COLUMBIA — The waitress wanted to make small talk.
“Oh, a puppy!” she said to Debbie McMurray of Hazelwood. “So pretty. Good companion? She’s so well-behaved.”
A year ago, the thought of such a simple conversation would have made McMurray anxious. She lacked the social confidence to answer, and she probably wouldn’t even have been comfortable coming out of her house to go to a restaurant.
Now McMurray takes a constant source of courage everywhere she goes.
“That’s Priss. She’s the best,” McMurray told the waitress.
Miss Priss, as her service dog certificate reads, is a stocky Rottweiler with a lopsided puppy grin. McMurray suffers from depression, anxiety and attention deficit disorder, and she uses Priss’ constant company as a source of social acceptance, joy and emotional therapy.
“She gives me a confidence that I’ve never had before,” McMurray said, smiling down at Priss’ calm presence beneath the table. “I’ve never been one to be able to carry on conversations with people. But with her around, it’s not a problem. I can talk all day long about Priss.”
Psychiatric service dogs like Priss are one of the recent trends in assistance dog movements. Although Seeing Eye dogs for the blind became popular in the United States during the 1940s, it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that other types of service dogs moved into mainstream society, and only about 15 years ago that a significant number of people began using psychiatric service dogs, said Rebecca Johnson, professor of nursing and director of the MU Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction.
For those who suffer from depression and anxiety, a dog is both a calming force and a constant companion, Johnson said. Interacting with dogs causes a relaxation response — the heart and respiratory rates slow — which can help ward off any panic or anxiety attacks.
In fact, the only time recently that McMurray’s friend Rita Schallert has seen McMurray upset was in the fall of 2007, when the trio learned that Priss has nasal carcinoma, a type of cancer. McMurray was on the verge of panicking, and Priss was becoming very anxious as well, thinking something was wrong with her owner.
“I told Debbie, ‘She’s only concerned about you,’” Schallert said. “‘If you calm down, she’s going to calm down.’ What’s so magical is (Priss) only wanted to calm Debbie down and know what she could do for her, when the poor dog herself had the cancer.”
Now both dog and owner can relax; Priss’ cancer has gone into remission.
“Severe anxiety is nothing but an overactive response to normalcy,” said Russell “Jake” Jacobsen of Edgerton, who trains dogs for the Service Animal Registry of America. “There is an unreasonable fear here. So how can I alleviate or, if nothing else, help (my client) overcome this anxiety?”
Jacobsen says service dogs are the answer. They build clients’ self-confidence with unconditional devotion and give them something tangible and constant in their lives to cling to in anxious moments.
In the dimly lit Discount Smoke Shop where McMurray works, Priss helps McMurray feel more in control just by being around. As the glass door jingles open and a young male customer McMurray doesn’t know walks in, McMurray stands, her eyes glinting shyly from behind her glasses.
“Hi. What can I get for you?”
The jingling of the door chimes causes the slumbering Priss to open her eyes, but she remains still and quiet. Throughout the exchange, Priss keeps her eyes on McMurray, and when the customer leaves, she lets her lids fall shut once again.
“Every time she thinks there is something out of the ordinary, she tries to get in between me and whatever it is,” McMurray says.
Ray and his social lubricant
Even people without documented psychiatric or behavioral disorders can find solace in an animal making them more independent. By definition, a service dog is trained to reduce the effects of a disability, such as visual, hearing, mobility, seizure, diabetic and psychiatric disabilities not obvious to the general public.
These dogs can perform a variety of tasks: opening doors; turning lights on and off; pulling a wheelchair; providing stability for owners; retrieving objects; alerting owners to health complications; and simply being a companion. More than 20,000 people in the U.S. benefit from a service dog of some kind, according to the film “Partners in Independence,” by Maximus Media.
Michael Ray is among them.
Ray was injured in a road rage accident in 1978. While he was trying to pass another truck, the other driver became enraged and began pacing Ray. They pulled over at an exit, and the other driver shot Ray, paralyzing him from the waist down. For 25 years, Ray fended for himself, relying on his own determination and skill with his wheelchair to get around. But several years after the death of his wife in 1999, he decided he could use a new friend.
He knew the director of New Horizons Service Dogs, a group based in Florida that trains dogs to assist people with physical disabilities, and he bought a golden retriever puppy to train for himself in 2003.
Ray benefits daily from Eagle’s loyalty and attentiveness, and he uses Eagle as an excuse to get himself out of the house. Ray takes Eagle for walks at least three times a day, and Eagle helps Ray feel better about himself.
“Since being injured, I’ve been a little quicker to lose my temper, especially at myself,” Ray said. “But since having Eagle, I don’t do it so much because he comes up to me like he’s saying ‘Dad, did I do something? Are you mad?’ Well, no, not anymore. I can’t be mad looking at you.”
Ray considers Eagle a part of him, his right arm, his best friend. But a big difference Ray has noticed since training Eagle is how people react to him. Many people avert their gaze or walk to the other side of the street when passing a person with a disability. But when the person has a service dog, people want to pet it or introduce themselves.
“More people know Eagle’s name than mine,” Ray joked.
Service dog owners have reported an increased sense of social integration since receiving their dogs, Johnson said. Research shows that people are much more likely to exchange greetings with those who use wheelchairs if they have service dogs with them.
Before Priss was registered as a service dog, McMurray didn’t even want to leave the house. But training Priss to be her service dog meant she had to take her out and have her interact with others.
“Otherwise, I get to where I just want to crawl into a dark hole and be by myself. She forces me not to do that,” McMurray said.
How to train the dogs
Priss had always been an exceptionally well-behaved, devoted pet. But while watching television one day in early 2007, McMurray stumbled across the show “Dog Whisperer With Cesar Millan.” Soon an episode aired about service dogs helping those with depression. McMurray had never heard of service dogs for people with psychiatric issues, but one look into Priss’ loyal face convinced her that Priss would be the perfect service dog.
“I don’t think she realized Priss had been her therapy dog long before she got to be a licensed one,” Schallert said with a laugh.
McMurray’s quest for more information took her to the Service Animal Registry’s Web site. She ordered a “Therapy Dog in Training” vest and, using Millan’s methods — gleaned from repeated viewings of recorded episodes, his books and a live presentation in St. Louis — McMurray began training Priss. She had Priss registered in April 2007.
“She has such a way with animals,” Schallert said. “She’s our own personal dog whisperer.”
Ray also did most of Eagle’s training himself. Using New Horizon’s methods and facilities, Ray taught Eagle to push the handicap buttons that open doors, push elevator buttons, retrieve objects and turn on lights. He’s working on teaching Eagle to pull his wheelchair.
But not everyone is lucky enough to have the perfect dog already living in his or her home. About 150 organizations train service dogs for the disabled, and more private trainers like Jacobsen work independently to provide qualified dogs to those who need them.
Vegas is a friendly 5-month-old golden retriever who appears to love meeting new people. But unlike some dogs, Vegas has a serious job to do.
A service dog in training, the frisky pup is part of New Horizons. The organization has 26 puppies being raised like Vegas by families across the country. Cristi Cook, assistant professor of radiology at MU’s Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital and Vegas’ trainer, works with Vegas daily to socialize him, teach him commands and habituate him to different environments.
“Vegas, wait,” Cook says, dragging open the rusty metal gate by the hospital and pulling up sharply on Vegas’ leash, which brushes against his green “New Horizons Service Dog” vest. Vegas looks up at his owner with dark, eager eyes. He stutters forward, hesitates.
“Waaaaaait.” Vegas’ fuzzy back legs, covered with silky, straw-colored fur, twitch, then lower his rear to the ground.
“Good boy! OK, come,” Cook says, walking through the opening.
“Wait” and “come” are only two of hundreds of commands Vegas must learn in the 18 months he’ll spend in the Cook household.
“Unlike babies, this dog came with a manual,” Cook said, referring to the command book she got when she took Vegas into her home. The manual gives Cook all the commands she needs to teach Vegas, along with tips on how to teach them. The commands include “Make friends” to give permission to meet new people, “Up” to have the dog put its front legs on its owner so the person can brace him of herself, and even a command to tell the dog to go to the bathroom outside before a meeting. The book also gives advice on how to socialize Vegas in different situations, such as at the grocery store, and with many different types of people.
Vegas is still having trouble waiting before making friends and eating things off the floor. But Cook and her husband, James, still have 16 months left to teach Vegas the commands before he goes to an intensive six-month training session at the New Horizons compound in Florida.
This is the Cooks’ first puppy-raising experience.
“I had never heard about this before,” Cook said. “It’s a way of having a cute little cuddly thing for a little while, but you also get the satisfaction of helping someone else. This is definitely a need a lot of people have.”
After the six-month stint at New Horizons, Vegas will have two more months of training with his prospective human partner. The team training will ensure that Vegas and his new owner are compatible and also will help the person understand Vegas’ signals to command him properly. If both parties complete the training successfully, the dog is certified, and the team graduates together.
“We’ll get to see him graduate with his person,” Cook said. “It will be worth all the tears and hard work.”
If Vegas has difficulty completing the training, there’s a slight chance he could go back to the Cooks as a pet, but odds are that Vegas will become a full-service dog. New Horizons has an 80 percent success rate, and the director personally matches dogs up with clients.
But not all dogs require such intensive training. McMurray spent three months with Priss, taking her to grocery stores and to work to socialize her to the outdoor environment, before applying to have her registered. Priss wears an identification badge, and McMurray carries a larger version in her purse.
The application requires a letter from a physician or psychiatrist recommending a service dog for his or her patient, and the dog must pass a test that confirms it can avoid distractions, wait to eat until its owner allows, walk through a crowd and sit and stay on command.
The training itself can also be beneficial. It gives people a reason to look outside themselves and concentrate on something important, Johnson said.
While McMurray was training Priss, it took all her attention, taking her away from her own problems for a while, Schallert said.
“You could just see Debbie; she was just beaming she was just so proud of her,” Schallert said.
Johnson sees big opportunities for service dogs. For example, she said, many of the 600,000 soldiers and others stationed in Iraq will come back with post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries or depression. Service dogs could provide the emotional lift they need, she said, adding that children with autism also might benefit.
McMurray said all the training she and Priss went through was worth it. Although it was initially challenging for the formerly shy wallflower to deal with the attention a service dog brought, she concedes it’s been good therapy.
“Usually, I tend to stay in the background and not draw attention to myself,” McMurray said. “But going out with a Rottweiler that’s a therapy dog, you’re not going to hide in a crowd. I wasn’t hiding in the background. I was out in public with something that drew attention, something I never wanted to do. It’s changed my life.”