A behind the scenes look at what it’s like, from start to finish, to go through the process of getting a service dog for your child. I include all the pros and cons of getting a service dog for my child with anxiety.
My son was hospitalized at age 11 for more than a week. It was one of the longest weeks of both of our lives.
Despite the pain and anxiety, he did well. The nurses loved him. The doctors laughed at his sweet jokes. At some point, they all said essentially the same thing to me – He really misses his dog.
He told me over and over again that he thought could handle the nights with the strange lights and beeping, having to wake up for blood draws first thing in the morning, and being away from home if he could just “cuddle my puppy for a little while.”
A few weeks after he was released, we were in a particularly difficult therapy session.
He was struggling with anxiety, with attention, and with hypomania.
He kept repeating, “I could do this if you would just let me bring my dog with me.”
I agreed with him. “I think he could handle the anxiety of all of this if we could just bring the dog with us.”
The following week, in a follow-up appointment, the doctor brought up my son’s clear attachment to and love for animals.
“I think he is an excellent candidate for a psychiatric service dog.”
A Service Dog For My Child With Anxiety: Pros and Cons
The suggestion of a service dog brought on very mixed emotions for me.
Of course, I want anything that might help my sweet boy cope and feel better. But if I am being completely honest, there was a part of me that worried a service dog would stigmatize my already struggling to fit in son.
A few days later, my son was talking at the park with a couple of kids, stimming occasionally and clearly just a little bit different from the others. “He is different,” I thought. “It’s obvious, even without a service dog.” (Incidentally, he was telling the kids all about his pets. )
“What am I trying to protect him from? Why should what other people think keep him from something that might genuinely help?”
Then I came across this article by Beth Woolsey. Her son has a service dog. He benefits daily from the support provided by his “hero animal.” I was so moved by the obvious impact the dog had on her boy, and by her heart to share. It was her post that made me brave enough to take the next step.
By the end of the evening, I was sending emails and making phone calls.
Should My Child Have A Service Dog?
It’s been seven months since we began the process of getting my son a psychiatric service dog for his intense anxiety. I have learned so much throughout. I have been shocked and surprised at how intense it can be. I have been saddened and grieved at the ongoing stigma associated with psychiatric support. I have been moved to tears by the kindness and generosity of so many.
Here is what I have learned, the questions I’ve asked and the answers I would share with any family considering this option.
What is the difference between an emotional support animal and a psychiatric service dog?
In short, training and legality.
“An Emotional Support Animal is an animal that, by its very presence, mitigates the emotional or psychological symptoms associated with a handler’s condition or disorder. The animal does NOT need to be trained to perform a disability-specific task. All domesticated animals (dogs, cats, birds, reptiles, hedgehogs, rodents, mini-pigs, etc.) may serve as an ESA. The only legal protections an Emotional Support Animal has are 1) to fly with their emotionally or psychologically disabled handler in the cabin of an aircraft and 2) to qualify for no-pet housing.” – NSAR
Although my son does receive tremendous emotional support from our existing little pet dog, he also has panic attacks and manic episodes that make him a qualified candidate for a trained support dog. My son’s dog will be trained to apply proprioceptive pressure when my son is melting down, help him navigate crowds and keep him from harming himself and others.
“A Psychiatric Service Dog is a dog that has been trained to perform tasks that assist individuals with disabilities to detect the onset of psychiatric episodes and lessen their effects. Tasks performed by psychiatric service animals may include reminding the handler to take medicine, providing safety checks or room searches, or turning on lights for persons with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, interrupting self-mutilation by persons with dissociative identity disorders, and keeping disoriented individuals from danger. (A service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.)” – The ADA
This means my son’s service dog will not only have special training to assist him, but be legally able to accompany him at all times.
What Is The Process For Getting A Service Dog For Anxiety?
It’s pretty complicated, and unfortunately, there are not a lot of resources to help wade through the massive amounts of information and misinformation that exist.
The first step for us was a doctor recommendation. Any agency will require that a doctor provides information and diagnoses that determine a service animal to be an appropriate resource for the patient in question.
Once we had everything from the doctor, we started reaching out to agencies in our area. This is where it got difficult.
Although there are many programs that provide service animals free of charge to those who need them, the waiting list in our area for a psychiatric service dog is almost three years long.
Knowing my son could benefit today from this type of support, we started to look into other non-profits that charge a fee. (Warning – there are unscrupulous trainers and agencies who take thousands of dollars for training and services never fully executed. Researching providers is a very important step. Getting to know the agencies, their training programs and guarantees are critical in protecting yourself in this process.)
Finally, after reaching out to all of the reputable service dog providers in our area, it became clear that this is a significant expense.
How Much Does A Service Dog Cost?
The short answer is, “A lot”.
The daily training these animals require, in order to provide the types of assistance listed above (i.e. proprioceptive input, self-harm prevention, etc.) lasts for months if not more than a year, before the animal is placed with a child. It’s expensive.
Most service animals cost more than $15,000. (One agency in our area quoted us $31,000.)
When we finally decided on a reputable agency, they assisted us in fundraising a portion of the money we needed. Thanks to so many sweet friends and even strangers on the receiving end of a Go Fund Me email campaign, we were able to raise the first $10,000. (Maybe in another post I will share all the ways my friends helped us raise the money – even getting their kids involved. Needless to say, we were in tears and overwhelmed at the generosity and grace shown to our family.)
We then took the money we had been saving to replace my 1999 Toyota 4Runner to pay the remainder of the fee. I figure I am going to be driving a dog around with a bunch of boys. I really don’t need a new car.
With that, the agency began looking for and training a dog specific to my son’s needs.
Please, allow me to introduce you to my son’s service dog, Sammy.
My Son Has A Service Dog – Here’s How It Works
Let me start by sharing our experience in actually training for, and transitioning Sammy, into our home.
What Bringing Service Dog Home Is Like
SELECTING A DOG
We used Doggie Does Good, an organization in Central California, to select and train Sammy for us. At first, I was a little overwhelmed with how much information they required upfront. The questionnaire was extensive, and they even requested a video of some of my son’s most challenging behaviors. It was so much more important than I realized.
Doggie Does Good matched our son with the perfect dog for his needs and temperament. After seeing the other families in our training, it was clear that all of the dogs were carefully selected based on the information provided in advance.
TRAINING AND TRANSITION
My son and I attended a six-day training in order to learn how to handle Sammy and transition him home. I was a little terrified going into it – my son is not used to six-hour days, six days in a row and I was mostly worried about him melting down. I needn’t have worried. Not only was my son super excited to be there and meet Sammy, but the staff at Doggie Does Good was phenomenal. They were flexible, kind, caring and supportive throughout the training. It was clear they love dogs, but was what was also clear is how much value they find in helping others. (Seriously, I could go on and on about how impressed I was with the entire organization.)
The training itself was intense and focused. We learned basic commands and behaviors first. Then, after practicing a bit, we went out into the real world with the help of the trainers. A trip to the mall, movie theater, restaurant and the beach helped us feel more than equipped to go it alone at the end of the training.
LIFE WITH A SERVICE DOG
Once we got home and had an initial adjustment, there are a few things that became clear about living our lives with a service dog.
Con: SERVICE DOGS GET A LOT OF ATTENTION
This has been one of the most difficult parts of adjusting to life with Sammy.
When we are in public, Sammy gets a ton of attention. He’s adorable and service dogs are interesting, so I understand it.
But for an anxious child who struggles with social interaction, being peppered with questions and comments when he goes out can be difficult.
Con: TIME AND EFFORT
Sammy is a dog first. He likes to chew on things and run around the backyard. He needs food, water, and potty breaks just like any other pet. In addition to that, we practice his trained behaviors every day, even when not needed, in order to make sure he doesn’t forget his role as a helper first, and family pet second. He does require increased attention and care, in order to make sure he is fully able to help my son as needed.
When we first got home, it felt like we added a very sweet and capable toddler to the family. Getting in and out of the car, the feeding routine, remembering potty breaks, helping my son remember his role as Sammy’s handler and not just his playmate – all of this added to my workload, initially. The first few weeks back home felt stressful, to be sure. But as the months have passed, we have settled into our new routine well.
All The Benefits
I have shared with you the toughest parts about bringing Sammy into our family, but none of them compare to all of the benefits we have received as a result of him being here.
Pro: My Son Is So Much More Independent
My son is calmer in general because of Sammy’s constant attention and presence. His separation anxiety has decreased significantly (he went into a public bathroom on his own for the first time in years last month, with Sammy by his side) and he feels more capable knowing Sammy is there to help.
Pro: Doctor visits and lab tests are so much easier.
We have seen the greatest difference in car rides and doctor visits – two situations that were causing constant meltdowns and often, panic attacks, on a daily basis. Although my son still feels some anxiety around both, he has not lost control once in either scenario since we brought Sammy home. Not one time. It’s been amazing to witness and wonderful to see my son able to more freely enjoy life.
Pro: My son’s service dog has truly helped him cope with his anxiety.
It almost feels too good to be true, but Sammy has, by far, been the best choice and treatment option for my son.
Sammy is truly a blessing to our family and most importantly, my son. Now that he is here, I cannot imagine life without him.