by Linden Gue
There are many challenges when owner-training a service dog: learning to train obedience and public access skills, training appropriate work or tasks to mitigate your disability, learning to deal with the public and with access challenges. This is a lot to handle, but the most difficult aspect has been trying to keep training during my recurring psychiatric episodes.
I’ll cover my challenges and how I’ve learned to meet them, in the hope that you can generalize my lessons to apply to you and your service dog. If you can come up with your own answers to the questions in the headings, you will have a good start to a game plan that works for you.
How do my mental health episodes get in the way?
I have bipolar I and non-combat PTSD. My symptoms aren’t the same all of the time—there are times when different symptoms have more or less of an impact. These symptoms include clinical depression, manic psychosis, persistent psychosis, paranoia, and fear of leaving my safe place.
When my symptoms are generally controlled, I am able to think clearly enough to learn, able to focus on training. I can leave my house comfortably and train in a variety of places and participate in group training classes.
I can meet up with other owner-trainers to practice obedience with distractions, work on public access training and discuss issues and enjoy being with people who understand the process.
When my symptoms are present, I might struggle to motivate myself or to slow down enough to focus. I am terrified to leave my safe place where people might look at me. I might hallucinate and be unsure of reality.
What’s my first strategy for training during my episodes?
If I waited until I was well, there would be little time to train and I would be repeating skills forgotten during the time I could not train. When I am not as well, I can reinforce the basics so we don’t lose any skills.
Returning to basics just means practicing cues we have learned before. This could be basic obedience or helping with my disability.
For me, basic obedience includes sit, down, stay, heel, recall, focus, and distance training.
These skills are critical for public access training. If I struggle to leave the house, I will do these indoors. While I still have to practice the obedience skills in different environments, making them solid at home is a good foundation.
The other way I reinforce the basics is by focusing on work or task training. This could include retrieving an object, assisting with balance, holding eye contact, or applying pressure therapy. A side benefit of practicing work or task training can be relief of symptoms as our partners practice these things.
One thing I would do when paranoid would be to put my back to an interior wall and practice having my service dog sit in my lap and hold eye contact. It was helpful for my symptoms and helped me focus away from my terror.
How can I engage with my dog if I can’t manage returning to basics?
If I’m not up for repeating familiar training in our usual ways, I step back and evaluate my situation. This can be difficult on my own, so I might ask a trusted person familiar with my disabilities to give me feedback. It helps to have a personalized list of activities I can draw from.
I can engage my dog in activities that promote bonding. Play. Cuddle. Toss a toy from the couch. I taught my large dog to lie on my body and rest her head on the top of my chest, so that is an option when I want a bonding activity.
If I struggle to get out of bed or off the couch but I can train, I will train whatever I am able to from that position, rather than in my usual way.
Whether it’s bonding through play or cuddling, or the simplest of training, my fallback is to remember that not every interaction has to be a big production.
What do I do during my worst times?
It is important that we continue to engage with our partners, but we also have to provide the basics for them, such as feeding, letting them eliminate appropriately, and getting them the minimum exercise and stimulation they need.
If I cannot do the minimum to keep my partner healthy, I must bring another person in to help me. This might be a volunteer from the community, a trusted friend or relative, or a dog walker if you have the resources. I need to be realistic about my needs and options, and it can be a lot better if I discuss them ahead of time.
How does this all come together for me?
Because my symptoms increase, combine, deepen, or some go into remission, I have to use all the techniques and levels of training depending on my condition.
Days that I am feeling able to train at home, I review basics to determine what we need to work on.
Days I can leave the house to train or exercise, I review necessary skills such as heeling and focus and then proceed from that point. It doesn’t matter if I am covering ground we were solid on previously. I train whatever we are able to accomplish at that moment.
Sometimes, I can only accomplish buckling my partner into their seatbelt harness in the car and driving around or going to the drive-through pharmacy to pick up meds. This is still training that makes a difference.
Days when I am feeling well enough, I go out into public. I might try to arrange outings with other handlers, or to meet friends in a place where I can also train.
Finally, I consistently do my very best to help my partner enjoy themselves, whether playing, cuddling, exercising, training, or simply spending time together.
I do this even when I am deeply depressed. I might not enjoy myself, but it relieves my symptoms just a tiny bit to see my partner having fun.