Community News
Pet Alerts Bipolar Owner to Services Dogs Can Provide
Psychiatric News
Volume 45 Number 19 page 15-15

In 1995, Joan Esnayra, Ph.D., was working on a doctorate in genetics at the University of California, San Diego, when she became ill, was hospitalized, and then diagnosed with bipolar disorder. During the next two years she was mostly homebound and nonfunctional. "I couldn't even read a newspaper because the letters on the page looked like alphabet soup," she recalled during a recent interview in her home in Arlington, Va.

During this time, she decided to buy a dog, something that she had always wanted. And after she had the dog for several months, it started to engage in a strange behavior. Whenever she settled in at the computer for periods of six or eight hours at a time, forgetting to eat or even go to the bathroom, the dog would come over to her and nudge Esnayra's elbow. This happened even if it was very late at night.

"A light bulb went off in my head," she said. "My dog was aware that I was hypomanic, and it was alerting me to that fact. In other words, it was serving as a kind of psychiatric service dog for me. And afterwards, I intentionally used it as such."

Eventually Esnayra found medication that worked well to treat her bipolar disorder, completed her doctorate in genetics, and worked at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., from 1999 to 2005. But meanwhile, she continued to use her dog as a psychiatric service dog, even taking it to work with her, and she slowly nurtured an online community of mentally ill people who were also interested in using their dogs as psychiatric service dogs.

In 2002, she founded the Psychiatric Service Dog Society (PSDS). Today, some 900 people throughout the United States and Canada regularly participate in the PSDS.

"One of the things that is unusual about the PSDS," Esnayra noted, "is that it is completely consumer developed. I was sort of like the seed crystal. I got things going, but I never wanted it to be just my ideas."

The PSDS has several missions, she explained. One is to bring people with psych dogs together as an online community and also to bring them together, with their dogs, in person once a year. Another is to educate the public about psychiatric service dogs. A third is to advocate for people who use psych dogs. This advocacy could be at the individual level—say, for someone who is having trouble with a landlord over his or her dog—or at the population level—for example, with the Department of Justice, the Department of Transportation, or Congress.

Such advocacy work is paying off, Esnayra reported. For instance, the PSDS recently launched an effort to get the Department of Transportation to rescind a regulation that places special requirements on people who use psych dogs and want to take them on commercial flights (Psychiatric News, January 15). It appears that the Department of Transportation will likely grant PSDS's request for rulemaking on this issue in the coming months, she said.

Esnayra became so passionately involved in the PSDS that she quit her job at the National Academy of Sciences in 2005 to devote herself solely to PSDS. "I've forfeited about half-a-million dollars in personal income to do this work, I've refinanced my condo to help support the society—I guess you could say I'm on a mission," she commented with a dry laugh.

"It's hard though," she admitted. "It would be nice to have a salary. Fortunately the PSDS does get some donations, which helps us sustain some of our programming." blacksquare

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