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General Curiosity- Teen Psychiatric Service Dog Handlers?

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So I hope this is okay that I am asking this, but just kind of generally curious of y'all's opinions.

I know there is no hard and fast rule for everyone, but generally speaking, is it considered a bad idea for someone in high school to get a service dog?

I have a friend that had one (and is very open on youtube about her experience, so I will share here what she's shared in the videos, rather than anything she's said to me personally. She has a youtube channel discussing motherhood and mental health and has some other service dog related videos if anyone is interested!) for PTSD from an emotionally abusive high school relationship. She tried medication and therapy and couldn't leave her house, so her mom decided to try a service dog for her when she was about 17 and she had him until he retired when she was about 22. He helped her a lot, helped her be able to graduate, and she's been without a service dog for almost 4 years and does not see herself getting another any time soon.

Obviously this worked out well for her and was a great situation and all was fine, but I was just wondering if that was typical? I used her example because a) she's the only person I know personally who has had a service dog and b) it was a positive experience.
 From reading on here, I've gotten the sense that maybe service dogs for younger people/individuals with psychiatric disabilities should be more careful lest they become unnecessarily dependent on the SD? Or am I incorrect?

I hope it's okay that I'm posting this! Just kind of general curiosity.

Psych is not my area of experience, but most programs require people to be 16-18 minimum to even apply for a working dog. I was turned down by CCI because I think I was 16 when I applied which was to young to receive/apply for a dog from them. I applied somewhere else that accepted 16 age minimum and got my first dog at age 18. Looking back I would have waited, but some people do well when younger with a dog. But yeah, it is not typical. Most places will not place with children or teenagers and a few will but on a case by case basis.

I can actually speak to this very well. I was first diagnosed with a psych condition (ADHD) and put on medication at 10. We now know from my very detailed medical history that I likely could have been diagnosed as Bipolar by about 7-8 years old after already having strong mood swings and  seasonal affective disorder. I was first hospitalized at 13 and between then and my 18th birthday I spent roughly a collective 3 years inpatient in some form or fashion. For periods of days up through months lived beside over a thousand teenagers (mostly female) with mental illness and having mental health crises.

I first started thinking about a service dog when I was 17. I got permission to bring my pet hedgehog to school the few times during my senior year I was out of residential and in school. I couldn't take her out except break and lunch, but her presence made the day easier. I wanted to bring my pet dog, but he wasn't trained. My mom would bring him 6 hours to visit me at the residential facility I spent about 8 months in and those visits meant the world to me. When I was released after my 18th birthday I wanted to train Rocko to be my service dog. He wasn't suited and failed out after biting a girl on the face when the trainer I was working with instructed her to pet him. It was pretty awful to put it mildly.

I joined the online service dog community shortly thereafter, which was Dogster and a total of less than 5 Facebook groups with only a few hundred collective active members, many of them teenagers or early 20s with psych conditions hoping to OT a service dog. There were not a ton but more than a few who were diagnosed with a psych condition but not disabled clinically, but intentionally limited their lifestyle to fit as being disabled. Some did not have a diagnosis from a doctor and were self diagnosed with a disabling psych condition. There were a lot of people who decided to self diagnose with autism because of the open community that would not question them. A lot of people just really hoped to tack on diagnoses or try and make a diagnosis with some symptoms that fit, fit perfectly so they could further legitimize themselves so they could feel as though they really did need and deserve a service dog.

There was never any mistaking that I had genuine psych conditions and was disabled. I would actually say I came from the opposite end where I was for all of my teen years TOO disabled to not just successfully OT my own service dog, but to actually handle one. I think if I was handed Jubi now, even with team training I'd have wrecked her. If I had gotten her from a puppy there's no way she wouldn't have come out of it emotionally damaged. I think this is a common theme in teenage wannabe handlers. Either a teen is not diagnosed, questionably diagnosed, or does not feel their own diagnosis is legitimate enough and wants to seek more diagnoses to actually fit in and feel like they deserve a service dog and belong, or a teenager is without a doubt disabled by their psych diagnosis(s) but due to age and hormones often does not have near enough of a handle on it to safely and fairly handle a service dog, much less provide consistent training over two years time.

Like me, the vast majority of similarly aged people (almost exclusively female or FTM, strangely) usually failed out on the first dog, if not the first few. The very, very few I can think of that succeeded in having a fully trained dog on their first go-round had a dog similar to Mochi, who was quiet and well trained for someone who had no idea what they were doing, but without fail had foundation issues either through poor temperament selection, or early training mistakes that plagued them from early on. One dog I can think of had SEVERE gear aversion and had meltdowns if things touched him. The handler mitigated this by working him without gear, and sometimes off leash without even a collar and yelling at anyone who came close to him not to touch him. Him moving toward her out of fear of being touched was him "alerting to her rising anxiety". These excuses are still seen in today's generation of teen handlers, there is just so much more poor information and back-patting over it.

Now here is where it gets interesting: A lot of teen/young 20s handlers never ended up fully training a dog, or just working for all intents and purposes an ESA with one or two sloppy tasks or "tasks" the handler could talk about but never show because their dog never did them on command. After usually 1-3 years of this, these people got tired of handling a dog. Or they got on a medication and/or therapy regimen that worked. Or they went to college, met a boy/girl, got a professional job. For whatever happened in life as people grew up, a lot of these people who were debilitatingly disabled by psych conditions at 16 or 18 or 20 were suddenly very quietly phasing out of the SD world and no longer working SDs.

I got Saxon at 21. That's where my story as a handler really begins. I've been on and off handling since I was 18, but I wasn't truly a handler until 21. At that point I'd been in active treatment for 11 years. I had skills of my own to handle my mood swings and my overall health far better than I did 3-4 years earlier. Those skills only increased with Saxon. If I only had a psych condition, I'd be in a place where maybe I would not have gotten Jubi when Saxon died. I've thought about this. I can now go places without Jubi, I can drive without her, I can even go shopping without her which never would have happened before Sax. I can order for myself at a restaurant. Huge victories.

Saxon was task trained for psych and aided in my recovery. Service dogs are not for recovery, but I made a lot of recovery with Saxon. I now think I'm as recovered as I ever will be with my Bipolar, which is now only episodically disabling. When it is disabling, there's really nothing a dog can do. I was diagnosed at 21 with EDS after a lifetime of worsening symptoms, in part because my psych symptoms had abated to the point where I was not in a life or death crisis and other symptoms could be focused on and diagnosed. Jubi is a mobility dog, but there were people who just had psych symptoms who like Poedog's friend ended up with one workable dog and decided after that dog they were sufficiently stable to handle life without all the frustrations of constantly stewarding a dog.

There were other people who started with psych conditions and as they grew and got a handle on psych they learned they had other conditions as well. Some of them trained service dogs for these conditions exclusively or in conjunction with psych tasks. There were probably about 40 people roughly my age from when I started. I recognize less than 5 names now, and most have dropped out of the Facebook groups dominated by both back-patting and back-biting teenage drama queens (and a few kings). They've grown up online as well and are no longer seeking drama or looking to cause problems out of boredom.

My therapist growing up used to tell my mom and me that the brain matures and settles around the age of 25, and if we could keep me alive and intact until 22 or 23 I'd likely start to see those changes. I didn't believe it. Those teenage hormones that swirled up everything so terribly started subsiding and when I was 22 and a half I had this dawning moment of realizing I felt stable. I've had episodes since then, I've been hospitalized since then, but more or less I'm stable. I'm stable today. I was stable yesterday. I was stable last week, and I fully anticipate being stable tomorrow. My brain is mostly matured, and I can feel it. As these teen handlers have their brains mature and all the hormonal dust settles, they'll see whether they're actually disabled, what actually matters, and if a service dog is an emotional and/or social crutch or an actual help to their lives.

I'd wager to say that 85% of the dominating teenage/young 20s (without previous SD experience) names you'll see on Facebook are going to be forgotten and unknown by the next generation as they find what matters and goes off into the world. Hell, I'd wager to say there will be a lesser, but still evident number of teenagers that frequent SDC and are in some process of diagnosis or service dog training right now that won't end up being long term handlers. Why? Because they'll figure out how much is actually just teenage issues and what isn't, and some will figure out most of it was just a really hard time as a teenager. Being a teen is hard, and I'm sure there are plenty who will be absolutely vehement this won't be them and that I'm not talking about them. Maybe I am, maybe I'm not. I don't judge, I was there, some are there now, and I hope everyone finds the best way to be healthy and happy as adults. Anyway, this turned out really long so I'm done rambling.

I have a friend who has a seizure alert dog in high school. She has found it very isolating and is considering not using him anymore. He helps her, but she has trouble making and keeping friends. Most people only talk to her because they want to pet the dog. She is different and left out by her peers.

I am unashamed to admit I was one of the teenagers Ariel is talking about. I was interested in SDs when I was thirteen and decided to owner train my pet lab. It didn't work out at all, and I developed a severe aversion to SDs in general. They were a huge PTSD trigger for me.

By the time I was around sixteen I was ready to take another crack at SD training and adopted a pit/BC puppy from our animal shelter. She was involved in a car accident and died at three months. I waited a while and then I tried Az for a bit, adopted Rayner as a successor, washed Rayner and went back to Az. Az has been in and out of training and handling for a long time. He's around six now.

I am still young so there is definitely hope that I will not be disabled by my conditions later in life, but I doubt it. I have been struggling with PTSD and depression for going on a decade, and have spent at lest the last five in treatment with meds and therapy. I'd exhausted my treatment options until recently when DBT became available to me, which is what I'm trying now.

I was also part of a community dominated by teenage girls and watched them wash their dogs one after another. I think there are very few left in that community from the time I spent there. There were a lot of self-diagnoses and training without support from their parents or a professional trainer.

In my community there was even a rough collie being used as a SD. His handler took him to an overnight meetup where he became aggressive towards the other dogs, and the owner of the home asked his handler to put him in a crate (that the homeowner provided). The handler refused and objected by sitting outside in the snow on the homeowner's doorstep. This handler supposedly had rheumatoid arthritis or another similar condition that would've made sitting out in the snow unbearably painful. The handler's mother was called and when she came and picked up her daughter she learned that her daughter had been buying expensive medical equipment out of pocket. Her dog had a BLD and she had a custom fitted ultralight chair, neither of which her mother was aware of. Her mother confirmed that her daughter had never been diagnosed with any of the conditions she claimed to be disabled by and the dog was a family pet, 100% not a service dog. It was mind boggling.

There were times when I was not actively undergoing treatment and had not been diagnosed with PTSD. I wasn't diagnosed until a few months ago, at my last inpatient. I did feel invalid and tried to convince myself that I was legitimate even though I didn't have a doctor's endorsement or a true PTSD diagnosis. I had been diagnosed with GAD and MDD for years but everyone had missed the PTSD. I knew I had it, but I was in a treatment cycle of invalidating doctors who brushed off my concerns and didn't listen to me. I felt stupid for needing a SD for "just" anxiety and depression, two generally treatable illnesses.

To this day I am scared of meeting new doctors for fear of being rejected or belittled for my concerns. I have serious health concerns I need to have looked at but I won't see a doctor because I'm too nervous.

I now have my therapist's support in having a SD, I have been diagnosed with both PTSD and autism and I do not doubt the level of disability my illnesses achieve.

I think that a lot of people don't have what it takes to be an owner trainer and face the nitty gritty truth. It isn't fun, it's a nightmare sometimes and it is not trendy or easy. You get more attention but it's not always the type of attention you want, and having a disability makes finding jobs, partners and housing difficult. I think that many young girls realize what a pain it is to be disabled as they move into adulthood and either decide it's not worth pretending anymore or mature and realize their conditions no longer impair them as severely as they believed it would.

There will always be the people who were and still are genuinely disabled by their conditions and have a use for a SD, but in general I think it's best to wait and see where mainstream treatment takes you at least in terms of PSDs. Mobility and guide and such are a whole different story, I am not familiar with that particular type of SD but I think generally so long as the handler is mature enough it should be alright. You aren't likely to grow out of physical disability or blindness.


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