Last fall, my youngest son was in the hospital 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.”
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. 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?
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?
Like for reals, 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.
We got the final call a few weeks ago.
Please, allow me to introduce you to my son’s new service dog, Sammy.
Next week, we are headed to a six day, transition training. My son and I will be participating in daily handler’s education sessions, interacting with Sammy, going on public field trips and even taking him back to the hotel with us for an overnight slumber party.
If all goes well, he will be home and assisting my son by mid-June.
It has been a long process. It has, at times, been a frustrating process. But it has all been worth it.
I am so deeply grateful we have been given this opportunity.
Please join us as we transition Sammy home. I will be posting daily updates and pictures on Instagram late next week and will continue to keep you posted here on the blog.