Dog helps Missouri veteran deal with mental scars

Friday, October 15, 2010 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

MARYVILLE — When Dee Barnes returned from military service during the Persian Gulf War, she had trouble dealing with her emotions.

In 1994 she began seeing a psychiatrist, who prescribed several medications in an effort to curb her anxiety, depression and panic. The drugs didn't help much.

Then, two years ago, during a return trip to a Veterans Affairs hospital, Barnes bumped into a patient who had a special pet. After asking a few questions, Barnes discovered the animal was a psychiatric service dog.

A psychiatric service dog is a specific type of service dog trained to assist its handler with a psychological disability, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or schizophrenia. Most service dogs are associated with physical limitations like blindness or paralysis.

"I did a little research and found an organization for psych dogs," Barnes said.

When a friend had a litter of puppies available for adoption nearly two years ago, Barnes jumped at the chance and brought home Lulu, her Beagle/Jack Russell mix.

While service dog certification is not required by federal law, training is required.

The Psychiatric Service Dog Society recommends training in three areas: basic obedience, public access skills and disability-related assistance.

For Barnes and Lulu, it's about feelings. Lulu is still in training, but Barnes said when she is feeling depressed, scared or nervous Lulu can sense a change in Barnes' chemical physiology and act to provide comfort.

"When I am in a crowd of people and get scared, Lulu will pull me out," Barnes told students at Eugene Field Elementary School.

The society says psychiatric dogs can help ease symptoms such as persistent sadness, hopelessness, hypersomnia, lack of motivation, post traumatic stress, panic and depression.

Since their training began, Barnes said Lulu has helped reduce her dependence on prescription medication. Barnes was even able to face a crowd of second graders and talk to them about the proper way to approach her canine companion.

"If the vest is on, hands off," Barnes told the students. "Service dogs with a vest on are working."

Once Barnes felt comfortable with the students, she removed Lulu's vest and allowed them to pet her helper.

"She's really been great," Barnes said. "She was my support through a recent period of cancer, and she can even tell when my diabetes is up and my blood sugar is low."

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