Assistance Dog for PTSD Case Study: Pumpkin

Assistance Dog for C-PTSD Case Study: Pumpkin

Assistance dogs have long been recognised as valuable companions for individuals with physical disabilities, however, their ability to also aid those struggling with mental health conditions, like PTSD and C-PTSD is becoming more and more widely studied and recognised. These highly trained animals offer a sense of security, companionship, and emotional support to those living with PTSD and C-PTSD, helping them to manage their symptoms and improve their overall quality of life. For this case study, we had the honour of talking to Rie, who self-trained her dog Pumpkin to support her with C-PTSD, and has seen a remarkable change in her life as a result.

“For decades I thought I was just a quirky person but as it turns out most of my personality can be traced to C-PTSD and my coping mechanisms. Over time I’ve become very ill in odd ways and no one had been able to get to why my body was reacting in the ways that it did, my diagnosis was finally the answer to all of it. I’ve been abused in a multitude of ways through out my life and most recently assaulted. It’s left me with a TBI, memory loss, tremors and all sorts of things that have since cropped up. I had tried for ages to seek help, either through Mind, our local Mental Health organisations, and my GP’s mental health practitioner and I ended up getting no where. The wait lists for therapy or local council based therapy programs were so long that I am still on the waiting list and have been for most of 2022. 

I was about ready to pull my hair out and started researching C-PTSD online just to try to get answers because no one could answer them and I found PTSDUK. Suddenly I had a wealth of knowledge laid at my feet and I dove into everything, reading about the symptoms, information for family, the blogs – I felt like I wasn’t alone anymore. I spread the information to my family and sat them down for a chat and used the website to explain what was actually happening to me and that I wasn’t a crazy woman complaining that I was in pain, my anxiety was through the roof and I’m not actually “nuts”. (I mean, I’m quirky and that’s okay.)   I had seen somewhere in my research that dogs could be used for Psychiatric disorders, and was aware from my father than PTSD dogs were actually a thing, so I went to google more information about how to teach our eventual pup how to potentially help me. 
While I am very much an advocate for fostering and taking in dogs who need a home I needed a blank canvas where the back history wouldn’t be an issue. I looked into various breeds, breeders and settled on the “stereotypical” Golden Retriever and disclosed what I wanted a puppy for. After checking the health histories, one breeder in particular said she actually had 2 puppies in mind and wouldn’t mind if I came to temperament test them. While testing a puppy at such an early age isn’t a definite on what their personality is going to be like, I figured I would see if there were any traits that might prove beneficial so off we went. One of the puppies she hadn’t thought of introducing me to was everything I wanted in a young pup, alert, attentive, playful and when I asked about her was told “she is the watcher of the litter.” We decided that this little one would be my choice, and it was a choice I haven’t regretted one bit. Pumpkin eventually came home and we started training the basics.
We researched places to get foundational training and we met Puppy And Friends Academy in Shrewsbury. She offered a one on one dog consultation as I had questions to ask about basic fundamental training using positive reinforcement. During our chat Siobhan, the head trainer of Puppy And Friends, found out what we intended for our little one to help me with mitigating symptoms of C-PTSD offered us a place on their Therapy Dog course. While Therapy work does not equal Assistance Dog some of the foundations of that class would prove beneficial – Pumpkin understands if I cry or having an anxiety attack and my face is covered to come break my hands apart with her nose to help ground me again. It also provided a setting to take her safely into various locations to desensitise her at such a young age which has helped her become a confident dog.  One of the things we appreciated about Siobhan at Puppy And Friends is that she is medically trained and understands my diagnosis – she tailored what we did and where we went to my comfort level and I felt comfortable. 
One thing that I learned quickly is the mind of a puppy and my own therapy went hand in hand. Desensitisation to noises, places, people, objects – these were things that I struggled with too. As I understood what was happening in the mind of Pumpkin I was learning what was happening in my own mind. It’s amazing to watch the foundations of your thoughts and anxieties being played out in another being – and figuring out how to help her cope turned into a way to help me cope. I realised that I wanted to bring awareness about dog training and PTSD/C-PTSD so that fuelled my search for any sort of training dedicated to helping those who have these conditions. 
Most Charities are dedicated to First Responders or Veterans, of which I am neither. My qualifications were torture and decades of abuse, I didn’t feel valid enough to join any kind of charity and would have been turned away regardless, plus I already had my dog. I was browsing through Instagram and saw a dogs name that I recognised from one of my training groups and saw a vest that read “Adolescent Dogs” so began researching who this was and what their qualifications were. To my surprise there was an Assistance Dog academy within their online training academy, and was something called “Owner Training” – my ears perked right up. I went through their requirements of needing a GP or Mental Health Practitioners letter for entry into the academy and thought I could try, worst case scenario I get turned away. When I spoke to both my Therapist and GP about it they had a resounding “Yes, lets try this” attitude as they knew that Pumpkin had been helping me already as training her was a form of therapy for me. We were accepted and then we had to prove that she had foundations in place in her training and quickly passed her first test. 
Adolescent Dogs has been an incredible organisation who only utilise positive reinforcement and their videos are broken down into easy to digest clips. As someone who has a TBI and memory issues (I can’t walk and chew bubble gum as they say) their style of teaching has been easy for me to comprehend and implement.
Owner Training is something that many people don’t seem to be aware of – thinking that Assistance Dogs must come from charity organisations, or that someone else will train your dog for you to a high standard, typically for free.
Owner training is something that you put your own investment into, not just your finances but your time. Unfortunately Owner Training isn’t a simple task, you’re guided in what you do and you need to have the mindset for it as it is not a simple walk in the park. Training your dog to the standards needed to pass their Public Access Test is a long especially if you start from a puppy. You’ll need at minimum two years worth of time dedicated to this adventure. You will have good days in training and terrible days, you’ll want to give up, you’ll want to celebrate but your dog is your responsibility.  Adolescent Dogs do offer residential stays for not only pet dogs but assistance dogs in training to help owners. One of the brilliant things they do as often as they can is all membership fees for their online academy go back into the Assistance Program where they work with young dogs to gift to someone in need once ready as well as gifting residential stays to dog and dog owners in need.  They provide weekly Q&A’s over Zoom and Facebook and when you ask a question it’s the trainers that answer unlike other large dog training companies where the community has to answer your questions.
There are occasional dog training challenges where the community gets together through Facebook and we learn something new and record our progress, every task builds on another which eventually brings you to changes in your dogs behaviour.
We purchased our vest kit through Adolescent Dogs, made by, but going out and purchasing a vest does not mean the dog is a qualified Assistance Dog, and does not mean its an all access pass to take your dog anywhere at an early age before passing their Public Access Test. I decided with our Therapy training we needed to be mindful of the vest and pick and chose when to use it.  If we are actively training in a public setting I’ll wear my vest and be an advocate for her. You have to be ready for people pushing you out of the way to greet your dog, people making sounds at them to get their attention, and potentially being asked to leave locations (something we haven’t experienced as I make sure to check before I enter any store that it is okay to enter with her.) While Pumpkin is still very much in training it’s important to be mindful of what other people are attempting to do with her as if she is training I need that focus to be on me, not someone else. This time period is so vital for us to solidify her disengagement and to be able to keep her focus on when I need her help with something. Unfortunately the public don’t know the etiquette for Assistance Dogs or those in training and you may hear the “I wish I had an assistance dog” almost as if they wish they had a debilitating condition just to have a fashion accessory. So my little PSA is always ask if you can interact with the dog and don’t be hurt if you are refused. I don’t say no to be mean or rude, I just need Pumpkin to stay focused in whatever setting we are in as its an active training session. When she isn’t vested and we are out for fun I don’t mind the public saying hello because she loves people and attention, but only done so mindfully. 
One of the things that others who are interested in Owner Training is that their dog may not make it as an assistance dog. Much like Police academies for puppies, not ever dog is cut out for the work and comes with the unfortunate term of being a “wash” – meaning the dog didn’t make it for one reason or another. Assistance Dogs are medical devices (which still sounds like such an awkward term to me but I agree with it) and are not classed as a pet, even though they may be your best friend. So many things need to be taken into consideration, the determination of the owner and knowing that it is a long and hard process to achieve the end result, if you get there. Being an advocate for your dog is important, not letting them interact with anyone who might hurt them, introducing them to new things carefully and going at a pace that suits both owner and dog. Pumpkin is my lifeline already so I have to protect her as much as she watches over me.”

We are so proud of everything that Pumpkin has accomplished with her training with Rie and we can’t wait to see the continued positive impact she will make in Rie’s life. If you would like to learn more about the Assistance Dog Training Program with Adolescent Dogs that Rie undertook with Pumpkin, please visit their website here (please note, as an affiliate charity, Adolescent Dogs make a donation of 20% of the course fees to PTSD UK for everyone who signs up to their owner training course through this link)

It’s important to note that there is no specific test, or ‘exam’ that dogs need to undertake to be qualified as an Assistance Dog to authorise them access to public areas. There are a number of organisations that offer ‘public access tests’ or tests to be a ‘registered Assistance Dog’ however, these are not required to have a dog be considered an Assistance Dog (but they can help if you’re challenged!). Assistance dogs are not pets and are treated as ‘auxiliary aids which help mitigate a disability’ which, based on the Equality Act 2010 states they have certain access rights. You can find out more about your rights with an Assistance Dog from the Equality and Human Rights Commission here.

Find out more about Assistance Dogs and how they can help people with PTSD and C-PTSD here

If you’ve got a dog who helps support you, why not sign up to our next PTSD UK Wagathon in August!!

This new annual challenge is set to be huge with fundraisers across the UK challenging themselves and their pooches to complete a 9K walk during the August Bank Holiday Weekend – all whilst wearing their new PTSD UK dog bandana of course! Find out more, and sign up to the PTSD UK Wagathon here.

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