It’s no secret that animals can play a significant role in trauma recovery for conditions like PTSD and they provide emotional support for people suffering from a myriad of issues from anxiety to depression and many other behavioral health conditions. Are service dogs and support animals the answer for everything that ails us? I know I’m going to disappoint a portion of our readership but I’m here to tell you it’s certainly not a cure for any category of disease or disability, the benefits and the risks of inserting an animal into someone’s life needs to be weighed carefully on a case by case basis assessing both the client and the animal.


As a clinical mental health counselor who specializes in PTSD, I face the question of service and support animals on a daily basis, and I must admit, I’ve seen animal placements backfire on more than one occasion. I had a situation with a client who was released from an inpatient placement for PTSD that specialized in wounded veterans and the treatment team insisted on the client leaving with a service dog. The client felt very strongly that the institution charged her over $6,000 for a mixed breed animal with questionable training at best. She complained several times after she returned to the community and they fired back with “You’re not letting the dog do its job so it’s your fault.” They finally sent a specialist out after several months of complaints and all they did was agree with my client that the training needed to be reinforced and they gave her a $200 shock collar so she could finish training the dog herself and they left. Make sure whoever you work with to select an animal clearly outlines what follow-up services are offered before you agree to work with them.


The agency that provided the $6,000 dog benefitted because they were paid immediately by the insurance carrier. However, this fee did not provide any coverage for follow-up care or additional training that was originally promised. This resulted in making my client’s transition back to the community harder than it might have been without a service dog.  My client experienced unnecessary feelings of guilt for not being able to make the relationship with the dog work. In my assessment of the dog, I had to agree that the dog was not trained well enough for the tasks it was expected to perform, and both the client and dog needed more time together before the placement became final.


The lesson here is when you are trying to help, please don’t immediately assume that animal assisted therapy is the answer. 


Now, let’s move over to the fun stuff -- when animal assisted therapy becomes the answer. Let me just say, when it works it’s one of the most special experiences for the client, the animal, and the clinician. The bonding and connection both parties experience is the stuff both dreams and movies are made of with any animal human relationship but most especially a therapeutic one. 


We all want that animal human relationship and connection and bond to work at the highest levels, and the best way to do that is with a constant focus on education and training, attending workshops and seminars, joining training groups and of course buying books. When it comes to books on this subject I highly recommend Animals That Heal, The Role of Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals in Mental Health Treatment by Stephanie Taylor, M.S. 2018. Stephanie Taylor is a Clinical Mental Health Counselor licensed in Texas and she specializes in animal assisted therapy. Her private practice is called Wings of Liberty and she’s available for consultation worldwide online and in person in Texas.


I had the opportunity to visit with Stephanie and her service dog Jager last month at the annual Texas Counseling Association conference. I was delighted to meet both Stephanie and her dog Jager and I was not surprised at all to see that Jager was wearing a OneTigris Power Train Dog Harness. She had no idea that I was an ambassador for OneTigris when we met. In our brief time together, she gave us so much information that my wife Debra and I have been able to really step up our dog Stella’s training so that she eventually becomes the therapy, service, and search and rescue dog we can count on when we deploy with critical incident response teams in our roles as crisis counselors. 


Do you know the difference between a service dog, an emotional support animal, or a therapy animal? All three categories are considered therapeutic interventions that can be assigned by your health care professional to help you reach your goals. However, major differences exist in the types and ways the animals are used. People often use the terms service animal, emotional support animal, and therapy animal interchangeably which can lead to a great deal of confusion. We also have a small section of the public making it even more confusing by trying to pass off personal pets as service animals so they can access the benefits of taking pets into areas that would otherwise be restricted from their use. The news media often uses the terms interchangeably and as Stephanie so eloquently points out many therapists are confused on the topic as well. 


Service dogs serve people in so many amazing ways from being able to help pull a wheelchair to the intense training it takes to become a seeing eye, hearing ear, or medical alert animal that goes to work immediately when their companion is in distress and has a seizure or diabetic episode. Service dogs vary greatly in how they are trained and what they have been trained to do in order to help the owner achieve a better quality of life by mitigating the person’s disability in some meaningful way. The training of top-quality service dogs and support animals is a professional vocation and it takes years to learn and countless hours of dedication to begin to produce meaningful results between the animal and the trainer. If you want to get a better example of what it takes to train a guide dog take a look at this short four-minute animation by the South Eastern Guide Dogs. I’m warning you ahead of time to get a box of tissues on standby. This organization specializes in seeing eye dogs and PTSD dogs for veterans and their motto is, “Serving those who cannot see and those who have seen too much.”


Training service dogs of any kind is expensive. $6,000 to $12,000 is not an uncommon fee for a top-quality animal. Most police departments say the average entry cost for a police K9 is around $10,000 per dog. With a prescription from a medical professional confirming a legitimate medical diagnosis, many insurance companies will cover the cost of a service animal. Never forget to reach out to several nonprofit and community groups, they can often come together to help make it happen.  


Remember, any animal that can properly serve a human is going to take two to four years of intensive training to produce meaningful results. If you’re anything like me after that much time it would be too hard to let them go. I guess that’s why I’m not a service dog trainer.  However, it is possible to do it on your own if you’re willing to put in the time and effort to do it right. That’s what my wife Debra and I have done with our dog Stella. Stella has already taken six different types of obedience courses and now we are moving her on to scent training courses and an agility program so we can see if she really has the potential for search and rescue work. Stella’s therapy dog training is ongoing and both Debra (who is also a licensed counselor) and I work with Stella constantly. Stella is just about to start joining us on our post incident debriefings and PTSD support groups for first responders from time to time. I am confident she will have a positive impact on the therapeutic process as we move forward as a team and a family of caregivers dedicated to helping people heal. 


Debra and I occasionally conduct critical incident stress debriefings and tactical debriefings for local fire departments in our roles as crisis counselors on The Critical Incident Response Team at The Counseling Center of Texas. Our crisis response team is available to individuals and groups throughout the State of Texas.


As for those few of you who may unfortunately find yourselves in the situation of having to verify someone’s disability or the authenticity of a person’s service dog, emotional support, or therapy animal you will be very grateful for the insights provided in Stephanie Taylor's books aforementioned. She discusses the Americans with Disability Act as it applies to public and work "accommodations" for animals and she covers the Fair Housing Act as well as the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 (ACAA). Can you bring your Emotional Support Velociraptor (ESV) on board the plane with you? Check out flying with your ESV  


All kidding aside, access to fair housing and transportation privileges are important considerations for all of us and those decisions can become complicated very quickly once an emotional support or service animal enters the picture. Here’s to hoping you never find yourself having to be in the position of playing animal police. By the way and for the record, you should probably stay out of it unless you are fearing direct or indirect harm in some way by the animal. Don’t be in the position of unlawfully discriminating against someone without cause. Be forewarned – unless the animal is out of control they don’t owe you an explanation for the reason why they have a service animal in most countries. If the animal has somehow become a threat to life and limb then it’s time to call the brave men and women of law enforcement so they can investigate the situation further.


Aside from a small amount a people who abuse the privilege most people asserting a right to bring a service animal into an area have valid reason for doing so and should be treated accordingly. As my holiday gift to you please use the discount code BrigandiTX for a 10% discount on all of your OneTigris purchases. 


Season’s Greetings, Happy Holidays, and may you and yours have a joyous New Year!  

Credit: Joseph Brigandi, OneTigris LiFE Ambassador