For nearly nine years, Jennifer Halliday did not get a good night’s rest. Instead of sleeping in bed with her husband, she spent the wee hours comforting her son, Ciaran, as he tossed, turned and stimmed — self-stimulatory behaviour found in children with autism spectrum disorder. “He’d take my hand and rub his fingernails up against mine to make a click,” she says. “He’d do that all night.” He couldn’t sleep in his bed alone because he would wake up and disturb the entire household, including his younger brother. And because Ciaran wasn’t getting much rest, he’d fall asleep at school and act out in frustration — meaning his parents had to give him the bulk of their time and energy.
But all of that changed in the fall of 2016, when Ciaran was nine. The Halliday family welcomed Dana, a Labernese service dog from Quebec’s Mira Foundation, into their home. Now, Dana lies at the foot of Ciaran’s bed every night and he can take her paw and click his nails against hers if he needs to calm himself. “Even if he’s tossing and turning and kicks her, she’ll just move on to the floor, but she’ll never leave the room,” Halliday says. Ciaran started sleeping better almost immediately, which means that the rest of the family is sleeping, too. “I had no idea how little sleep I was getting,” she says. “Or how amazing you could feel after getting a few months of good rest.”
The impact a service dog can have on humans are huge.
That dogs can have a therapeutic effect on humans is a tale as old as time (or at least as old as the adage “man’s best friend”), but only in the past two decades has that bond been examined in depth. Several studies have shown that spending time with and petting a dog, especially your own pup, can reduce heart rate, lower blood pressure and even mitigate spikes in the presence of stressors. Dogs can also improve human interaction and mood, and decrease self-reported fear and anxiety. One study showed that levels of the stress hormone cortisol in children with autism spectrum disorder dropped drastically (from 58 percent to 10 percent) upon waking when a service dog was present in the family, and spiked to 48 percent when the dog was removed.
A 2012 study published in Frontiers in Psychology hypothesized that many of these positive benefits of human-animal interaction are due to an increase in oxytocin, a feel-good hormone often referred to as the “love drug.” Oxytocin has many positive effects on the human body, from social gains like increased empathy and decreased aggression, to anti-stress, and possibly even anti-inflammatory benefits. Plus, it can improve the function of the parasympathetic nervous system, which can enhance rest and digestive function. Human-to-dog interaction, especially petting and eye contact, significantly increases oxytocin in both humans and dogs, with the pre-existing closeness of the relationship playing a role, too.
Studies like these endorse the use of dogs in a variety of capacities — such as providing mobility assistance, medical alerts and companionship to people with physical disabilities. But dogs can also offer emotional support to veterans with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and people with other mental health concerns, and work as facility dogs in treatment settings, schools and courtrooms. These dogs all go by different names, from service dog or facility dog, to emotional support dog and therapy dog. (Read this before dressing up your dog for halloween.)
It takes the right organization to train them.
National Service Dogs (NSD) is one of eight programs in Canada to be accredited by Assistance Dogs International. And they do their best to ensure the best home placement for each dog by taking into account his or her individual strengths, weaknesses and interests. “What do they like to do? What do they not like to do? What’s their energy level? Are they body sensitive? Are they sound sensitive?” says Danielle Forbes, executive director at NSD. Just like humans, each dog is different: some are anxious in public spaces, lack confidence or are sensitive to noise and might never make it to service or facility animal status. The dogs that do move forward are placed in their careers based on the work they enjoy. “We call it work, but if we’ve done our jobs right, those dogs are just going out and playing,” says Forbes.
Why matching the right dog with the right person is so integral.
The trainers at Mira Foundation got it right when it came to matching Dana with the Halliday family. When Jennifer described Ciaran’s needs to them, she mentioned his stimming — rubbing his fingernails against her own. “I remember the trainers looking at one another, almost as if they knew what dog to pick,” she says. When Jennifer eventually met their future pup Dana in Quebec for training, the first thing Dana did was roll on her back and offer Jennifer her paw. Similarly, the trainers at NSD found the perfect dog to pull the blankets off the bed for a client who suffered from nightmares due to PTSD. “It’s like the biggest game of tug of war on the planet, and he gets to win every single time,” says Forbes. “That’s not work for him.”
While most service dogs require the ability to complete repetitive tasks, often with just one person as the focus, facility dogs often work with many people in a therapeutic or clinical setting and are chosen for another gift: their sociability. For Delray, a playful black Lab that has excellent people skills, the Pacific Assistance Dog Society (PADS) knew there was only one career path for him. He’s now the first full-time facility dog in North America to offer psychological support to EMS workers. He’s been shadowing his handler Erica Olson, the coordinator for Alberta Health Service’s PAWS program, raising mental health awareness and responding to acute stress calls (Here are 8 unusual symptoms that are linked to stress.) — for instance, if a paramedic is dealing with accumulated job stress or has a rough shift. The thing he does best is bring a smile to people’s faces. “He has a fantastic command called ‘Go say hi,’” says Olson. “He’ll turn on his wiggle like you’ve turned on a light switch.” He even intuitively seems to know what others need. At one drop-in, Delray greeted an emergency medical technician, then proceeded to gently lean against her legs. The EMT had responded to a really hard call just that morning and it was as though Delray could sense her stress and wanted to comfort her, even though he hadn’t been directed to do so.
It’s dogs like Delray and Dana that are making a difference in the lives of individuals and families all across the country, and their wagging tails, warm puppy eyes and incredible loyalty are blazing the trail for animal-assisted intervention in the future. For now, these “good boys and girls” deserve more than just a belly rub — even if their work feels like play to them.
The crisis: Service dogs offer proven benefits, but it’s almost impossible to get one — unless you’re willing to spend $30 thousand.
Though it depends on the type of service dog you’re after, the process of bringing one into a family is onerous, says Danielle Forbes, National Service Dogs executive director. Even if you or your child have the right diagnosis and can provide a safe home (all things that should be taken into account by a reputable service dog provider), many programs in Canada no longer have open wait-lists. Since each individual service dog requires upwards of $30 thousand of training over its lifespan, and respectable programs tend to cover those costs with donations, these organizations simply don’t have the financial resources to meet the growing demand. “People are desperate, and they’re turning to self-training opportunities and buying dogs off people,” says Forbes, with some families paying into the tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes for dogs that aren’t trained or capable of providing adequate support. But you can make a difference by donating to local organizations to help bring more properly trained service dogs to the children and adults who so badly need them.