Service animals have taken on a new challenge by helping more people in different ways. Service animals have a history with helping the blind, PTSD victims, police and, as of recently, the mentally ill.
People are opening their minds to using different animals as support systems. Cats and even horses can help comfort and assist people in need. It’s estimated 10-20 per cent of Canadian youth will be affected by a mental illness or disorder. With this increasing rate, people might start to turn to support animals to deal with their illness.
It’s important to know the difference between service animals and Emotional Support Animals (ESA) in order to understand what they do as more people are relying on them. As opposed to service animals, ESA animals are not trained to support a disability but they benefit the owner by providing companionship and comfort to different forms of mental illness. Some individuals may require an animal to provide them with comfort in public places whereas psychiatric service dogs are trained to fully support a specific disability such as assisting the visually impaired to help them get around daily.
Sometimes with an ESA, it can be difficult to tell the difference between a pet or companion. If someone has an ESA and is impaired by a form of mental illness but not fully disabled, having the support of the animal could benefit them emotionally.
According to the Canadian Service Dog Foundation, not only can dogs be ESAs, cats can too. Many argue cats are more ideal. The best breed of cat to work as an ESA is the Devon Rex. These cats are most ideal as ESAs because they have strong social skills, are very active and easy to train. The Devon Rex breed is considered a hypoallergenic cat because of its short curly fur, making it a valuable option for those with cat allergies.
There are even services available using horses to help with therapy. The term “hippotherapy” means treatment with the help of a horse. Hippo is Greek for horse. Hope Therapy is an organization in Florida which works to to improve the lives of children and adults with special needs using horses. Horses have been used since the 1960s to help treat PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and car accidents.
Marianne Davenport is co-founder and board president of Hope Therapy which started in Florida in 2001. Davenport says a lot of studies show that hippotherapy is able to help kids at a young age. According to Davenport, if there’s an early start the individual can make great strives.
“Some people will never be able to walk again but if the quality of life is better psychologically, if not physically, we’ve done a good thing,” Daveneport says.
Service animals and ESA are sometimes needed in school environments to help provide comfort or assistances to their owners. Only some schools require that students needing service dogs or ESA go through a complete registration, but at Durham College and UOIT that isn’t necessary. Students go to the Access and Support Centre to register their service animal. The school then looks at the request and validates whether or not the animal is fully trained.
Right now on campus there is a small number of working animals, according to Meri-Kim Oliver, vice-president of Student Affairs. “As more people use service animals to cope with mental illness, I think we will see more present,” says Oliver.
The challenge of having service animals or ESAs in school environments is that there are laboratories and kitchens on campus and animals can become a health concern. Other issues are students with allergies or those who may be afraid of the animal.
Service animals often face challenges with public transit companies like Durham Region Transit (DRT). DRT ensures anyone accompanied by a service animal or EMS is permitted on the bus. The individual might have to identify their service animal upon boarding and may be asked for a confirmation letter. The process is usually quick, says DRT. For the safety of all passengers, animals are asked to be kept on a leash. Unlike service animals, ESA do not have the same rights to public access.
According to the Ontario Blind Person’s Rights Act, service dog training facilities must provide minimum three months of training. Facilities must also ensure that the dogs have successfully completed the training program and can demonstrate basic obedience skills on leash and using voice commands.
Service animals and ESAs continue to assist people daily. But as more animals are used to help support people with mental illness, there will be an increase of service animals so people need to know how to be around these animals and how to treat them.