Brooklyn Saliba, a student at Ithaca College, is one of 63 percent of college students nationwide that suffers from anxiety. As she was entering IC, she was considering getting an emotional support animal to help her with her condition.
That is, until she found psychiatric service dogs. Unlike an emotional support animal, which is not bound by species or animals, only dogs and miniature horses can be registered as psychiatric service animals. Psychiatric service animals are trained to perform certain tasks that aid someone such as looking out for the signs their handler is having a panic attack or other medical condition. Other differences include that psychiatric service animals are granted housing protections, are legally allowed to go anywhere their owner goes, and they require extensive training. Saliba has been working with Bella, a german shepherd, and has found this has been an interesting experience.
“A lot of psychiatric service dogs are trained to pick up on a panic attack and help interrupt that action,” Saliba said. “I know for myself, I sometimes get into my head a lot and don’t even realize I’m doing the action necessary. So, I can’t stop myself. But, with her [Bella] interrupting me it gives me a chance to reground myself. A lot of dogs are trained to do that.”
Others, Saliba said, can use their bodies as a type of blocking mechanism in crowds for their owners who might dislike being tightly packed with people. Some animals can be used as a “blanket” of sorts, she said, laying across one’s lap to provide some form of comfort during a crisis (Saliba compares it to the effect of wearing a weighted blanket).
Saliba has had Bella since she was two months old, which is when the training began. For the last year and a half, Saliba has been training Bella to be a psychiatric service dog, though the process has been expensive and time-consuming. Being in college, Saliba has been working hard to balance school work and training Bella, but at times other people’s animals have presented an obstacle.
“Another major challenge is running into people who bring their emotional support animals or pets into places they don’t necessarily have rights to be in,” Saliba said. “Bella has been attacked by a dog before in an area and that set us back a couple of months in terms of dog activity. She became more nervous towards dogs, she wasn’t able to ignore them as well. That was around three months of training and almost $1,000 for myself.”
Psychiatric service dogs are service dogs just like any other and are required to wear vests that usually read “Do Not Pet,” “Service Animal” or “Emotional Support.” Saliba has found that oftentimes people ignore those signs and pet the dog. This can lead to the dog missing a signal from its handler and possibly missing on other medical alerts. In one case, Saliba said, a dog missed the signs for its handler having a seizure. Methods for learning about how to train these dogs can be found widely online as well as from in-person trainers.
“There’s a lot of groups on Facebook,” Saliba said. “There’s a lot of resources online that can help you. Working with a trainer is also a great way to get involved. A lot of times if someone comes up to me just to ask questions if I have the time I don’t mind answering them at all. There are some non-profit programs that train program dogs and then will match the dog to the owner.”
She has been working with Russ Hollier, the founder of Guiding Eyes for the Blind at Ithaca College to train Bella. He has helped Saliba for about a year now. As they’ve gone on, though the training has gotten less and less. Since there is something new for dogs to learn, the training never truly ends but does take about one to two years, though this is not exact.
Determining the end of the training is usually based on the owner’s discretion. Mostly, if the dog is under control and knows two tasks, that usually means the training has been completed. In Saliba’s case, she hopes Bella will be fully trained by the early fall of this year.•