Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Service Dog on the Trail

Maeve and NY Mountain Laurel along the Appalachian Trail
Hiking is the primary reason why I decided to get a service dog. Memory and attention problems caused by my illness and past treatments have made it much less safe for me to be out in the woods by myself, but hiking was very helpful in controlling my bipolar disorder and anxiety. On a good day, I'm quite competent in the woods. On a bad day I might tend to make wrong turns because I'm not paying attention to the trail markers. On a really bad day I don't make short-term memories for a while. This means I could end up in the middle of nowhere and not even remember anything I walked by. Worse still, I don't always perceive that I'm having a bad day until I realize I've screwed up.

I intended to train a dog to help me when I got myself into trouble.  The most important thing this dog would do would be to be able to lead me back to my car (which is parked at the trail head if I am hiking alone). This was Maeve's first trained behavior specifically designed to help with my disability.

What I didn't know then was that Maeve could do so much more for me out in the woods -- both in terms of trained behaviors (which make her a service dog) and by the effect of just having a dog with me (which is termed emotional support).  I didn't anticipate that Maeve could stop the memory and attention problems from happening,  I really didn't anticipate that she could be trained to perform tasks that would have the effect of a quick-acting mood stabilizer and anti-anxiety treatment.  Let me list some of them first and then talk about them in detail.  In the list below an item with a (T) is one that is trained:
  • Keep me from wandering off the trail by:
    • leading me on trail (T)
    • Taking the most popular trail at each intersection (T)
    • preventing me from becoming lost in my thoughts or tuning out because I have to pay attention to where she is and what she's doing
  • Moderate mood swings and anxiety by:
    • Coming back for physical contact on command (T)
    • Jumping, climbing rock ledges, and running (T)
    • Initiating conversation with hikers I meet along the way (T)
    • Getting me outside more often and for longer than I would by myself
Leading me on trail: Maeve walks ahead of me, but in sight, on command ("Go").  She follows the trail and keeps in my sight as the result of reinforcing these behaviors.

Taking the most popular trail at each intersection:  Maeve determines the road (or rather trail) most traveled and takes it as a result of reinforcing that behavior.  If I choose a different direction, she comes back and begins to lead me on the trail I chose. This has often alerted me to a turn I otherwise might have missed. Note: this doesn't work well if she is on her leash or beside me, probably because she senses which way I think we should go. 

Preventing me from becoming lost in my thoughts or zoning out: I actually have not had a single incident of failure to make memories when out and about since I've been travelling through life with Maeve. I do still become lost in my thoughts in the woods, but not so thoroughly and not for as long because I have an obligation to keep Maeve safe and under my control.  It's amazing what people with mental illness can do to take care of someone or something other than themselves.  It's like there's a whole different circuit in the wiring regarding responsibilities for the safety and well being of others versus of ourselves.

Coming back for physical contact on demand: When I need physical contact or when I want her right by me because there's a male hiker approaching me or because I'm anxious, Maeve comes and puts her head in my hands on command.

Jumping, climbing rock ledges, and running:  Maeve has two commands that she never minds hearing: "Jump" and "Go, Go, Go."  Maeve wasn't accustomed to being out in the woods when I got her and she wasn't too sure about it.  Jump started out being just for fun. If you want to see 100%, all-consuming, pure joy, watch Maeve when she's jumping over a downed tree.  Maeve also loves praise.  When we were first together, we used to hike with a guy who was a rock climber.  He got the biggest kick out of seeing Maeve jump and claw herself up a rock ledge.  She got lots of praise from both of us and so she made a habit of looking for rocks to climb on a hike so we'd make a fuss over her.  "Go, Go, Go" grew out of those two behaviors. On command, in an area with rock ledges and/or downed trees, Maeve runs through the woods at top speed, jumping over downed trees and brush and scrambling up rock ledges.  It's an awesome sight to see and it causes a more than perceptible moderation of my mood.  If I'm fighting depression and hopelessness, it pushes me up.  If hypomania and irritability are the current issue it calms me down.  The best explanation I have for this is that watching her do this is inspiring and that inspiration changes something in the hormones, neurotransmitters, etc., moderating my mood.

Initiating conversation with hikers I meet along the way: It's been proven that engaging in face-to-face communications helps to stabilize your moods. Maeve always gets attention with her Tina Turner hairdo, whether on the trail or at the grocery.  On command ("Say Hi") she'll go and meet the approaching hiker or the person behind us in the checkout lane. A conversation always ensues.

Getting me outside more often and for longer than I would by myself: If I have a migraine, even a mild one, or I'm not feeling very energetic I can make a million excuses why I shouldn't go out and hike.  Guilt is the great motivator for me.  If Maeve needs exercise I am far less likely to avoid the hike.  Once we're out she makes it fun and less lonely than hiking alone and we tend to go significantly farther together than I would have alone.

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