Windsor

Service dogs reducing stress of anxiety attacks

Though she wasn’t diagnosed with agoraphobia and generalized anxiety disorder until she was 18, Sophie Rutter experienced attacks as early as 13.

Having psychiatric service dogs for issues like anxiety and depression is becoming more common

Diagnosed with agoraphobia and generalized anxiety disorder, Sophie Rutter has found peace with her service dog Andy. (Derek Spalding/CBC)

Just the thought of sitting in a classroom or hanging out with friends would force Sophie Rutter's heart to pound.

The fifth-year psychology student at the University of Windsor started experiencing severe anxiety when she was just 13. Being in crowds gave her a feeling of tremendous fear, making it hard to even breathe.

Though she wasn't diagnosed with agoraphobia and generalized anxiety disorder until she was 18, she knew there was something causing her to stress out around people.

"It feels like being in a constant state of high tension. It feels like something bad is going to happen all the time," Rutter said. "Once I started having panic attacks, there was a constant fear of having another one and being somewhere I don't feel safe."

Then she met Andy, a bichon-frise mix rescue dog that was specifically trained to help her stay calm. She got the idea of a service dog from her boss at the puppy training centre where she used to work. 

Having psychiatric service dogs for issues like anxiety and depression is becoming more common, according to Kelly French, animal behaviourist in Windsor.

"Dogs have a natural way of seeming to know when you're upset and stressed," she said. "They can read us very well. They know if we're stressed, if we're anxious."

Doctors not convinced

Getting a service dog, though, isn't always that easy. The most challenging step for fourth-year student Courtney Quinn was finding a doctor who would take her request seriously.

"There were a lot of doctors, especially on campus here, that kind of laughed at me and told me service dogs aren't going to help me," she said.

University of Windsor student Courtney Quinn had a difficult time finding a doctor who would approve her getting a service dog to help cope with her anxiety. (Derek Spalding/CBC)

Instead, most of the doctors insisted medication would be enough. But Quinn eventually found someone who would give her a prescription for a service dog.

That's when Toby came into her life. Wherever Quinn goes, the Yorkie-Pomeranian-terrier mix is never far behind.

"If I'm feeling an anxiety attack, he knows," she said. " I love him for that. I don't know my life at all before him."

Quinn has long suffered from extreme anxiety before she was diagnosed. 

"I had a lot of anxiety attacks," she said. "It almost felt like a heart attack. I couldn't catch my breath, it was a horrible experience."

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