Sherry A. Phillips

Romantic Suspense Author

How Service Dogs Help Those with Bipolar Disorder

Psychiatric Service Dog

My daughter’s Service Dog, Zelda.

I know you may be asking yourself, “Why is she writing about service dogs this morning?”

I’m going to tell you.

My daughter was diagnosed with bipolar disorder almost a year and a half ago. While some people may see that as a horrible diagnosis, I welcomed it. We had been dealing with emotional trauma with her for a long time and been to counselors, psychiatrists, etc. They only thing they would do is say she was suffering from anxiety and depression, give her some Prozac and call it a day.

But she never got better. In fact, her symptoms and problems got worse.

We hit her lowest point while we were still living in Virginia. Without going into detail, I am lucky and thank God that I still have my daughter. The doctors still just said she had depression and severe anxiety.

At the time she was 17 and was so terrified of driving that she never got her learner’s permit, much less her driver’s license. She was so terrified of school that I would more often than not receive a phone call an hour after I dropped her off that I needed to pick her up. I could not even ask her to go into the next aisle of the grocery store to get a jar of mayonnaise without her clinging to my arm as though she were in danger of drowning if she let go.

Looking back, perhaps that is how she felt.

That fall, we moved back to Tennessee and she started seeing a new psychiatrist, someone we used to go to church with.

My daughter is an artist and one afternoon she quickly painted me a couple of self portraits that described how she felt on the inside. Here is one of them:

Bipolar Disorder

One of the self portraits my daughter did to depict how she felt with bipolar disorder

She put them in the living room and our german shepherd would bark at them. My youngest son said, “Mama, those pictures scare me.” I told him, “If just looking at them makes you frightened, imagine how Taylor feels. Because those pictures are how she feels every day, all day long and into the night.”

Before she went for her second visit to our new psychiatrist, she came to me and said, “Mama, I’ve been doing research on the internet and I think I have bipolar.” I had no idea what bipolar was, but I told her I would look into it. I started researching and the more I read, the more it felt as though someone were pulling back the curtains and letting the sun shine through.

We went to our doctor and told him our thoughts. He said, “Let me talk to her.” About 45 minutes later he called me into his office and said, “I usually don’t like my patients to self-diagnose from reading things on the internet, but in this case, I think you’re right. She has bipolar.” I felt almost relieved, because this thing that had robbed my daughter of any joy in life, had a name and we could get help for it.

He prescribed her medication for sleep, because sometimes I would get up at 2:30 in the morning to find her lights on and she would be painting or sketching in the middle of the night. She was also put on a mood stabilizer and an anti-depressant.

She started to get better. Not immediately, but there was improvement. Then she asked for a dog she could train as a service dog. We spoke with her doctor about it and he had nothing but encouraging words, saying psychiatric service dogs have been shown to be a tremendous help for people with psychiatric problem. We decided to get a collie and train her ourselves. We did this for two reasons:

1. We had extensive experience with dogs and knew how to train them.
2. There was at least a 2 year wait for psychiatric service dogs.

She needed a dog as soon as possible, not in 2 years.

We bought a collie puppy from a reputable breeder. I told the breeder what the dog would be trained and used for and she picked out a sable for my daughter. The dog was smart, outgoing and very sensitive to emotional shifts, more so than any other collie we have ever known.

My daughter named her Zelda.

We bought her a Service Dog In Training vest and started introducing Zelda to as many different environments and people as we possibly could. She went with my daughter everywhere. I know this sounds small, but as long as Zelda was with my daughter, she would go across the grocery store and get something for me, then bring it back.

Around April, Taylor decided to get her Learner’s Permit. She passed and a few months later, when she turned 18, she got her driver’s license.

Taylor and Zelda went to an AKC dog training club and Zelda passed with flying colors.

Zelda is trained to help my daughter in many ways. She can tell when my daughter’s blood sugar is low and prompt her to eat something. If my daughter is heading into a downward spiral, Zelda can bring her out of it. This was quick sketch my daughter did to illustrate how Zelda helps her cope with everyday life.

Service Dog Illustration

Taylor’s illustration of how her Service Dog, Zelda helps her.

If my daughter is having a panic attack, Zelda will lay across her lap, or block a stranger from invading my daughter’s space.

When we are out with Zelda, we ignore her. She’s working and she seems to know when the vest is on, exactly what is expected of her and that her attention is to be solely on Taylor. However, when Zelda is not working, she is just another member of our family and is showered with love.

Service Dog at graduation

Zelda walked with my daughter to receive her diploma at her high school graduation.

She walked the stage at Taylor’s high school graduation and she goes to college with her every day. If Taylor is gone, so is Zelda.

Service Dog at college

Taylor and Zelda going to college together.

They are a well-trained team.

Service Dog out with her owner

Taylor and Zelda enjoying an outing to grab frozen yogurt.

Here are a few things you should know about Service Dogs:

1. Service Dogs are NOT just for blind people or people in wheelchairs. You cannot always see someone’s disability. My daughter has actually had complete strangers walk up to her and say, “You’re obviously not blind, what’s wrong with you?” This has happened many times.

2. Service Dogs are not emotional support dogs (though they offer emotional support to their owners too). They are trained to do specific tasks that help their owners with their disability.

3. You should NEVER buy a Service Dog vest and put it on your pet just so you can take it with you. This only harms people like my daughter who actually need their animals to live a normal life.

4. You should avoid comments like, “You’re so lucky to be able to take your dog with you everywhere.” Trust me when I tell you, my daughter would much rather be able to go out into the world without needing a dog by her side 24/7.

5. Do not try to pet a service dog. Zelda’s vest clearly says, “SERVICE DOG” and “No Touch, No Talk, No Eye Contact”. When Zelda is wearing that vest, she is working and is a life line for my daughter and does not need to be distracted from doing her job.

6. Here is the definition of a Service Dog from the ADA website: Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.

7. When it is not obvious what service an animal provides, only limited inquiries are allowed. Staff may ask two questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform. Staff cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.

8. Establishments that sell or prepare food must allow service animals in public areas even if state or local health codes prohibit animals on the premises.

9. A person with a disability cannot be asked to remove his service animal from the premises unless: (1) the dog is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it or (2) the dog is not housebroken. When there is a legitimate reason to ask that a service animal be removed, staff must offer the person with the disability the opportunity to obtain goods or services without the animal’s presence.

10. Under the ADA, State and local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that serve the public generally must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is normally allowed to go. For example, in a hospital it would be inappropriate to exclude a service animal from areas such as patient rooms, clinics, cafeterias, or examination rooms.

Psychiatric Service Dog

Taylor and her service dog Zelda headed out for the day.

I hope this post helps you understand how a service animal helps those with disabilities live a better life.

About sherry

9 Replies

  1. Joaquin Juatai

    Hello, I am writing a book about PTSD Service Dogs and I would like to use Taylor’s drawing as an illustration of how Service Dogs effect their handlers. I will give full credit, of course. I would also like to use it on my book’s Facebook page, @PTSDog.

    1. Thank you. I have sent you a private email, but yes, you may use Taylor’s art as long as you give her credit (Taylor Anne Phillips) and link back to her Facebook page ( https://www.facebook.com/recycledcan/ ). Thank you and I hope you have a wonderful day.

  2. Such a beautiful article! As someone with bipolar disorder, I certainly know the wonderful benefits of animals. I had a beautiful Maine Coon cat while I was in college who was smart enough to know when I was depressed and when I was having panic attacks. It made living with a mental illness so much easier.
    I hope Taylor and Zelda are loving college. Sending them lots of love and positive thoughts!

  3. Sarah Black

    This was so helpful! My 15 yr old daughter was just diagnosed with bipolar and I have decided to train a service dog for her as well. Any training books or tips would be greatly appreciated!

    1. I would suggest getting a dog that is known for it’s intelligence. Labs, Goldens, German Shepherds, Collies and go with a reputable breeder. Let the breeder know what the dog will be used for as they can spot personalities in their puppies that would best be suited for the type of work it will do.

      Start them very young with a Service Dog in Training vest and take it everywhere. Grocery stores, malls, parks, festivals as soon as they have all of their shots. It should be socialized early and often. Take it to puppy training classes as well as classes where the dog can get its Canine Good Citizen certificate. Once your dog has been through those classes and has it’s certificate (this is not a requirement, it just makes for a well-behaved dog which is what you want since the dog will be with your daughter whenever she leaves), you can begin to teach it the specific actions you require for your situation.

      It’s time consuming, but worth it.

  4. Anonymous

    Thank you for such a heartfelt article about you and your daughters journey and a positive example of a psychiatric service dog. I am diagnosed with BP and for many years was able to control episodes with medication and the support of my family. Recently I had a huge set back and my doctor suggested I train my dog, who he knows is very attuned to my moods, to be a service dog. He felt it would be of great benefit, and since he knew how my dog had helped in general, and that I had trained her in obedience, thought it would be a great help. We are starting the journey and have made one out of town trip in which she did wonderfully. She knows when the vest is on that she is going to work, as you described, and when it comes off she is our family dog. She still reacts to me when we are home, vest or not, and puts my needs first. I wish you and your daughter well and again thank you for sharing your story.

    1. Thank you. I wish you and your dog all the best.

Leave a Reply