Companion dogs help people with mental-health problems
Thu, Aug. 12, 2004
by Kay Harvey, St. Paul Pioneer Press

Dogs are being trained to help people cope with depression and other emotional issues.

Martha Moulai rarely goes anywhere without Ruby.

The rat terrier mix nestles at her feet during a light-rail train ride, in an art class and at an upscale restaurant in Minneapolis.

Ruby's orange vest marked with the words "service dog" explains why the 3-year-old goes along. Still, curious onlookers ask, "Why do you have the dog?" Moulai says.

She tells them Ruby helps her cope with effects of a disability people can't see -- serious depression.

Ruby is among a growing number of dogs being trained as companions for people who have mental-health issues, from bipolar disorder to post-traumatic stress syndrome. The help provided is similar to that given by dogs for the blind, deaf and physically disabled, except it is mostly emotional rather than physical.

When Moulai feels stressed, holding or touching her dog calms her, she says.

"Ruby will hop up and lay her head on my shoulder on cue or command. It's very comforting."

The dog tames the fears that can surface when Moulai is in public places.

"What you learn is to trust the dog's instincts to sense an intruder," says Moulai, a nurse who lives in Minneapolis. "If there were one, you could see it in her body language."

She found and adopted Ruby at the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley, Minn., where she trained the dog in an obedience class. She added training tactics from a list of 40 posted on www.psychdog.org, a Web site of the 7-year-old Psychiatric Service Dog Society.

"With patience and training, she skyrocketed into this dog that's very calm and relaxed," she says, fondly petting the dog's floppy ears.