Posted by: Jessie | February 15, 2010

Mental Health Helper Dog

Our internet was out all weekend, so I did not get a chance to write a blog for today.  When I got to work the Good News Network newsletter had this interesting story.  Check it out!

Henderson: Spirit gives her new lease on life

Jennifer Francis has been diagnosed with a bipolar spectrum disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and panic disorder. They are chronic, disabling conditions she will have to cope with for the rest of her life. But if you think they are all that define her, think again.

This year, Francis, 23, will graduate from the University of Western Ontario with a degree in civil and environmental engineering. An accomplished public speaker, she also will travel to California to address the state’s bipolar foundation, which retains her as a member of its consumer advisory board.

And she will do it all in the company of the steadfast four-legged companion she credits with saving her life: her mental health assistance dog, Spirit.

Spirit is not just any working dog. Trained by Hamilton-based Encouraging Paws Service Dogs (, she knows more than 50 commands that help keep Francis safe.

She also has the gift of being able to predict when Francis is about to have a disabling panic attack.

The dog is attached by a special leash that is secured around Francis’s waist. When Spirit senses a panic attack is imminent, she plants herself firmly on the ground, preventing Francis from darting out into traffic or any other life-threatening danger.

“She grounds me,” says Francis. She means both physically and emotionally.

Spirit is the first mental health assistance dog that Michelle Wright, founder of Encouraging Paws, has schooled. But she will by no means be the last. “This has opened doors,” says Wright, a certified trainer of special skills dogs.

Dealing with mental illness includes some unique challenges.

Most service dogs are bred specially for the jobs they will have. The groups that breed and school them require humans to go and live at the training facility while the two are bonding.

“But people with mental health issues don’t always function well in unfamiliar surroundings,” Francis points out. “You can’t just uproot them from their homes.”

So, if an animal meets the requirements of Encouraging Paws, Wright will train personal pets in the clients’ homes to become accredited service dogs. Needless to say, the human part of the equation has to meet certain requirements, too – including the ability to learn commands and be able to assure that the dog will be cared for.

Service dogs can be taught to do an amazing number of things for people with disabilities, including barking for help, fetching particular items, opening and closing doors, helping to lift legs into bed and alerting people to seizures. But Spirit is definitely breaking new ground.

“They had never heard of mental health assistance dog in California,” says Francis. “That’s part of the reason they invited me to speak there.”

Coping with mental health issues can be very isolating. But Francis says Spirit helps her cross many barriers, enabling her to be herself and, in the process, advocate for more public awareness.

“When you have a service dog with you in public places, people start talking to you, asking questions,” she says.

“You have to learn to deal with those questions. People don’t need to know your exact diagnosis but you can help them understand.”

Dogs can’t cure mental illness. Francis knows she will have to deal with her condition for the rest of her life.

She credits her family and empathetic authorities at the university for helping her come as far as she has.

It has taken her six years to get her degree but she has done it. And she hopes to continue telling her story publicly as part of her commitment to taking mental illness out of the shadows and reducing the stigma.

A year ago Sunday, on Valentine’s Day, Francis was in hospital, struggling yet again to get back her mental equilibrium. With her family, she got a day pass and they took Spirit to a Build-A-Bear store, where they built a dog as a present for Spirit.

With the help of her four-legged companion, Francis says, “I’m turning what many believe to be a curse into the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Here is a link to the original article:–spirit-gives-her-new-lease-on-life


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