Each year, millions of Americans are forced to live with some form of mental illness.  Although the recent tragic loss of Robin Williams brought a great deal of publicity to the problem, it still does not receive the recognition that it deserves.

In 1990, the U.S. Congress established Mental Illness Awareness Week, which occurs every year during the first full week of October.

Of course, we tend to favor all thing related to puppy (or kitty) love, so sharing some pet-related resources with you was the natural choice for our observance of Mental Illness Awareness Week.  It’s a fact that our furry family members brighten our day, enrich our lives, and give us a greater sense of balance.  Anyone who has owned a pet can tell you that is absolutely true.  However, for the really special cases, there are really special pets.  Enter service dogs.  To be more specific, Mental Health Service Dogs and Emotional Support Dogs.  These are specialized classes of service dogs who spend every single day providing support and healing for people with mental health concerns.

Here’s a breakdown of each category and how they are different:

Mental Health Service Dogs (also known as Psychiatric Service Dogs or “PSDs”):

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Mental Health Service Dogs are specially trained to provide support for individuals who have a mental illness that has risen to the level of disability.  Of the two types listed, this is the most specialized class of service dog.  While they do provide emotional support for their humans, they often perform a variety of other duties, as well.  Examples of other ways that they may serve their owners include seizure detection, mobility support, and traumatic brain injury support.

This class of service dogs is truly remarkable.  They perform such functions as bringing medications to their owners at specific times of day, guarding their owner’s personal space in crowded situations, waking them from night terrors, and so much more.  Amazingly, many of these dogs are also trained to provide a specific form of tactile stimulation, which consists of deep pressure application and licking and is designed to bring their owners back to reality.

Emotional Support Dogs

Dogs that are trained solely to provide emotional support do not qualify to work as Mental Health Service Dogs, but they play an equally significant role in the lives of the humans they love.

Emotional Support Dogs are trained to give affection and comfort in times of sickness, sadness, and stress.  They can often be found in hospitals giving love freely to patients with a variety of illnesses.  Their training and naturally gentle demeanor are the perfect fit for a person with any type of mental health concern, and they have become an especially popular choice among patients with post-traumatic stress disorder.

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It’s important to remember that all service dogs have undergone a rigorous training process, and it’s important for us to understand the difference in capabilities between family pets and pets who have been raised for therapeutic purposes.

To learn more, visit Assistance Dog International or the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners.  Both of these websites have a tremendous amount of information for anyone who is interested in reading more about these very special animals.

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