Service dogs are increasingly being trained to help people who have disabilities due to conditions like PTSD, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and other mental illnesses. In some cases, you may not need to make any accommodations to help these clients train their dog. However, in other cases, changes may be needed to help the client be successful. Keep in mind that for mental illness, like other conditions, people with the same diagnosis may have different symptoms and require different accommodations. Additionally, in some cases, medication side effects may require you to make some training accommodations so the client can more easily work with their dog.
Here are some accommodations you may find are helpful to clients who are training service dogs to assist them with a mental illness.
Flexible Lesson Scheduling
For some people with mental illness there are specific times of day when their symptoms are worse or when their medication side effects become more difficult to manage. Offering a variety of options for lesson times may be helpful.
If a client is experiencing an especially difficult stretch of days or weeks, they may find it difficult to work with their dog regularly. Of course, training continuity is important when training a service dog, and you can encourage the client to do the best they can, while being understanding of their challenges. During these times, virtual or phone appointments may sometimes be appropriate alternatives that are less taxing to the client. In other cases, for instance if the client is in crisis, it may be best for the trainer to train the dog themselves via board and train or day training.
Some people with mental illness may experience fatigue either as a direct result of their diagnosis or as a side effect of medication. Schedule frequent breaks in training lessons when possible. Simple accommodations like providing chairs can make a big difference. Providing a mix of introducing new concepts and reviewing previous material, and switching between active training practice and verbal instruction can help as well. State at the beginning of a group class that students are encouraged to give their dogs a break outside whenever their dogs need it. This allows for clients with disabilities to take a needed break without drawing attention to themselves. Clients who experience severe fatigue may find virtual appointments or private lessons easier than group classes.
Mental illness may impact a person’s ability to concentrate. Noisy and distracting training environments can make this even more challenging. Many dog trainers have learned how to ignore a dog barking in the background, but barking can make learning more difficult for everyone, and it can be especially difficult for students who have difficulties with concentration. In group classes, make sure students have several different strategies to keep their dogs quiet, for instance by providing long-lasting chews, rewarding the dogs when they are quiet, cuing simple behaviors or giving dogs sniff breaks away from the class area. Some clients may learn best in private lessons rather than group classes.
Public access is by definition full of distractions! If you are working on public access tasks with a client, do not present new information in public situations. Instead, present the material in a quiet, familiar training space before or after the public access lesson.
Helping Students Remember
Some people with mental illness may find it difficult to remember information from training lessons. Again, this may be caused by the mental illness itself or it can be a side effect from medication. Break training instructions down to small components and spend time focusing your session on one component at a time. Introduce just one or two new concepts per lesson. Share information several different ways, such as in writing, by demonstrations and orally. Give students the opportunity to practice newly taught training techniques immediately. Help clients remember information by recapping important points at the end of the lesson, and by providing homework in writing. Be prepared to revisit important concepts in different ways over a span of several lessons.
Collaborating with the Healthcare Team
When working with clients with disabilities to train a service dog it is always important to remain in communication with the client’s healthcare professional. This is important for task training and can also be helpful when addressing challenges encountered while training. For instance, if the client experiences panic attacks in complex environments, they should work with their therapist to develop a plan for what to do should this happen when working on public access training. As a service dog trainer, you should not be expected to assist a client during a crisis, but it can be helpful to know what strategies they have learned if they need to use them during a session, and also to be aware of what specific situations might trigger a strong reaction in them, so you can tailor your training plans accordingly. Remember, trainers are not therapists. However, it is beneficial to have a baseline understanding of your client’s condition so that you can serve them and their service dog in training better.
A Valuable Service
As service dogs trained to assist those with mental illness become more widely in demand, you are likely to be called on to help a client with such a need. These dogs can be a wonderful asset to their humans, and the partnership between trainer, client and dog can be very rewarding. However, as with any person with a disability, people with mental illness can benefit from thoughtful accommodation from the service dog trainer. This type of flexibility will allow you to better help both members of the dog-handler team.
Resources to learn more
- Psyc Armor – Courses for Volunteers, family members who interact with Veterans
- NAMI – National Alliance on Mental Illness
- National Center for PTSD – US Dept. of Veterans Affairs center for PTSD.