It’s still a challenge to tell friends, family, and others that you may have a mental health issue, despite all the prominent and positive campaigns to raise awareness. I’ve personally found that having a dog with you every day that has a bright yellow jacket with the words “Service Dog” in bold print tends to telegraph this to the whole world. Am I bothered about this? No I am not.
This story starts in July 2012 when, while undertaking archaeological fieldwork for my PhD in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, I fell about 8-10 metres down a sandstone cliff. After that I endured long periods of time in hospital, numerous surgeries, and was confined to an electric wheelchair for 6 months. I spent the majority of that year isolated, at home, with the support of some good friends and my wife, but with infrequent contact with the outside world.
Then there was the arrival of a Swedish Vallhund puppy named Elvi in the weeks after my accident. Elvi spent her first year as my close companion during those long months of recovery. When it was time to try to return to complete my PhD, I found the thought insurmountable. I was unable to walk properly and suffered from the loss of the full use of my left shoulder while being in high levels of distressing chronic pain. This all combined to create a perfect storm of debilitating depression, struggles with financial difficulties, thoughts of how I could possibly finish my degree, and the question of if I could ever be an archaeologist again.
At that time I attended some workshops on how to deal with chronic pain and one of the methods discussed was distraction, and it was here that I learnt that psychiatric assistance service dogs fulfil this role, amongst others, for their handlers. This was the moment that the penny dropped and I thought I should train Elvi to be a service dog. The Division of Student Life Access and Inclusion and my School helped with the requirements to allow Elvi onto campus, and she once she was registered with MindDog, her training and work began. It was to become an extremely important partnership that helped with my recovery and to maintain my ability to weather the chronic pain during long days at university.
I’ve found that there is growing literature demonstrating the positive impacts of psychiatric service dogs; from war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, to others that live with a myriad of mental health disorders. Elvi is a key part of my strategy to maintain the wellbeing of my mental and physical health, along with the many other medical and allied health support mechanisms that I’ve needed to develop over the past 3 years. Taking on a psychiatric service dog requires commitment and perseverance and it can be challenging. They love you unconditionally, and that needs to be returned with the same passion, a lot of training, and care. I for one can say that the benefit is enormous. She graduated with me in 2015, stole the show on stage, and has become a regular and a favourite at the Coombs Building where she still comes to work with me, in the office, the lab, and even when I tutored and lectured as my former students will know.
For further information about MindDog please visit: http://minddog.org.au/
Daryl Wesley is a lecturer at the ANU.