Issue 120

What Does a Psychiatric Assistance Dog Do?

When Alex Cowtan was 14, she was diagnosed with social anxiety and depression. Four years later, she was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

She tells us that thanks to her psychiatric assistance dog in training, a 17 month old Lurcher named Archie, she is happy and looks forward to every day. But life wasn’t always like this.

Here’s her story.

I can’t remember a time in my life when I haven’t struggled with my mental health. It affects every single thing I do. And I’m not alone in this, seven out of 10 people with BPD will attempt suicide at some point in their life, and for me, that often seemed like the only option.

By the time I was 20, I felt utterly hopeless, like I would never live a normal life so what was the point in trying? A week after being discharged from the hospital, and recovering from an overdose, I saw an eight week old puppy being advertised and I persuaded my mum to take us to see him.

The first time I met Archie was the first time I had felt excited, and genuinely happy, for a very long time. It was like a switch had been flipped in my brain and all I could think about was him, there was no time for negative or suicidal thoughts.

Training Archie to Be a Psychiatric Assistance Dog

Archie gave me so much confidence and self-esteem, and as the months went by, I started doing research on assistance dogs. Thanks to an incredible online community, I learnt that I could actually train Archie myself to be my assistance dog.

He already had a perfect temperament. He’s calm, confident, well socialised, very obedient and was in tune with my emotions.

I discovered he could be trained to perform a huge variety of ‘tasks’ to help me cope with everyday life. He picked things up incredibly quickly.

Some of the tasks Archie has learnt or is still learning include: panic attack alert and response, turning on lights, helping me get through crowds, interrupting anxiety attacks, leading me to exits, and getting help if I need it.

I also have fibromyalgia, a chronic condition that causes pain all over the body, and Archie helps with this too. He can shut doors, find named items like keys or the TV remote, and he can pick things off the floor for me too.

I used to be too scared to leave the house. I was so anxious something bad would happen so I used to sit in the house staring at the clock, waiting for the day to be over so I could go to sleep and escape the world.

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Now that I have Archie I look forward to waking up every day. Thanks to him, I have met loads of new people at dog training classes and on walks, I have learnt to socialise again and realised people aren’t that scary.

We now go to events around the country. Trains, coaches, even the London underground, something which used to be impossible for me due to my anxiety, and are all manageable with Archie guiding me.

'Archie Changed My Life'

As my social skills improved, and I learnt to be a person again, I managed to start working again too. I started enjoying my hobbies again and started studying dog behaviour and training.

Archie has given me my life back so now we are trying to help other people too. Archie is registered with canine concern, a therapy dog charity. He visits residents in care homes and will soon be visiting students at colleges in Oxford.

We have been featured in newspapers and even had a live radio interview, sharing our story, raising awareness of owner trained assistance dogs, and psychiatric assistance dogs, and hopefully letting other people with mental health issues know that they are not alone.

I believe dogs can be a very effective way of helping with the current mental health crisis and I would like to help other people train assistance dogs in the future.

It’s now been 15 months since I got Archie and I haven’t been back into hospital because of my mental health, I’m no longer under any psychiatric care and I no longer take any medication.

I’ve always loved dogs. Currently, we have three. But Archie was unlike any dog I’ve ever met. He appeared by chance exactly when I needed him. He’s saved my life. He is like my guardian angel.

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