https://newtownbee.com/nhs-teen-mental-health-advocates-help-train-exceptional-sidekick-service-dogs/