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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


Coleen Ellis is a mover and a shaker. She has almost single-handedly made it possible for many people to access a pet-specific funeral home when they seek to memorialize a beloved animal’s passing. More and more, companion animals’ status in our lives is rising, as the value of their relationship with humans is lent credence by more professional associations. Read about the exciting new trends in pet funerals and even legal arenas.—Sid

Pet funeral industry undergoing major changes

Today, there are over 750 pet funeral homes, pet crematories and pet cemeteries across the country — and a lot of human funeral homes have or are looking at ways to offer services when pets die. By: Associated Press, INFORUM

Mike the Dog's Tribute Table

This 2010 photo courtesy of Coleen A. Ellis for Two Hearts Pet Loss Center shows the Tribute Table for Mike The Dog in Ellis’ home in Greenwood, Ind. Mike died in July 2010 and Ellis kept the Tribute Table up for about a month as her family honored him and all of the things that were important to him in his life. (AP Photo/Two Hearts Pet Loss Center, Coleen A. Ellis)

LOS ANGELES — Her 14-year-old dog Mico had lung cancer and Coleen A. Ellis knew she was taking her to the vet for the last time. She watched as the vet started to put the terrier schnauzer’s body in a garbage bag. “I couldn’t just walk out of there with a leash and a collar,” she said. Ellis took Mico’s body home instead. A local funeral home agreed to cremate Mico. But as she waited in the chapel, Ellis said she was told they couldn’t turn on the lights because they were having a service for “a real death” down the hall. She vowed to make changes.

A year later, in 2004, Ellis opened what is believed to be the country’s first stand-alone pet funeral home in Indianapolis. Today, there are over 750 pet funeral homes, pet crematories and pet cemeteries across the country — and a lot of human funeral homes have or are looking at ways to offer services when pets die. Ellis sold her mortuary and now runs Two Hearts Pet Loss Center, which arranges memorial services and helps people grieve the loss of a pet. In 2009, she helped start the Pet Loss Professionals Alliance as a committee of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association.

As the industry grew, so did the alliance. It’s holding its second annual conference this week in Las Vegas. The group’s goals are simple — set and maintain standards for services related to pet deaths, such as funerals, memorials, cremations and burials. Poul H. Lemasters, an attorney and president of Lemasters Consulting in Cincinnati, has worked in the funeral industry for over 15 years and is licensed as a funeral director and embalmer in Ohio and West Virginia. When he talked about pet cremation liabilities at PLPA’s inaugural meeting in San Antonio, he drew an audience of 200. More than twice that number has signed up to attend his session at this week’s PLPA conference.

Consumers need more than a handshake from pet morticians, he explained. They need transparency, including a standard cremation authorization form spelling out services, methods, choices and cost. The PLPA will vote on a proposed form during their convention.

“On the human side, the biggest issue out there is always wrongful cremation. On the pet side, it’s not wrongful cremations, but whether cremations are being done at all,” Lemasters said. There have been animal dumping cases in Arizona, Virginia and Tennessee, where pets were stored instead of cremated, then taken to a landfill or dump and dropped off, he said. He said Illinois is the frontrunner on laws governing disposition of deceased pets and pet funerals. Ninety percent of pet owners choose cremation rather than burial for their pets, he said.

But while cremation has been offered for a long time, many other types of legal issues related to the deaths of pets — and even the deaths of owners who are survived by their pets — are now getting more attention. Pets are named in wills, they receive trusts, they are part of prenuptial agreements.

In a few states, laws are being rewritten to treat pets as more than personal property, Lemasters said. California has a new law that says if your animal is killed maliciously, you can claim certain types of damages, Lemasters said. In Florida, a dog died while under a veterinarian’s care and was cremated before an autopsy could be conducted. The family was awarded more than $10,000 in punitive damages. Nevada enacted a law allowing pet-owners emotional damages from the death of a pet in certain circumstances up to $5,000. But pet owners can also sue for vet bills and funeral costs, Lemasters said. “The fact they are starting to recognize funeral costs for a pet, that’s pretty unbelievable.”

Memorial services are sometimes held for working dogs, too, whose deaths may affect not just the animal’s owner or handler, but an entire agency, business or community. When a police dog named Bo was killed in May 2007, Ellis was asked to help arrange a memorial service. Bo had been with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department for about four years when a burglar “turned around with a gun and shot Bo a couple of times. Bo went back to his handler and died in his arms,” Lt. Benny Diggs said. Bo’s service was attended by about 150 people from the police department and the community. “I really believe it helps,” Diggs said. “When you are a policeman, especially a K-9 handler, that dog becomes your partner.”

The 30-minute service was respectful, but didn’t go overboard, he added. “We keep it in perspective. We are losing soldiers daily in Afghanistan and Iraq and police officers are dying throughout the United States every week. We never want to take away from their service or what they are doing for the community,” he said.

As pets play bigger roles in people’s lives, it makes sense they will be treated more like family when they die, and that includes holding the types of funeral services that at one time were held only for people, said veterinarian Jane Shaw, who spoke at PLPA’s meeting last year. Shaw is director of the Argus Institute in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo. “Telling stories, playing music and reading poetry are all things that allow us to express what this individual meant to us,” she said, “whether it’s human or animal.”

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