Here’s one of world’s greatest descriptions of a dog: “[Gander looks like] … the canine version of a forgetful old literature professor in a corduroy jacket with patches at the elbows.” I’ve never met Gander, but the photos of him remind me of a grown-up, bachelor party version of Little Orphan Annie’s dog, Sandy. With muscle and gravitas. Sort of a “Sandy joined the Marine Corps but still plays with marbles” kind of dog. And Sandy is a hero, there’s no doubt about it. Gander is the dog that Freedom Service Dogs placed with a man named Lonnie, who suffered from PTSD and autoimmune issues that can make mobility almost impossible some days. Lonnie sums it up simply: “Gander saved my life.”
Before he got Gander, Lonnie rarely slept and had paralyzing panic attacks several times a day. This is a smart, articulate man, a military veteran who won prestigious awards for his poetry, who spoke around the country and the world at universities, Health Care Conferences and was a full professor on the faculty of two health sciences academies, among many other accomplishments. In other words, a successful professional struck down by a series of events, some of which he described to me as “worse than horrific.” But now that he has Gander, life is different. When Lonnie and Gander return home at night, Gander turns the lights on before Lonnie enters so he is not forced to walk into a dark room. Gander stands between Lonnie and jostling crowds in public places, and will even put his paws on Lonnie’s chest in an environment likely to cause panic attacks. “Time to leave Dude.” Lonnie is smart, and when Gander “talks,” he listens.
Gander (who is up for Dog Hero of the Year for the American Humane Association) is a Psychiatric Service Dog (PSD), a dog specifically selected and trained to assist people with psychiatric challenges (like PTSD) or developmental neuronal disabilities (like autism spectrum disorder). They are distinct from “therapy dogs,” in that they 1) live full-time with the person in need and 2) are trained to respond in specific ways that ameliorate the challenges their owner or charge is facing. Some examples of a PSD’s tasks are interrupting a person with OCD and redirecting him or her, entering a dark a room or house first to assure their owner that there is no danger, waking up someone with PTSD from a nightmare, and reminding their owners to take their medication.
I was motivated to write about this for several reasons, one being a raft of questions about PSDs after a brief comment here and on Facebook related to grading papers for my UW class on “The Biology and Philosophy of the Use of Psychiatric Service Dogs.” The student’s first paper focused on the biological issues, (broadly defined) and included a description of the dogs, what knowledge we have about their effectiveness and how the job might impact the welfare of the dogs themselves. Here is just some of what the students and I learned, related to the costs and benefits of PSDs.
HOW EFFECTIVE ARE THE DOGS? There is a raft of anecdotal evidence that suggests that in some contexts, the dogs can be life savers. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs Department, [scroll down to “Veterans Affairs” for the pdf on service dogs] veterans diagnosed with PTSD have reported less hyper-vigilance, better sleep (sometimes being able to sleep at all), an increased sense of security and a decrease in the need for psychotropic medications. However, there are concerns that most of the evidence of effectiveness is “subjective” and anecdotal. Although I’ve been trained as a scientist, or perhaps because of it, I find the concern about a lack of “data” interesting. Given that most of the symptoms of PTSD are subjective themselves (increased fear, vigilance, lack of ability to sleep, intrusive re-enactments etc.), why would we not believe vets when they say the dog is helping them? We base the effectiveness of pain medication on the reports of people who take it, because what matters is that the person feels better, not what an MRI tells us about activity in the areas of the brain that mediate the perception of pain.
Certainly we have a great deal of evidence that the presence of a dog increases the level of oxytocin in the body in most people, and that oxytocin can have a profound (and positive) effect on the body and the mind. In an earlier blog about AAA and AAT (Animal Assisted Activities and Animal Assisted Therapy) I cited studies that found even brief visits from dogs decreased the perception of pain after surgery, that petting dogs boosts one’s immune system and makes us feel safer and more secure. (If you are interested in more about AAA and AAT dogs I have a DVD of a 1/2 day seminar on that very topic.)
It’s not much of a stretch to generalize the potential positive effects of the right dog on someone suffering from conditions like PTSD or autism spectrum disorder. However, that doesn’t mean that dogs are good for everyone. Dogs are a lot of responsibility, and are require far too much care and attention for some patients. Every dog, of course, is not appropriate for every person–just finding and training dogs stable enough to be PSDs is a huge project, requiring not just the selection of the right dog, but hundreds of hours of training time to match a dog and a patient. This is not to say that I am not in support of more research; it would be extremely helpful to gather data about predictors of good matches, more about the mechanisms that create the positive effects and what is needed to prevent problems from occurring. However, a need for more information doesn’t negate what we have already, and if we use the same criteria for PSDs as we do for pain killers, it seems we already know a lot.
WHAT ABOUT THE DOGS? Asking if the presence of a dog can truly help someone suffering from neurological issues is one thing, but it’s another thing altogether to take the perspective of the dog. That was, in part, the charge of my students, to ask what effects being a working PSD might have on the dogs themselves. Here are some of the concerns:
Are the dogs themselves safe? Some psychiatric disorders result in lack of impulse control and an increase in aggression. That is why the good programs (examples are Freedom Service Dogs in Denver and Pathway Home, to name a few) are exceptionally careful to screen potential recipients and only place dogs in homes in which they believe that the dogs are safe and the person will benefit rather than being overburdened.
How hard do the dogs work? Obviously this varies greatly, but a study by Burrows et al raised concerns about dogs placed in families with children with autism spectrum disorder. The authors found that some of the dogs were expected to be “on” for most of the day, and were allowed too little time to rest. In some cases, the children were borderline abusive to the dogs, and the parents, in the author’s opinion, were not aware of the dog’s visual signals of discomfort and distress. Clearly, I would argue, the welfare of the dogs themselves should be a high priority, both for the sake of the dog and for the safety of others. (Tragically, in 2012 a service man’s PSD killed a six-year old boy. The veteran was suffering from PTSD himself, but there is no way to know what triggered the dog’s behavior.) However, the incident brings up the next question:
What effect does the work have on the dog? What is it like for a dog to live with someone who is anxious all the time? I asked this question of Lonnie, wondering what effect his symptoms have on Gander. Refreshingly honest, he answered me by referring to the “empaths” of Star Trek, who took on the emotions of others to free up the victims. “Sometimes I think that describes Gander,” a dog who is not only rock solid but seemingly in touch with the emotions of others. Lonnie describes Gander as a dog who intuitively senses when others are needy, and goes to them and offers exactly what that person needed at the time. What is the cost to Gander? We’ll never know, but it does seem that in his case he is truly a dog that has found his calling, and from talking to Lonnie, I expect that Gander has a wonderful home with an owner who loves, respects and adores him. You can read more about them on Lonnie’s blog, Veteran Traveler. Full disclosure: I’m voting for Gander for Dog Hero of the Year as soon as I finish writing this blog, not just for his work with Lonnie, but for protecting a young girl from what looked like a serious attack from another dog.
This “new work” of dogs is a huge issue, and I’ve only touched on a small piece of it. Currently the US Department of Defense has stopped funding PSDs for veterans until there is more research to support their effectiveness. (Go to veteran, author and PSD dog owner Louis Carlos Montalvan’s site to find his blistering criticism of this decision.) There are also controversies about whether the dogs must all be trained by organizations like Freedom Service Dogs or self-trained. The list goes on, but hopefully this introduction will spark some conversations about this very new, and very ancient, “work” of dogs… making people feel better.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: We had a contest on Facebook to name one of the ewe lambs we’ll be keeping as part of the flock. One lamb is the daughter of my favorite ewe, Lady Godiva, a lovely, benign and prolific ewe who gives us healthy, wonderful lambs year after year. This year she had triplets, and unlike all the other ewes with triplets, she is raising them herself and they are thriving. (Rosebud had triplets and rejected one at birth (Ralphie), Solo had triplets but almost died in the process and her smallest female has been on a bottle since birth, and Spot had triplets but couldn’t milk out of one side of her udder and now out of neither, so all 3 are 100% bottle lambs.) Every year I have hoped for a ewe lamb from Lady Godiva, and finally this year she had 2 boys and one female. The little girl’s distinctive markings and her curious, outgoing personality is probably why I have become so attached to her. Here she is, with her new name, courtesy of “Name the Lamb” contest winner Cindy M and in a pose fitting of her name and personality– I give you (drum roll) Lady Baa Baa:
For those of you not on Facebook, we had 488 entries, many of which suggested more than one name. Wow. That prolific response inspired me to use the suggestions for the other lamb that we will be keeping, the female lamb of lead ewe Barbie, who had twins this year. I have also waited for a female lamb from her, because although she can be an absolute witch to dogs (not anymore to Willie, we got that sorted out this spring), she has gorgeous lambs and has been a trouper mother over many years. Although she is black, her lambs are both all white, and because we have several others who look like clones, I haven’t gotten to know her as well.
However, I spent some time with Barbie’s female lamb the last few evenings, and chose the name suggested by Micheal C, because she reminds me of a cupcake with vanilla icing. We’ll see if she stays sweet, or becomes The Enforcer as she gets older, like her mother. Here she is, our little Cupcake, with Momma Barbie staying close by:
And here are Spot’s triplets, who are still being bottle fed five times a day. The lambs were struggling for weeks, they couldn’t seem to get the hang of doing more than nibbling on the bottle, but they are thriving now. Whew. [Thanks to Katie for coming out and taking the photos!]