Summer 2011 Magazine

Cover Story

Psychiatric Service Dogs and Emotional
Support Dogs Work Wonders

By Nancy Marano

In recent years a new type of service dog is gaining acceptance. Psychiatric service dogs (PSD) and Emotional Support Animals (ESA) are used to help people with mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI). People recognize service dogs by their vests with ID cards attached. We frequently see them in stores or shopping malls. They are working dogs used by people with disabilities to make life easier, perform physical tasks for the person, and help them interact with other people.

In 2001 Joan Esnayra founded the Psychiatric Service Dog Society to help provide information and referral resources for people interested in PSD's. She is a researcher who became involved with PSD's because of her own experience with severe depression and PTSD. Her dog Wasabe, who she adopted as a pet, began to show certain behaviors on his own that told her when she was becoming manic. These are called "alert" behaviors because they alert the person that something has changed in their body chemistry or behavior.

When Esnayra originally founded her website (, there was a dispute between the disability community and the mental health community concerning whether PSD's were real service dogs since they didn't perform physical tasks such as picking up dropped objects or alerting to seizure. Esnayra, and the forum members on her website, compiled a list of ways a dog could help mentally ill people.

Among these helping behaviors were some that benefited PTSD victims. Veterans and dogs were trained to "read" each other's body language in order to spot subtle changes. Some veterans with PTSD are hyper vigilant due to traumas they've suffered and believe something terrible is about to happen. Veterans can be trained to watch their dog for signs of discomfort. When the dog demonstrates relaxed behavior, the veteran can also relax. PSD's can be taught to perform specific tasks as well. A veteran may require help knowing when to take medication or he might be wary of entering a dark apartment. A PSD can learn to alert the veteran to the time he should take medicine or the dog can do a sweep of the veteran's home to be sure nothing is wrong inside. If everything is clear, the dog will signal the veteran it is safe to enter.

A recent study by Army researchers determined 31% of Iraq war combat veterans have depression or PTSD in varying degrees but severe enough to interfere with their daily life. This study included more than 13,000 Army and National Guard infantrymen who fought in Iraq. Questionnaires were completed three months and again 12 months after the veteran's return to the United States.

Between 9% and 14% of the soldiers were diagnosed with PTSD or depression which resulted in serious impairment. 23%-31% had some impairment. There is no definite answer as to why there are more veterans suffering from PTSD resulting from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars than there have been in past wars. Researchers believe it may be due to the different numbers and types of injuries received. Improvised explosive devices or roadside bombs cause many traumatic brain injuries. Often soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are deployed with not enough time between deployments which adds to their stress levels. For whatever reason more veterans are dealing with PTSD and TBI's than in earlier wars.

Allen Schwartz, PhD, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, has treated veterans with PTSD and agrees that PSD's are helpful for these veterans. He said veterans who had recurring nightmares felt calmer if they woke to a calm dog. They knew if the threat were real the dog would be barking and agitated. "Many veterans with these dogs have reported that their anxieties and fears have been greatly reduced as a result of having the dog with them at all times," he said.

Schwartz enumerates some of the tasks PSD's perform.
    1. Accompany the veteran into public places.
    2. Allow the veteran to remain calm by preventing people from crowding
        around him in public places. The PSD's body creates a buffer space.
    3. Watches behind the veteran to prevent anyone from rushing up from
        behind and surprising the veteran
    4. Provides a reassuring presence for the veteran by anticipating his
        needs in the home or in public.

Emotional support animals vs. PSD's

An emotional support animal (ESA) is defined as a dog or other domestic animal that provides therapeutic support to a disabled or elderly owner through companionship, nonjudgmental regard, affection, and a focus in life. These animals are not task trained the way service dogs are. In other words, a well-trained, companion dog who can sit, stay, and lay down on command, who isn't a danger to others or a disturbance to the neighborhood, and who can pass the Canine Good Citizenship Test is an ideal emotional support animal. These dogs provide a person with unconditional love, health benefits, such as reduced stress levels and lower blood pressure, an opportunity for more exercise and the opportunity for socialization with others.

To have a service dog, a person must be diagnosed with a disability. A psychiatric service dog is only used by a person who is diagnosed with a mental impairment serious enough to be classified as a disability. Service animals are task trained to do something which mitigates the person's disability. A person with a disability can be accompanied by their service dog wherever they go.

PSD's are trained for tasks such as counterbalance/bracing for a handler who gets dizzy from medication, waking a handler at the sound of an alarm, doing room searches and turning on the lights for persons with PTSD, blocking persons with a dissociative episode from wandering into danger and leading a disoriented handler to a person or place. Most handlers and dogs form a bond which gives emotional support but that is a bonus since PSD's are working dogs not pets. PSD's should be extremely stable and not be drawn into their handler's emotional state. The dog must remain calm, thinking and working in spite of the handler's upset or confusion. Courts require that in order for a dog to be a PSD, which entitles him to public access rights, he must be trained to provide services for the person. At the moment, ESA's do not have public access rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

What's happening in New Mexico?

The latest statistics from the New Mexico Department of Veterans Services show at least 175,000 veterans live in New Mexico. The number of New Mexican veterans collecting disability compensation for all disabilities stands at almost 30,000. The Veterans Administration believes that perhaps 25% of the veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are suffering from PTSD, which means quite a few veterans living here suffer from PTSD or TBI.

Two new organizations, Pets4Vets and Paws and Stripes, both located in Rio Rancho, are dedicated to helping veterans with PTSD, TBI's or other mental impairments by putting the veteran together with the right dog. Pets4Vets trains companion dogs (ESA) while Paws and Stripes trains service dogs (PSD). Each group is geared to veterans with differing degrees of PTSD and TBI but both are helping veterans re-enter society and interact with other people without fear.


Shane D'Onofrio, a disabled veteran himself, is passionate about helping veterans with whatever they need to make their lives better. He started an organization called What Would U Give? ( in March, 2008 because he was concerned. Many organizations came into New Mexico to raise money for veterans but the money often went to national groups, rather than coming back to New Mexico to do necessary work here. What Would U Give? is a local organization for New Mexico veterans. There are many divisions within this organization that deal with different problems veterans might face. Some people work with veteran's housing, others work on providing cars for veterans or whatever is needed.

William Morton of Desert Draggin American Bulldogs heard D'Onofrio on the radio talking about the needs of returning veterans. He donated an American Bulldog puppy to the group to be trained and used to help a veteran. The Pets4Vets program was born.

D'Onofrio found Diane Sullivan, CPDT-KA, the owner of Good Dog Training Center and Doggie Resort in Rio Rancho, to head the training program. Sullivan has over 20 years of experience as a certified professional dog trainer and is an evaluator for the American Kennel Club's Canine Good CitizenŽ Program. She also volunteers with the Albuquerque Animal Welfare Department at the Eastside and Westside facilities where she helps temperament test dogs.

When a veteran comes to Pets4Vets and wants to get a service dog, D'Onofrio interviews him to see whether that is really what he wants and needs. He often finds the veteran doesn't need all the skills a PSD provides. The veteran actually might need a well-trained companion dog (ESA) who will give unconditional love and relieve the veteran's anxiety symptoms when he is with people. "Now there are people who need service dogs if they have a physical problem or a severe case of PTSD. But I think it's a matter of learning what you need," D'Onofrio said.

Sullivan agrees. "If the veteran isn't under psychiatric care or isn't in a wheelchair or doesn't have a seizure disorder or isn't physically disabled, what they really are looking for is a well-mannered companion animal who can alleviate some of their PTSD symptoms," she said.

Pets4Vets is wrapping up their first 10-week class. The veterans in the first class had their own dogs who were temperamentally suited for training. Future classes will have veterans select dogs from local shelters. "We want to partner with the shelters in the area to try to adopt some of their homeless dogs," Sullivan said. This way it becomes a second chance program for the dog and the veteran.

D'Onofrio does a home visit before a veteran is approved for the program. He also checks their discharge papers to be sure they have been honorably discharged. If the veteran gets the dog from a shelter, What Would U Give? pays the adoption fees. The veteran pays a nominal fee for going through the class. "Paying for the class shows commitment to the program," D'Onofrio said.

"I'm excited so see how this program will grow and manifest itself. The main thing I want people to know it that we're doing this program responsibly. We don't have any agendas. Veterans are learning to have that human/animal bond which makes for a good relationship. They become more well-rounded dog owners than they might have been on their own," Sullivan said.

If you want to donate to the Pets4Vets program, they can use:
    . Training treats
    . Gentle Leader collars
    . Easy Walk harnesses
    . 6 foot leashes that aren't retractable
For more information on What Would U Give?, go to

Paws and Stripes

Jim and Lindsey Stanek founded Paws and Stripes in June 2010, after Jim came back from three tours of duty as an Army Staff Sergeant in Iraq. While in the hospital recovering from his injuries, which included TBI, Stanek took 20 different medications and felt like a zombie. He found what helped him most in the hospital was the therapy dogs. When he and his wife moved to Albuquerque, they looked into getting a service dog to help him with his PTSD and TBI. However all of the organizations they tried had a long waiting list and they would have needed to take a dog who was already trained as a service dog. The cost of these service dogs and the training ranged from $10,000-$30,000. This was money and time the Staneks didn't have.

"We decided to try a completely different type of program," Lindsey Stanek said. They decided to train a service dog on their own. Jim adopted a Catahoula mix named Sarge from an animal shelter. They searched for trainers who shared their philosophy and found Rick and Heather Dillender of A Fresh Perspective Dog Training. The Dillenders evaluated the Stanek's dogs. "They found Sarge was already trying to do things on her own to help Jim," Lindsey Stanek said. "She was the perfect dog for him."

To be eligible for the Paws and Stripes program, a veteran must be honorably discharged and be diagnosed with PTSD or TBI. They ask for a letter from the veteran's doctor describing the treatment and recommending a service dog.

The Dillenders tailor training to each individual veteran and his/her needs in a six month training course. The dog and handler start the program together and learn together. "This is custom training not a cookie cutter program. Each team has group classes for the basic skills that all the dogs must learn to be a good companion and be able to take the Canine Good CitizenŽ test. Then each team does private advanced training for the veteran's individual needs. But they continue to go to the group classes as well," Lindsey Stanek said. If any behavior problems develop after the team graduates, they come back and get more training.

Veterans will select their service dog from local shelters. The dogs selected will pass a temperament test administered by the Dillenders and be between 18 months and three years of age. This is the optimum age to get the dogs. "Older dogs are in a better mindset to focus on what they need to do. They see where their job needs to be and stay on task," Stanek said.

The program costs $2000.00 per dog but the veteran pays nothing for the dog or the training. All costs are covered by Paws and Stripes including any shots or medical treatment before the dog leaves the shelter. Paws and Stripes is now registered as a nonprofit organization and can begin the process of getting grants to fund their program. So far they have graduated three teams.

The program has been a success for the graduates who have completed the course. "My husband was the first to graduate," said Lindsey Stanek. "He is only on one medication now because of the dog. Jim is from New York City where he was a volunteer firefighter on 9/11. We hadn't returned since then because we were afraid it would trigger things for him. By having Sarge with us and the motivation from the program we were able to visit Ground Zero without him going into a flashback. He can do things he never thought he'd be able to do again."

Master Sargeant Justin Jordan from the Air Force spent six years in the Air Force Mortuary Affairs helping families deal with the deaths of service members. The trauma of this duty triggered his PTSD. He met Jim Stanek at Kirtland Air Force Base and decided to follow-up with Paws and Stripes and was able to use his English bulldog, Dallas, as his service dog. He went through the training and works at Kirtland Air Force Base. Jordan is now the only active duty soldier in the country to use a service dog at work.

The main difference between Paws and Stripes and other PSD programs is that the dog and handler train together from the beginning with temperamentally tested dogs selected from local animal shelters or rescue groups at no cost to the veteran. Other training programs use dogs bred for particular traits who are trained before they are paired with a disabled person. Then the veteran and dog go through extended training together. These programs usually belong to Assistance Dogs International, a nonprofit organization that establishes standards for assistance dogs.

Paws and Stripes currently has a waiting list of 230 people for their program due to limited funding.

For further information on Paws and Stripes, go to

(A list of resources on PSD's and ESA's is available on the PETroglyphs website at: )

Nancy Marano is an award-winning writer who is owned by a cat named Sammy. She is a member of the Cat Writers' Association and Dog Writers of America. Currently she is waiting to see who the new cat or cats in her life will be.

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