Osha: life with a psychiatric assistance dog

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Osha the psychiatric assistance dog

Eden Baillie is a college student who navigates life with the help of a very special dog: Osha, a Cane Corso/Rottweiler cross and psychiatric assistance dog. Here, Eden talks about how this special partnership came to be – and how it changed her life.

I became an assistance dog handler two years ago after my mental health severely deteriorated, my autism became more prominent and my anxiety became debilitating. I have suffered with mental illness related problems since the age of 7 due to trauma based conditions as well as undiagnosed autism. When i was 13, i received my autism diagnosis as well as an anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation diagnosis. I never knew having a psychiatric assistance dog was an option till i was 18. But my assistance dog has changed my life…

Osha was born in September 2020, well into the first lockdown. She was born to a Cane Corso father and a Rottweiler mother. It was a close family friend that bred her and they kindly gifted me her as they knew how much i was struggling with my mental health during lockdown. I was by her side 2 hours after she was born and haven’t left it since. Originally she was supposed to be a pet but at around four months of age I noticed she would do little things to comfort me when I was sad, like bring me her favourite toy or lay across my lap.

After doing some research, i realised that what makes an assistance dog and assistance dog is if they can ‘mitigate their handlers disability’. So I began her training. I completely underestimated how hard this was going to be and how lonely it was. It was a battle to get her into college with me but eventually we managed and this year we are finishing our final year of college and heading to university, as a team. She is my first assistance dog and she is honestly my biggest miracle. My mother often says to our close family that I simply wouldn’t be here without Osha.

Before i joined an assistance dog charity, Osha was solely trained by myself. So from day one we have worked extremely hard on desensitisation around people and dogs to the point now where she doesn’t even look at them, only focuses on me. She is trained to pick up early signs of panic attacks such as heavy breathing, scratching myself and pacing. A correct alert from her could make the difference between a whole day written off due to the attack or preventing the attack completely.

She is trained to react to when i cry, laying across my lap and nudging into my neck for comfort. She can do something called an orbit, where she circles around me in public spaces to create a gap between me and the public when I become too anxious. I used to suffer quite severely with self harming behaviours due to how intensely anxious and depressed I would feel, because Osha can prevent the feelings heightening. I have been clean from these behaviours for longer than ever before. She collects items, such as her lead or my medication.

She is a real character, nothing like I’ve ever met before. Suffering from night terrors in which dissociative amnesia would occur, I often used to be extremely overtired; and being autistic, it can easily cause overstimulation if I didn’t sleep. Osha sleeps next to my bed every night and wakes me up if she senses increased breathing, something that would happen before a night terror. I can do things I never even dreamed of doing, like going to university! She has given me my life back.

After realising how difficult owner training an assistance dog is and how hard it is working alone without legal advice to assist me with my assistance dog, I decided to join a charity called Recovery Assistance Dogs (RAD). RAD is a membership based charity that trains its members as handlers of their own assistance dogs. They train through weekly zoom classes as well as offering face to face sessions in Leicester. As an autistic person, I felt that the zoom sessions were greatly beneficial as it took away all of the anxiety from facing large groups or people I don’t know without missing out on anything.

This charity provides specialised Assistance Dog Training to their UK members living with Mental Health Disability Impairments (MHDI) to handle and train their own assistance dogs. In addition to this, they provide information and support about disability laws, especially the Equality Act 2010, and raises public awareness through wide audiences to help in preventing discrimination about MHDI Assistance dogs.

One of my favourite things about RAD is the way that they are so inclusive to everyone, and how they have adapted their training methods and plans to fit each and every one of their members. It has been their community that’s been our safe place. Their support, efforts and kindness has been what has made Osha and I the team we are today.

As previously mentioned, I got Osha in November of 2020. At this time, I was in and out of hospital for mental illness related problems. I was removed from mainstream college and placed into a college that specialises in physical disability and mental health impairments such as ADHD, Autism, students hard of hearing etc. This college really was a blessing in disguise for me as it allowed me to relax without the pressures of mainstream college.

One day, I asked the college if I could bring my puppy for a playful afternoon as I knew the other students would adore her. Without hesitation they agreed and we had a lovely time with Osha who was four months old at the time. It was this college that made me aware of assistance dogs as they noticed how much more confident I was with a dog by my side. I thought that assistance dogs were just for people with physical disabilities, but with in depth research; I learned how life changing psychiatric assistance dogs could be for people like me.

Originally I looked into well known charities such as Assistance Dogs UK and Autism Dogs but after realising the waiting list, I thought other people may need them more than I did. It was at this time that I learnt about owner-training assistance dogs, one of the hardest but best decisions I ever made. There are a lot of things I wish I knew back then that I do now about owner training assistance dogs and I wish I registered with a charity to assist me do so sooner, but I wouldn’t change my assistance dog for the world. She helps me with my autism, anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder and just generally with my confidence. I would not be me without her. We are a team.

Having an assistance dog comes with public discrimination and access issues. I have experienced so much discrimination during my time as an assistance dog handler, the usual comment is “but you don’t look disabled” – whatever that’s supposed to mean. I also get the odd “who are you training her for”, and at times, this has made me feel undeserving of my assistance dog. I’ve been refused access to taxis, shops and hotels.

Having been denied access from shops, even to the point of being screamed at by shop owners as they didn’t want a dog in their store despite me trying to politely explain she is a working animal, really set me back in my confidence. I think the main thing to remember is that not all disabilities are visible. Nobody knows what each human being is going through so we must be kind, respectful and non discriminating to everyone around us. Most shops have been beyond supportive and often ask questions to try to understand and educate themselves more, often offering water to my dog.

The main thing I need people to understand is that assistance dogs are not pets, they are highly trained working animals. Without them, who knows how people such as myself, people visually impaired, people with diabetes, people that suffer with seizures, people with other physical or mental impairments, would function day to day? These dogs give us our freedom, confidence and lives back, and that is what I want people to understand.

Images courtesy of Eden Baillie.

This is a guest post by Eden Baillie. Want to write for us? Visit www.dogstodaymagazine.co.uk/essay-submission or email editorial@dogstodaymagazine.co.uk.

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