Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Book Review: Healing Companions (dogs, service dogs)

Healing Companions – Ordinary Dogs and their Extraordinary Power to Transform Lives, by Jane Miller, 2010, 256 pp, New Page Books and Career Press, $16.99 
A cover photo cute enough to die for and a stunning title and subtitle that made me pick this book up to see what it was about: ‘Ordinary Dogs and Their Extraordinary Power to Transform Lives.’ Wow!

Reading about a new kind of service dog, psychiatric service dogs (PSDs), appealed to me because I had met one at Walter Reed Army Medical Center shortly after I returned from Afghanistan.

Miller writes as if she were three different people writing three different types of books – she instructs, she informs, she inspires: she writes almost a manual or cookbook about how to select and train a PSD; she has compiled a wealth of information in the seven-plus appendices with resources, websites, and a bibliography on PSDs; and she writes in narrative form about real people and their psychiatric service dogs and actually elicits strong emotional feelings in the reader in the chapter on retiring a PSD (in other words, I became teary-eyed).

Miller is a therapist and a dog trainer – both these skills come through on every page. Her caring about the dog and the person, as well as other significant people in their life, comes through on every page.

And through it all she emphasizes two points – the trusting, loving bond between dog and person (both directions), and the positive reinforcement ‘method’ of training dogs which is so necessary in order to cultivate and maintain that bond.

A PSD is trained to assist someone with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), bipolar disorder, panic disorder, or depression, among others. The definition is a service dog trained individually to mitigate the effects of their disabled partner’s psychiatric disabilities by performing specific tasks.

When I read the following sentence explaining the first thing Miller did after she finally bought a house, I knew I had met a kindred soul: “My first priority was to get a dog; furniture could wait (p 19).“

Miller then proceeds to tell us how she stumbled upon this specialty (PSDs) and made it her life’s purpose.

If you read this book just for the glossary, or just for the list of service tasks for psychiatric disabilities that PSDs can perform, or even just for the incredibly complete resource section, it will be time well spent: the chapters on selecting a canine candidate and training your PSD will then be an added bonus to slowly savor over and over.

You will also learn more about the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) definition of disability, including invisible disabilities. You will learn invaluable hints to deal with a leash breaking or how to tactfully diffuse a situation when someone challenges whether or not your dog is necessary and, thus, allowed in a restaurant (“The only questions you are required to answer are whether or not you are disabled [though you do not need to provide the particulars about your disability], if your dog is a pet or a service dog, and what your PSD is task trained to do. . . .” [p 97]).

What didn’t I like? Not much. I did mix up the dogs and their people – Miller related several case histories in two chapters and then referred back to them in another but by then I had forgotten who was the person and who was the dog as well as the particulars about each team. Secondly, this book is softcover – I want a spiral-bound copy so I can highlight more easily and write notes in the margins.

What did I like? Great chapter titles!  And Miller tells it like it is. Having a dog does cost money and time – attention, walks, feeding, grooming and love.  The person must monitor stress in a working dog and be able to alleviate it (“Dogs Have Issues Too: Helping Your Dog Cope with Stress”). It can be difficult to retire a service dog and bid farewell (for both dog and person) – after all, you are breaking up a team (“The Golden Years: When to Hang up the Leash”). An ongoing partnership must exist not only between person and dog but also among the trainer, therapist and veterinarian.  Since a PSD is not a pet, the family and other animals must be able to adjust to and accept this new relationship (“Member of the Family: Helping Everyone Get Along”). I especially like “Sit, Stay, Soothe: Training Your New Companion.”

Healing Companions will open up a new world for many people!

(This review first appeared in GRREAT News, May-Jun 2011.)

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