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Need for service dogs increase for pandemic-related stress and anxiety

Published: Aug. 16, 2021 at 10:26 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Over the past 16 months, one Cedar Rapids service dog training center has seen an increased need for animals specialized in dealing with depression and anxiety.

“Deafinitely Dogs” graduates about six service animals every two years. Those dogs go on to work in schools, nursing homes, hospitals, or they will work one-on-one with a person. In the first two years of their life, they learn to help identify and prevent harmful reactions to stress and anxiety a person is enduring. Once they graduate, dogs can even become a life-saving companion to the people they work with.

Service dog trainers say that if someone already suffered from depression or anxiety, working on the frontlines during the pandemic may only amplify that.

”They’re dealing with life or death situations that they never thought were going to be part of their job,” Sherry Stein, co-founding director of Deafinitely Dogs, said.

Stein helps train dogs to assist people who endure post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety.

”The dogs will stress when they’re having anxiety and interrupt their anxiety. And so they don’t have it escalate beyond a point where they’re having a panic attack,” Stein said.

Lorette Vanourney, another co-founding director for the organization, said that the dogs graduating this month from the program could meet some of the initial requests for help that they saw when the pandemic first started over 16 months ago. However, those people need to also be on a path to managing themselves first.

”We require people to at least be into their mental health treatment for a year. So we want to make sure that they are able to themselves before we know they can care for a dog,” Vanourney said.

Once training is complete, the dogs should be able to help prevent the harmful outcomes that come as a result of anxiety or depression.

”We will teach the dogs to interrupt those panic attacks. So often ask the family or the significant people in their life what they do prior to having a panic attack,” Vanourney said.

If a person does something as simple as picking at their hands, dogs are trained to stop that behavior and, in turn , prevent a panic attack. Trainers with the program say they are excited to see these dogs finally serve people who have been mentally or emotionally affected by the pandemic.

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