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I know service dogs can provide an astonishing array of services to people with needs as widely varying as diabetes and seizures to sightlessness and loss of hearing. But newer on the horizon is the Psychiatric Service Dog, helping veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as well as civilians with wide ranging mental and emotional illnesses. There is a great organization dedicated to providing such service dogs.—Sid

About Heeling Allies

Heeling Allies is a Seattle-based non-profit organization that trains mental health service dogs for individuals over the age of 18 with mental illness, developmental disorders, intellectual disorders and  other psychological conditions that  rise to the level of a disability.
In a six month intensive training program, Heeling Allies Service Dogs live with a Heeling Allies trainer and are tailor trained to assist their handler. These dogs learn to master advanced obedience skills and public access skills, and to behave in places of  public accommodation (e.g. grocery stores, malls, and restaurants). Heeling Allies Service Dogs are trained to perform tasks which are unique to the individual with whom they will be placed, and therapeutically interact with individuals who have mental challenges.
Who can benefit from partnering with a Mental Health Service Dog?
Mental Health Service Dogs can be a great adjunct to treatment for individuals with mental impairments ranging from bipolar disorder to major depressive disorder.  However, Heeling Allies has seen Mental Health Service Dogs be especially effective in the lives of individuals who have anxiety disorders such as: agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
What benefits do owners of professionally trained Mental Health Service Dog handlers commonly experience?
  • Reduction in debilitating symptoms.
  • Greater access to the world.
  • Around the clock support, in addition to mental health treatment and social support.

What types of things do professionally trained Mental Health Service Dogs do to assist their handlers?
Every individual experiences his/her mental impairment differently, which is why Heeling Allies custom trains Mental Health Service Dogs to meet the unique needs of each of our clients. No two dogs we produce are trained to perform identically.

Mental Health Service Dogs must have a solid foundation in basic and advanced obedience training, and public access training; as well as the ability to perform work that mitigates disabling symptoms of their handler’s disability.
Mental Health Service Dogs can reduce debilitating symptoms of some psychological impairments such as, hyper-vigilance, avoidance patterns, and exaggerated or painful responses to internal and environmental triggers.
Mental Health Service Dog tasks can be broken down into two categories: conditioned tasks and intuitive tasks.  Conditioned tasks are tasks that a dog is deliberately trained to perform, and intuitive tasks are tasks a dog performs without having been taught to do so.
Examples of Mental Health Service Dog Tasks:
  • Provide a buffer or a shield for the handler in crowded areas by creating a physical boundary.
  • Extinguish flashbacks by bringing handler into the  “here and now.”
  • Orient during panic/anxiety attack.
  • Stand behind handler to increase feelings of safety, reduce hyper-vigilance, and decrease the likelihood of the handler being startled by another person coming up behind them.
  • Environment search.
  • Wake handler to alarm.
  • Wake handler from nightmares.
  • Turn on/off lights.
  • Help balance unsteady handler/provide physical support for balance.
  • Assist in coping with emotional overload by bringing handler into the “here and now.”
  • Remind/alert handler to take medication.
  • Interrupt obsessive behaviors.
  • Alert handler to change in mental state (i.e. panic attack, anxiety attack, manic episode, etc).
Information cited above is the Heeling Allies website. Please visit their site to learn more or to donate to their cause.
Land of Pure Gold Foundation – “Mitigating a World of Hurt: Psychiatric Service Dogs Stepping Up to the Challenge” Read more about this topic at:


Below, from  “A Survey of Mental Health Patients Using Psychiatric Service Dogs”

TABLE 1: A Repertoire of Psychiatric Service Dog Tasks

Psychiatric Service Dog Tasks*
Disorder Symptoms Trainable Tasks
Major Depression Hypersomnia Wake-up owner
Memory loss Remind to take medication on-time Scent tracking to find lost objects
Disorganization Assist daily routines and household chores
Bipolar Hyper focus or Irritability Olfactory cue? Alert to incipient manic episode
Aggressive driving Alert to aggressive driving
Anxiety Restlessness Distractibility Tactile Stimulation
Social Anxiety Assist owner to leave situation
Panic Olfactory cue? Alert to incipient panic attack
Fight or Flight response Lead handler to a safe place
Dizziness Brace or lean against the owner
Post Traumatic Stress Hyper-vigilance Alert to presence of other people
Fear Safety check a room
Nightmares Turn-on lights and wake owner
Obsessive Compulsive Repetitive behaviors Interrupt behaviors
Schizophrenia Hallucinations Hallucination Discernment
Confusion or disorientation Take owner home
Feeling overwhelmed Buffer owner in crowded situations

*A more extensive list of tasks may be found at


Today at the RAGOM (Rescue a Golden of Minnesota) Goldzilla event, I had the opportunity to meet Faith the Two-legged Dog in person! Her story is an inspiration to us all and it applies especially aptly to my pet loss presentations wherein I discuss how we can determine whether our pets are living a quality life. Most of us would have understood Faith’s mother’s impulse to push the pup away to euthanize it because, due to its lack of front legs, it couldn’t nurse. But a human being intervened and brought home the special needs pup and, over time,she made it abundantly clear she was happy to be alive. She would eventually teach herself to walk upright on her hind legs! (And numerous veterinarians have tested her and assure us her hips are A-OK.) 

Not all animals would do this, but Faith obviously knew she was here on Earth for a very special reason. She is now literally a member of the U.S. Army (although she cannot be deployed), and does active duty as a therapy dog, helping countless vets recover from both physical and psychological injuries caused by their service. The VA doctors report vets opening up far more when Faith is with them than when they are alone in therapy. This is one amazing dog on a tremendously important journey. Blessings on her and the family who gave so much of themselves to raise and train her. Faith now does presentations the world over and is reportedly one of Oprah’s favorite guests!

I was so moved by her story, I donated one of my books (“Good Grief: Finding Peace After Pet Loss”) to her owner, Jude.—Sid

Join me and many other fine vendors for this year’s Goldzilla Fun Fair/Walk to raise money for Rescue a Golden of Minnesota (RAGOM). This event takes place on Saturday, September 17 from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. at Island Lake Park, Shoreview, MN. SW corner of I-694 and Victoria Street.

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