A psychiatric service dog is a type of service dog trained to assist its handler with a psychiatric condition such as schizophrenia. These service animals can be trained to help people with schizophrenia identify hallucinations, ground them back in reality, and even remind them to take their medication.
In this episode, our hosts explore how service dogs can be part of a person with schizophrenia’s support system. They speak with Shawn Gantkowski of Dog Training Elite Charlotte, who trains service dogs and shares what goes into training a psychiatric service animal. Listen Now!
Shawn Gantkowski, Dog Training Elite
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Rachel Star Withers creates videos documenting her schizophrenia, ways to manage and let others like her know they are not alone and can still live an amazing life. She has written Lil Broken Star: Understanding Schizophrenia for Kids and a tool for schizophrenics, To See in the Dark: Hallucination and Delusion Journal. Fun Fact: She has wrestled alligators.
To learn more about Rachel, please visit her website, RachelStarLive.com.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations, available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Schizophrenia. Hosted by Rachel Star Withers, an advocate who lives openly with Schizophrenia. We’re talking to experts about all aspects of life with this condition. Welcome to the show!
Rachel Star Withers: Welcome to Inside Schizophrenia, a Healthline Media podcast. I’m your host, Rachel Star Withers here with my co-host, Gabe Howard. And today’s episode is about psychiatric service dogs for schizophrenia.
Gabe Howard: I only know about seeing-eye dogs, which is, I think, the base level of knowledge that most people have about service animals. Everybody seems to know seeing eye dogs. And then the knowledge diminishes greatly after that.
Rachel Star Withers: Yes, and I think we also know a little bit as far as what we see in the news, the different controversy stories, the peacock.
Gabe Howard: The emotional support animals.
Rachel Star Withers: I think, yeah, that’s the one that always comes up, is the woman and the peacock because you’re like, how is the peacock going to get on the plane? And that was just the story that went viral. It led to so many just questions.
Gabe Howard: I remember when that story first came out and everybody’s like, oh, this is why we need to ban these animals, and that’s too far right, because service animals seeing-eye dogs, for example, they serve a valuable purpose. We needed to help society understand the difference between the emotional support animal and the service animal. And you found an incredible guest who has been working with animals his entire life.
Rachel Star Withers: Yes, we spoke with Shawn Gantkowski of Dog Training Elite Charlotte. He has a facility where he specially trains different types, all types of service dogs, therapy dogs, lots of different things. So he was so cool to talk to. Psychiatric service dog, so that is a type of service dog that assists with mental or psychiatric disabilities. So obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, bipolar and some other different ones. So many people are obsessed with their pets here in America. Sixty three point four million American households. Over half of the American population, has at least one dog. The US pet industry reached ninety nine billion dollars in sales last year. So, pets are everywhere. Like it’s just like a huge moneymaking thing. And then you have mental illness. And one in four adults are considered to have some type of mental illness from depression to bipolar, schizophrenia, different things like that. However, only point nine percent of people with mental illnesses have a psychiatric service dog.
Gabe Howard: And the psychiatric service dog is an important distinction in that statement, certainly scores of people with mental illness have used animals in their recovery, in their treatment just by going for a walk or loving their own animals, or caring or helping with routine, et cetera. But only point nine percent of people with mental illness have had a trained psychiatric service animal trained to do a task that meets all of the requirements that Shawn is going to tell us about later in the show. And that’s very important to understand the difference, because as we learned, you can’t just put a vest on an animal and be like boom service animal. It doesn’t work that way. And I think that maybe especially, you know, when the peacock story went viral, people were like, oh, is this all these animals are? Just somebody wearing a nine dollar vest from Amazon? But it’s not.
Rachel Star Withers: Yes, and the psychiatric service dogs, so these are ones specially trained to assist with a mental disorder of some type. The U.S. military actually did a report about psychiatric service dogs being used for veterans who had PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. And the U.S. military found that 82 percent of those who had a PTSD diagnosis reported symptom reduction after being partnered with a psychiatric service dog, 82 percent and another 40 percent were able to decrease their medication. Just those two numbers alone. And I know we’re talking about PTSD, not schizophrenia, but if you tell me, hey, there’s this new therapy, there’s this new drug on the market that’s been found to help 82 percent of people, that’s like amazing.
Gabe Howard: And people would be clamoring to sign up for it and to try it. While we all love our animals and our animals are helpful, we want to understand that we’re discussing the difference between the psychiatric service animal and, for example, Rachel Star’s pet Toto,
Rachel Star Withers: Oh.
Gabe Howard: Which is not a psychiatric service animal.
Rachel Star Withers: Poor Totes, he is not. So there’s been like throughout recent history, people using dogs specifically to help those with disabilities has been a thing. However, for psychiatric uses, supposably, the first psychiatric dog would have been from actually World War Two. And it was, it was Smoky. He was a four pound Yorkshire terrier who actually served in different hospitals, assisting the nurses and the wounded. And I just thought that was the cutest thing ever. So just this little four pound fluff and he was actually transferred then. As the war ended, he came back to America. So he got to stay with the nurses and he continued working with different vets and stuff.
Gabe Howard: The important thing to remember is that they figured out a need and they trained an animal to resolve it. This is very important when determining what a psychiatric service animal is. You’ve got an issue or a problem or something that you need help with, and then the animal is trained to assist with it.
Rachel Star Withers: Yes, and now, Gabe, you have a dog just like I have, and it’s really funny, over the years, one of the biggest things that’s helped me was having a little animal friend. A little. A little. I always say a little fluff. Of my three dogs that I’ve had, the one that connected with me the most was named Toto, and he was a little hellion. He would not be considered appropriate for service animal work in any way. He hated everyone and everything in the world with the exception of me. But the one great thing about Toto was that he could tell when I was mentally off before I could, and it wasn’t something that I trained him to do, which was very odd because he could tell and he would start acting a certain way and he would become incredibly clingy. He would wake me up sometimes and I would know, OK, something’s wrong with me. And sure enough, the next few hours I might start hallucinating. That was so amazing to me that he had that little sense about him. When I look back at some of the really bad times in my life. There was a few years ago a really bad time with suicide and he went insane. He was just the most annoying little animal in the world. And it’s like he could tell I was depressed and it was like, oh, no, you’re going to take me out. You’re going to go on a walk right now. And I do. I do think this little dog, like, saved my life numerous times. So I believe very much that, you know, animals can have a connection with you and help everybody. It isn’t just service animals.
Gabe Howard: And that’s remarkable. Right? But I also know that your mother provides you lots and lots of care. But if you went and got her a little vest from Amazon and said, my mom’s a doctor now, I would say, no, that’s not how any of this works. And I think that’s sometimes where we get into trouble. We have these animals that are perfect for us and we love them and they’re beautiful. And they make our lives better. And listen, you don’t have to have a mental illness to have your life be made better by an animal.
Rachel Star Withers: Yes.
Gabe Howard: But it’s important to understand that that just means that the dog is making your life better. It doesn’t mean that the dog is trained in much the same
Rachel Star Withers: Yes. I like the idea of the little vest for my mom, though, I mean, I, I think she might jump at that to put a little vest on when we go out and be like personal doctor
Gabe Howard: Rachel, I understand this desire to smack a little vest on your dog and take it with you everywhere you go. You know, when I when I’m suffering from depression, when I’m having anxiety and then insomnia. And so I’m tired. I can’t sleep. I’m depressed, I’m pessimistic, I’m anxious. I think bad things are going to happen. And my little 25 pounds schnauzer climbs up on my lap and puts his little snout on me and looks me in the eyes. I swear he’s looking into my soul and saying, Daddy, it’s chill. You got me. And, you know, I pet him, which is that like tactile feel. It calms me down. And in fact, when this happens, if he’s not around, I’ll call him. I’ll just be like, Peppy, here. Because I want that. And I understand. I’ve wanted to do it myself to just pick him up and carry him on an airplane or to a stressful meeting or. But it’s important to understand that that is not only dangerous for you, it’s dangerous for the people around us. But I don’t want anybody to hear and I think this is what I’m afraid of, Rachel. I’m afraid somebody’s going to say, well, they’re saying that unless your dog is a service animal, they don’t do you any good. And I don’t want people to hear that. Your puppy can do a lot of good, as can your cats and pocket pets and birds and on and on and on. We just need to understand that there’s a clear demarcation between our loving animals that help us and our service animals that work for us.
Rachel Star Withers: So, Gabe, your dog Peppy and my dog Toto and Totes, they would actually just be companion animals. That’s all they were. While they did help us quite a bit, neither of them have been trained to do a task that would help our mental disorder. So, yes, they do both help us. And it’s been wonderful having them, but they’re just considered companion animals. One of the things I mentioned about Toto was that he hated everyone and everything in the world except for me. So it was next to impossible to take him in public because he would want to attack viciously everybody. He was just and he was adorable. He was a little five pounds of just pure fluff. So everyone wants to pet it. The kids, like, would run over. And I’m like, no, because he’s like just full on, wants to like, bite their faces off. And I was just like, get back, get back, children, get back. And it didn’t help that I put a little bandanna on him. So he was just like painfully cute, like it was just adorable.
Gabe Howard: Aww.
Rachel Star Withers: And yeah, no, I did make it harder on myself by making him extra cuter. But that would be horrible if I walked around, if I did put a little vest on him. Right. And I did tell people that, hey, he helps me with my schizophrenia out in public. Because he was honestly a danger to other people. That’s another big piece of having a companion animal and a service animal is that training that goes into it. In general, the term is assistance dog. Now, depending on what country you’re in, the terms change a little. But in the US we tend to say assistance dog or a service dog. Now with an assistance dog, they have to be trained to do certain types of tasks to help with the disability. So the main things that to qualify as an assistant dog is that the partner, the human partner, must be disabled in some way that you would actually be diagnosed with. So not just your own diagnosis. It does need to be something that there’s been a medical diagnosis of. And the dog, the assistance dog has to be trained to help with that disability in a very specific way. So not just any general training. So, Gabe, your service dog might do different things than my service dog.
Gabe Howard: And one of the things to understand is that it is very, very specific, A always equals B with the C results. Let’s go back to our seeing-eye dog analogy. A seeing-eye dog is trained to lead a person who is visually impaired. They know when to stop so that you don’t walk out in traffic. They know to keep you on the sidewalk.
Rachel Star Withers: To be an assistance dog, it also cannot be a nuisance to the public. It needs to be a very well behaved dog. Its main focus is on the person with the disability. What’s interesting is that there is another type of assistance dog that I’d never heard of Gabe, but a facility dog. And those are dogs who aren’t trained to work with one person, but they do a task at a different facility. There are ones that work in different medical facilities who are specially trained to notice, like people becoming sick from something. These dogs live at a facility, though. This isn’t something that I would personally own, but they are trained in a very specific task for a large group of people. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen a facility dog in any places, but I was reading about the different ones and some that did work at mental health facilities with live in patients and things. And it’s an interesting concept and I think a very cool thing in a hospital setting.
Gabe Howard: I could not agree more. And again, it’s a working animal,
Rachel Star Withers: The other thing I think people will get tangled up in is emotional support animal and then therapy dog. An emotional support animal, that can be any animal that helps you emotionally, helps you deal with things. They might have had some light training, but again, they can’t do those tasks. The tasks are what is missing. A therapy dog, that is where you can go through different training. And there’s actually a programs that you enroll in and your dog has to pass. But those are the dogs that can go to hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, libraries. And that’s like a very friendly dog that kind of just helps everybody. So while a therapy dog also is very important and has training, not a service dog. Actual service dogs, OK, so the guide dogs, that’s what everyone thinks about are the dogs for blind people.
Rachel Star Withers: I think that’s what most people picture in their mind when it comes to any type of service dog. You automatically assume for a blind person. Another type is hearing. So if you have any kind of hearing problems, you have dogs that are specially trained to alert their handler for different like sounds and things, they can actually help wake the person up. There are mobility assistance dogs, so they tend to be bigger, if you have problems like getting up and things like that. So a Yorkie would not be a good mobility assistance dog. But the bigger dogs are really good for helping, especially people who aren’t steady on their feet. Medical response dogs, I think these are the coolest because they’re trained to alert people who have epilepsy that they’re about to have like a seizure. They’re able to detect diabetes, like when blood sugar is getting off. It’s amazing to think that dogs can do that. And another type is the autism assistance dogs. And that’s something that’s been growing the past few years because they’ve noticed that children with autism, they have such a hard time anyway in the world. But something about a dog really helps them adjust. And having an autism assistant dog, that was first introduced in 1997. So it’s been growing since then. Obviously, schizophrenia and autism are two different things. But autism service dogs can be helped to watch children. When a child starts wandering off, the dog will actually go and alert the parent. The reason I bring this up is so many of us who have schizophrenia and serious mental disorders like that, that’s kind of like how psychosis can be. You are mentally off. You might go and do something or start acting a certain way. And psychiatric service dogs, the different types can be trained to alert somebody, your caretaker. For me, it would be, let’s say, my parents. It’s just something to understand that it’s out there. It is an option that’s out there.
Gabe Howard: Rachel, I know we’ve been talking a lot in the abstract about what a service dog is, what a service dog isn’t, emotional support animals, companion animals. Let’s talk about actual psychiatric service dogs, I’m trying to figure out all of the things that a person living with schizophrenia could utilize a psychiatric service dog for, because at the end of the day, it’s still a dog. I’m imagine it’s not going to, like, dispense your medication for you, right? It can’t remind you to do something. It doesn’t have language skills. I am struggling to understand how a dog can help with schizophrenia.
Rachel Star Withers: Actually, they can remind you to take your medications. Now, no, they’re not going to be able to pop open the bottle for you and bring you one pill. But yes, they can actually be trained to bring you your medications, to alert you to take your medications. And honestly, the way this happens is that the dog is taught to be annoying and does something like it may be taught to nudge you, to constantly paw at you. So something that will kind of make you, oh, I need to go do something. I’m supposed to be doing something right now. One of the things when it deals with hallucinations is dogs can be trained to do room searches. So if you’re nervous about hallucinations, about going into rooms, the dog will go in first. It can kind of go around the full room. It can turn on the lights to the room, pretty much let you know it’s safe to come in. They can notice when you might be obsessing over something.
Rachel Star Withers: The dog is trained to notice those things. I shake a lot. So that would be something that if I were to have a psychiatric dog, they would train it to notice when I would start to kind of shake. Another thing with schizophrenia is with hallucinations and the anxiety and stuff, a technique that they can teach the different dogs to do is something called deep pressure or a grounding. And what the dog will do is when it notices that you are hallucinating or starting to have issues, the dog will come and it will sit on you. It will sit on you depending on like, you know, the size of the dog. They can do different things from full on. Like, I don’t want to say a massage because it would be like a not very comfortable massage, but basically the dog comes and gets in your lap and is like pushing against you with its paws. The main thing is there it’s helping bring you back to reality.
Gabe Howard: It serves as a distraction, but an intentional
Rachel Star Withers: Yes.
Gabe Howard: Distraction that the dog repeats over and over again, so it becomes essentially part of your coping toolbox.
Rachel Star Withers: Yes.
Gabe Howard: You understand what it means when the dog is doing it. And because this has worked in the past, it’s centering, right? It’s just very centering. It’s almost magical to see somebody getting ready to suffer from the symptoms of schizophrenia. And many of the symptoms cause a lot of suffering, and see something as almost simplistic as as a little animal crawling under their lap or nudging their leg or putting their paw on on any place on them or like you said, massaging just. And it it works. There’s ample research over decades to show that the efficacy rate is incredible.
Rachel Star Withers: But we better get into the cost and some of the problems, what it takes to actually get one of these wonderfully trained assistance animals.
Gabe Howard: And therein lies the problem, right? No podcast that’s talking about service animals would be complete if we didn’t handle, you know, the cons. There’s pros and cons to everything. One of the large cons is cost.
Rachel Star Withers: Yeah, cost for a trained service animal starts around fifteen thousand and can go on up to, I think one of the highest numbers I saw was around sixty thousand. And the price is going to depend on what type of training is required. And it’s not a quick thing. This isn’t a two week course. And the training is going to be the dog, but it’s also going to be the owner. It’s going to be the person with the disability. Like you have to be trained how to use this dog effectively. And the dog’s going to be trained, how do I help this person effectively? Yes, you should go through a trainer or organization of some sort, there’s all types of different organizations. Unfortunately, yeah, right now, we could all just Google dog vests and we can buy a vest offline. But yes, you do need to go through an actual trainer. A lot of these different organizations and trainers and whatnot, they also have waiting lists. Waiting lists can be anywhere from a year to five years. When it comes to the cost, insurance usually does not cover service dogs. A lot of money goes into this, a lot of training, a lot of time. And I don’t want to say that the idea of a service dog is just for, let’s say, people who are very well off because there are also fundraising organizations and different opportunities like that. But it isn’t something that is going to be widely available for everybody. It isn’t as simple as yes, just going and getting a prescription. The doctor can’t just write you a prescription for a service dog and you get one the next week. This is a process.
Gabe Howard: Obviously, the time that it takes to train the dog and the cost of a dog are both barriers to accessing a service animal. Does breed play a role in this at all? Can you just use any dog and turn it into a trained service dog or are there specific breeds? Is it just kind of a push?
Rachel Star Withers: The answer is yes and no, Gabe. Of the three main breeds that are used for psychiatric service dogs are Labradors, golden retrievers and German shepherd dogs. However, when they did a study across the board of service dogs, about 50 percent were found to have come from a registered breeder, followed by around 20 percent that had come from an animal shelter. A dog doesn’t necessarily have to be a specific purebred. However, it does need to be a dog that is confident and social and able to be trained to do all of these specific tasks. There are certain dogs that are going to be better at it than other types.
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Rachel Star Withers: And we’re back talking about psychiatric service dogs.
Gabe Howard: Now, of course, everything that we have been talking about is all the stuff that we have learned from the Internet and by reading studies and from learning from people who have psychiatric service animals. But you really should hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. See how I used an animal segue here?
Rachel Star Withers: Whoa, whoa.
Gabe Howard: Rachel, tell us about our guest and what we are about to listen to, because you spent quite a bit of time learning the ropes from Shawn.
Rachel Star Withers: Yes, Shawn over at Dog Training Elite Charlotte was amazing. I loved researching it to find our guest for the show. I just want to say I went through all these different websites trying to find a trainer that would be good to interview. And he has such a great website and these adorable photos of him and his family. It’s a very, very good family organization training these animals and just really, really cool guy.
Gabe Howard: Let’s go ahead and listen to that right now.
Rachel Star Withers: I’m talking with Shawn Gantkowski of Dog Training Elite Charlotte, who trains service dogs and pretty much all dogs. But Shawn, today we’re talking about service dogs. Thank you so much for being with us.
Shawn Gantkowski: Thank you, Rachel. It’s a pleasure to be here, thank you so much.
Rachel Star Withers: So right away, tell me, how is training a service dog different than just general obedience training for a dog?
Shawn Gantkowski: Great question. So the initial training is the same, all dogs have to go through our proprietary obedience training because we got to make sure that we push all dogs past distractions. While the dog may mind you in the home, when we get out in public spaces, there’s really a lot more distractions. So obedience is getting the dog focused completely on you. All the dogs go through obedience. Typically, that’s where it would end. Once we go through the obedience and we teach you guys the methods on how to train. It’s pretty much done. You guys just keep practicing that. When we go for the service, we then take the obedience and we evolve it to public access. So then we start having sessions where you’re going to frequent. If you fly a lot, we’re going to do some stuff in the airport. If you go to the zoo a lot, we’re going to go to the zoo and we’re going to do the same obedience things. But now we’re going to elevate all the distractions to make sure, again, that that dog is focused on its handler and the job it’s supposed to perform in. Then we’re going to start working on task training. Now we’re actually going to teach that dog to perform a specific task or a job, if you will, for its handler.
Rachel Star Withers: Now, there’s so much in the news the past few years, where it comes to emotional support animals versus service animals. Can you explain the difference to us?
Shawn Gantkowski: Yes, so an emotional service animal is one that just creates a positive environment, but a service dog actually performs a real world task, such as, maybe an anxiety attack is starting to manifest. The dog learns through training what that looks like before it actually becomes a full grown anxiety attack and the dog can then do something and we train the dog to be able to recognize that over time. And the dog then performs a conditioned response to a behavior that its client, its handler is experiencing or starting to have. Maybe it’s deep pressure therapy, the dog can put its head on a lap or a shoulder. Where an emotional support animal is just that. It is just there to make you feel good. But there’s no training to a specific task.
Rachel Star Withers: And what are some of the tasks that a psychiatric service dog could do?
Shawn Gantkowski: It’s got to be creative, so there’s no one size fits all here, so it’s all what the client does. So say there’s a client that when they start to kind of go away in their thoughts, maybe they pick their skin or they start wringing their hands. We would want the dog to do like a pattern interrupt and put their nose in between there to kind of ground the handler that you’re kind of starting to drift away there and have that negative or toxic behavior to yourself. I’m here to let you know and ground you. If the handler lies on the ground, we can get the dog to do the pressure and actually lay on the client again to kind of keep them safe, almost like a weighted blanket where it gives you that calming feeling. We have tactile stimulation. So, again, if there’s a panic behavior, we can again interrupt it or we can do watch my six with a dog monitors the handler’s rear blind spot while stationary. It can walk backwards. So while you’re walking forward, you want the dog to watch behind you because you don’t feel safe with your blind spot. We can train a dog to actually walk backwards to kind of keep an eye on your backside. We can do where if you’re not comfortable with crowds, the dog can actually orbit around to create a buffer between you and maybe say you’re in the grocery store aisle and you’re just not comfortable with people to your left side.
Shawn Gantkowski: We can train the dog to recognize that and the dog will go to the left side to create a buffer between you and somebody else in society. We can do look for gaps in a crowd to get you out of it. If you don’t like to be in large groups, all of a sudden you find yourself in a group of people. It’s starting to kind of become more of a crowd. We can train the dog to look for that gap to get you out of there. If it’s becoming, becomes a little anxiety starting to creep in, we can do wake from night terrors that usually it’s a larger dog that does that and we can do some things where the dog can recognize that. And that’s what most people need to understand. A service dog is working all the time. A lot of things happen when you’re asleep. That dog is really never shutting off. So it’s a very profound responsibility to take on a service dog. And everybody needs to understand that that dog is working one hundred percent of its life. So that’s why it’s really important to get that dog pushed past distractions. Because it’s got to be completely focused in that time of need.
Rachel Star Withers: I think not many people when they think about mental health, think of psychiatric service dogs, I think most people picture the service dogs for the blind or mobility. And with the service dogs, they’re able to help identify hallucinations. I have schizophrenia and a lot of our listeners also have schizophrenia. And we deal with a lot of visual hallucinations and audio. How could a service dog help with that?
Shawn Gantkowski: We get the family involved because the family knows the physical manifestation of what an episode looks like, where maybe the person who has the disability may not know what it looks like to them. So the family is an integral part of what we do. And the family says, well, typically when she starts to have an episode, this is what she does. So we train the dog to start recognizing that behavior and then we have the dog perform a task. And we do that by encouraging the dog and motivating it with treats. And we pair a word to it. So let’s just say that we need the dog to jump up and puts paws on your shoulders. We would use a word like hugs or cuddles and treats and entice that dog to get up on your shoulders while the client or the handler would say the word hugs and cuddles. And eventually the dog’s going to learn that. And we’re going to slowly take the treat away and we’re going to say the word now. The dogs are continually jump up on the shoulders when it starts recognizing a certain condition. Eventually, we take the word away and now we just mock the behavior. And the dog has learned through repetition. When mom does this, my job is to do that. And that’s why it’s so important that those dogs don’t have any distractions when they’re out in public. It’s constantly watching mom and when mom does this, my job is to do that. When you’re saying the hallucinations, there’s a physical activity that happens along with the mental activity. And it’s our job to find out what that physical activity is so that we can pair that with a word, the motivation such as a treat or lots of praise. And then we just we keep taking things away as we see that the dog is being conditioned to the response of the physical activity.
Rachel Star Withers: What I’m hearing as you speak is that all of this training, it involves the client and it involves their support system, I think a lot of times when people think of support dogs, if they were going to get one, it’s like, oh, I just go pick one up and we’re good to go. But this sounds like it’s a lot. It’s involving the whole family.
Shawn Gantkowski: Absolutely, we want a service dog to bond with its handler, in our opinion, our modality, the bonding is the most crucial piece of this whole thing. And we believe in teaching the client what we’re doing, getting their feedback, because this has to be creative, because I want to use hugs or cuddles. You may not want to use that word. You may not be comfortable with it. So we want your feedback, what works in it for you. And it’s really fun to come up with some really cool ideas and we really get to put this whole thing together. But yes, definitely the whole family and everybody that can be a part of this the better.
Rachel Star Withers: For a psychiatric service dog, the whole thing, what goes into that training? If I have a puppy and we’re going to start this, tell me about what would that training look like? How long? What would we go through?
Shawn Gantkowski: So it all depends on the dog and obviously the client it’s lots of creativity, lots of patience, lots of practice, just like a professional athlete who just doesn’t show up on Sunday and play the game. He’s every day in the gym, every day are just repetition. And we’re building a conditioned response. So that’s where the practice comes in. Kind of like you guys get in your car and drive to work. You don’t even think about it anymore. You don’t even know how you got to work. Just, who drove the car? It’s the same thing with a dog. We are just going to continually condition that dog that doesn’t even think about it anymore. So again, we would start out at 16 weeks, preferably with the earliest 14 to 16 weeks, and we would start with the obedience training. And we’re going to start just teaching it basic concepts like come, sit, down, heel, place, quiet. Once we go through the obedience training, we start to go out into group classes where we get around other distractions and our distractions or other well-mannered dogs, other handlers going through training in parks with our squirrels or cats or other dogs calling and wanting to sniff.
Shawn Gantkowski: And we got to get these dogs to where zero reactivity to that. Once we get them past our group courses, then we would go to the public access. If it’s a child that that goes to school and needs a service dog for school, we would work with the school, the teacher, the classroom, kinda explain the needs of the child, some of the things we can help to incorporate getting that dog in that school, answering their questions. If it’s work, we work with the employer, the employees. Kind of get everybody comfortable figure out what we need to do to kind of get everybody up to speed. Again, if it’s somebody that frequents a zoo every weekend, we’re going to go to the zoo or they go to Target or wherever it is, we’re going to go to those places to kind of get the dog used to any distraction that we can. And we can’t get a dog fully prepared for everything it’s ever going to see in its life because you just never know. But we try as many things as we can just to where the dog is just solid.
Shawn Gantkowski: Nothing will shake that dog. And it’s constantly focused on its handler. Once we go and we pass public access, then we typically start doing the task training. And that’s where we kind of get creative. As far as a time frame or our service dog training, you know, we like a year. It’s ongoing training, but we’ve had service dogs trained as fast as two to three months. It really depends on the dog, the breed, of the drive to please its handler. Not every dog cares to please its handler. So we plan on spending about fifty two weeks with a client when we do a service dog. But that’s not to say that we can’t have a task trained way before then to where they are already a certified service dog. To where they’re able to get on the airlines or other public transportation.
Rachel Star Withers: Now, there’s another type of dog that kind of gets thrown in with emotional support, psychiatric service, and that’s the therapy dog. Tell us what’s a therapy dog exactly?
Shawn Gantkowski: Therapy dog works for other people, a service dog works for you. So a therapy dog is one that we would train up to public access. It doesn’t have to do task trainers, no specific task. It’s learning to do so. It goes through our normal obedience. It has to pass acces canine good citizen requirements and then it’s got to have public access to where, again, we take it out and nothing’s going to distract us. Let’s just say we have a young child, maybe went through a traumatic event and it’s not comfortable talking to a counselor about that. You can provide a therapy dog and that child will feel much more comfortable letting that out to that therapy dog and finally getting it off its chest and being able to heal.
Rachel Star Withers: What, in your opinion, is the hardest part of training?
Shawn Gantkowski: Training the owners.
Rachel Star Withers: Ok.
Shawn Gantkowski: It’s the discipline of it is every day you need to work with your dog. It doesn’t matter if it’s 18 degrees outside. It’s raining, it’s cold, it’s snowing. It’s every day working with your dog and just realizing that this is a relationship like any other. And you get out of it what you put into it.
Rachel Star Withers: And that’s something that I think was also overlooked when you think of different service dogs versus emotional support dogs, is that yeah, there is a lot of training and it’s not magic. The owner has to be willing to do all of this.
Shawn Gantkowski: Absolutely. I know with a lot of obedience training, I go out, we’ll do an evaluation of the dog, and I let them know what we recommend and they say, oh, you just can’t take a dog and train it? And you’re absolutely right. I think in television, society, you see Cesar Millan, the dog whisperer, there is no magic wand. It’s just like anything else. We really have to teach the concept and it’s just it’s practice.
Rachel Star Withers: If someone’s interested in a service dog, what should their first steps be?
Shawn Gantkowski: First step would be to reach out to a trainer they trust, they want to work with and do your due diligence, make sure it’s somebody you agree it’s a relationship to be part of your family. Make sure you bring this person your home, you talk to them, you kind of see what they’ve been able to do in the community already and then find out what they recommend. Get their ideas or a breed that works well for their specific needs, and let them help you find the dog.
Rachel Star Withers: And how do you know if a service dog is right for you? Like, how should a client know, hey, this is what I need? Or maybe not. Maybe I would not be a good owner of a service dog.
Shawn Gantkowski: To be brutally honest, if you’re somebody that wants to go work out but doesn’t, wants to eat right, but doesn’t, wants to not sleep 12 hours a day but doesn’t and you can’t discipline yourself to take care of yourself, you already know you’re not going to be disciplined enough to take care of another life. And that’s just the most brutal, honest way I can say. If you’re a disciplined person, you can put your mind to something and actually accomplish it. And, you know, without a shadow of a doubt, you’re going to be disciplined to taking care of that dog. It’s one thing to not take care of ourselves. But when there’s another life that that’s relying on you, it’s imperative that you are disciplined. A service dog is 24/7. That dog needs to be with you all the time. You’re not leaving it at home when you’re on vacation or when you want to go somewhere. That dog should be with you all the time. That is the definition of a real service dog.
Rachel Star Withers: Tell us some of your success stories, how have some of the service dogs changed your clients lives?
Shawn Gantkowski: You know that the best part, I’ll be honest with you, Rachel, is just being able to get people to reintegrate in society. There’s so many stories where people haven’t been out of their house in years. There’s concern about getting out in the general public. There’s people that work. They go to a job and they go straight home. And there’s there’s nothing in between. They’re in their apartment or in their house. And that service dog kind of gives them an outlet.
Rachel Star Withers: It makes me feel good as people who have schizophrenia, there’s a lot of stigma to it and I’m a big pusher of dogs because it really almost knocks away the stigma because you’ll have people just like, oh, my God, can I pet your dog? And I think it’s so good for people who suffer with symptoms of isolation, like with schizophrenia, to be able to get back into society and connecting with people.
Shawn Gantkowski: Absolutely, getting them reintegrated back into society and back into a normal world, and that’s where what we’re building a business on is that model right there.
Rachel Star Withers: Well, Sean, your training is located in Charlotte, North Carolina. Tell our listeners how they can find out more about you.
Shawn Gantkowski: Dog Training Elite Charlotte, we serve as the whole Charlotte and surrounding metro areas. You can visit us on DogTrainingElite.com/Charlotte, or you can go to our Facebook page, Dog Training Elite Charlotte. More than easy to get hold of us.
Rachel Star Withers: And your website’s great it actually for any of our listeners, if you go on there, they have all the different training classes, they have the different types of service dogs, what goes into training them. And then they also have obedience training, therapy dog training. So it’s very interesting to just read through. And I like that how specific your website is about what goes into each type of training and what the client can expect.Well, thank you so much for talking with us, Sean. It has been wonderful and hope our listeners check out DogTrainingElite.com.
Shawn Gantkowski: Thank you so much, Rachel.
Gabe Howard: Shawn seems like a very cool guy.
Rachel Star Withers: Yes, and when we’re talking about all this, and I think something that for me, Shawn really brought it home, was that a service dog is just another piece of a support system.
Gabe Howard: I think that’s a really good way to look at it, and I was also thinking, as I was listening to Shawn talking, that the more tools we have, the better. Right? It’s not about which tool is best. It’s about how many tools do we have access to. And then I kind of thought, well, wait a minute, this could really be a game changer if you’re not Rachel and Gabe, you know, we talk a lot about how our family, our friends, the people that we live with will notice things before we do. Well, not everybody has family and friends. Not everybody lives with somebody. Not everybody has access to humans 24/7. And if they do, there is some potential for caregiver burnout. And I was just thinking, you know, a service dog really exists to service you. That is their role. And they never think to themselves, wow, I wish I could go on a vacation or I could get a weekend off or my loved one is driving me nuts. And the people who have service animals never think to themselves, ugh, I need a break from my dog. It’s quite the opposite. But I know I personally and I’m not going to speak for you, Rachel, but I’ve thought to myself, man, I wish my wife would just go away. I wish my mom would stop asking me if I was OK. So there’s caregiver burnout, but there’s also burnout of your caregivers. And I really see this as a solution in the support system space to all of those issues or potential problems as well. Is that how you see it?
Rachel Star Withers: I think there’s a lot of opportunities with psychiatric service dogs. I do think it’s one of the areas that’s underutilized for people with schizophrenia and other serious mental disorders. I’ve never had a doctor or anybody ever bring up such a thing. And only recently did I go to a health facility where they had a therapy dog there. And it was not a mental health facility. It was for something else. But that was the first time. And they had a little poster on the wall about, hi, this is the dog that’s going to be around. I feel it made me more relaxed at the facility. When I was talking to the doctors, when I was talking to the nurses. But, yeah, it’s just something that I haven’t seen utilized much in our space. Like you said, Gabe, it’s another tool. Is a service dog right for you versus a just companion animal, emotional support animal versus an actual psychiatric service dog? I think one of the biggest questions when you’re approaching this subject would be when you are out in public, is a symptom from your schizophrenia preventing you from doing certain things? And could a service dog help you with that? We talk, you know, in the very beginning about my little dog, Toto. I don’t feel at the moment there’s any place where a service dog would help me.
Rachel Star Withers: I might want my little dog there because they’re cute and adorable and everyone wants to meet them. And that makes me more outgoing. But there’s not necessarily a symptom that it’s addressing. However, let’s say that I have a hard time flying. I have a hard time going to my job because of my hallucinations have gotten to a point where I can’t always tell what’s real and a service animal could help me with that. I think that’s the difference there. And I think that’s just a personal question. And I think it might have to do with different times of your life. I don’t think right now I personally need a service dog. Down the road, ten years I could be in a very different place. My schizophrenia could be in a very different place, and I might need some sort of additional help to go out in public and, you know, maintain a quote unquote, normal life. Everybody needs to look at their situation. The different caregivers out there, the family friends who are listening, you know, it’s not just about the person, it is the whole family. It’s whoever is going to be living in that house. You don’t sign up for a service dog for one year. Is the whole family going to be able to take on this long term commitment? And you need to make sure that everyone in the household understands that this dog is a service dog. So you don’t have one member of the family kind of going against the training that we’ve paid so much invested in.
Gabe Howard: [Laughter]
Rachel Star Withers: But it is that simply it’s a whole everybody who lives in that household will be affected by this. So it is something to think about. And then the finances of it. Looking in to how would you get the dog to start with and then continue to care for it? Veterinary expenses just kind of that general grooming expenses can be a lot for an animal. So it’s not even just that up front amount of money you are committing to taking care of an animal for the next ten years, say.
Gabe Howard: And obviously, in addition to all of that, a dog involves time. Taking care of an animal will involve some time. So it’s important to understand, in addition to the upfront costs, addition to the training costs, addition to the working through problems, in addition to the disruption to the household. There is also just the fact that this is something that you need to do day in and day out. So it will take your time. And of course, there’s expenses moving forward. So I don’t want anybody to hear that this is a magical cure, that it just rains success. We, the people who get the psychiatric service dog have to put in time, energy, effort and resources as well. It’s not a magic cure, just like everything in the schizophrenia world, it has its part that it handles well. And we have to do our part as well, good and bad, pluses and minuses. And it takes effort and diligence on the part of the person living with schizophrenia as well.
Rachel Star Withers: This could just be a new tool to just kind of consider in your tool belt for dealing with schizophrenia and for my wonderful caregivers out there and friends and family, again, same thing. It’s a tool for you. And even if it isn’t something right now, it is something that you can consider for later in life. Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Inside Schizophrenia. Please, like, share, subscribe, rate our podcast and we’ll see you next time here on Inside Schizophrenia.
Announcer: You’ve been listening to Inside Schizophrenia, a podcast from Psych Central and Healthline Media. Previous episodes can be found at PsychCentral.com/IS or on your favorite podcast player. Your host, Rachel Star Withers, can be found online at RachelStarLive.com. Co-host Gabe Howard can be found online at gabehoward.com. Thank you and we’ll see you next time.