woman with her dog receiving emotional support


A woman who suffered severe abuse as a child describes the mental health benefits of owning a dog, and an expert on the Americans with Disabilities Act discusses requirements for emotional support animals.

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  • Julie Barton, author, Dog Medicine: The Unbreakable Bond Between One Woman and the Dog That Saved Her Life
  • Vinh Nguyen, Project Director, Southwest ADA Center at Tirr Memorial Hermann, Houston

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Emotional Support Animals

Nancy Benson: Julie Barton suffered a brutal childhood at the hands of her older brother. He punched her, chased her with knives, and called her worthless, ugly and stupid nearly everyday of her life. So it’s probably no surprise that at age 22, Barton was ready to give up on life. She was a Midwestern girl living on her own in New York City when the bottom fell out.

Barton: I was suicidal although I didn’t know that that was what I was. I always thought, well maybe if I jump in front of that train I’ll feel better, or maybe if I step in front of that cab it’ll just make all this go away. My roommate had moved out, so I was living by myself. I started to make some pasta on the stove and I just laid down on the floor thinking I give up. I was there for two days and I finally reached the phone and called my mom and she said I’m coming to get you.

Benson: Barton returned to her childhood home where her brother no longer lived and started therapy and medication for depression. But she was exceptionally emotionally scarred. Life still didn’t turn around for her until someone very special walked into her life.

Barton: A very handsome man [laughter] who had very red fur and he had four paws and his name was Bunker Hill. He was a golden retriever.

Benson: Barton has written a memoir of her experience with Bunker Hill entitled Dog Medicine: The Unbreakable Bond Between One Woman and the Dog That Saved Her Life.

Barton: The minute we met it was like, I describe it in the book as like two universes colliding. It was like he’d been waiting for me. He walked up to me and sat down at my feet and looked straight into my eyes and didn’t move a muscle. And I took him home and at first I thought what am I doing? I don’t have a job, I don’t know where I’m going to live. Why am I getting a puppy? This is going to be a huge responsibility. But every time I pet him or looked into his eyes, I felt this calm beyond anything I’d felt in…ever in my life.

Benson: Barton spent that entire summer healing with her new furry friend.

Barton: He noticed my moods, and he noticed when I was feeling sorrow, and he would come over to me and just lean on me. That was such a relief to be seen in that way and to not have to explain in words what was happening. Also having something to care for and having something that I was responsible for made me feel like I had a purpose. I got up and I got out and I had a schedule and I went to train him. I had something to live for.

Benson: In Barton’s opinion, people are not nearly as good as dogs at giving unconditional love.

Barton: I didn’t have to explain what was happening. I didn’t have to say, “I’m sorry for crying again.” I didn’t have to try to pretend to be in a better mood. I could just be whatever I needed to be and that was so freeing, and that helped it dissipate. Because this whole idea of when you are faced with something like major depression or anxiety and some kind of crisis, our instinct as humans especially if you were traumatized as a child is to run and to think, I don’t want to feel that way, I don’t want to face that. Often you don’t talk about it and you don’t go there. For me, and I think for many hundreds of other people, thousands of other people, dogs and animals and nature, that kind of connection helps you feel like you are safe enough, because you won’t be judged, you’re safe enough to face it, and you’re safe enough to turn toward it and look at it directly in the eye and say, what are you? You’re not so big that you’re going to defeat me today.

Benson: Barton says that for many people, emotional support animals provide companionship and stability that they couldn’t live without. And fortunately for those people, because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, they don’t have to… even when boarding a plane or looking for a new apartment.

Vin Nguyen: For emotional support animals you have the right to have it at home. The Fair Housing Act protects your right to have an emotional support animal at home.

Benson: That’s Nin Nguyen (“nuh’win”), project director at the Southwest A-D-A Center at Tirr (“Teer”) Memorial Hermann — a rehabilitation hospital in Houston. He says while most people are not aware of it…laws protect both service animals and emotional support animals.

Nguyen: The main difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal is that service animals are trained. You actually have to go and train them to perform some type of activity to assist you with the disability. For an emotional support animal all it has to do is exist. They just support you by their mere presence.

Benson: However, taking advantage of the law isn’t quite that easy. Say you want to rent an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. You can’t get around the ban by simply ordering one of the many emotional support animal certification kits available online.

Nguyen: If you have a landlord that does their homework they would require a doctor’s note or whatever that establishes that you need an emotional support animal. So you can’t just go on the Internet and buy vest or buy some type of certification and claim that it’s an emotional support animal because you actually have to prove that you need the emotional support. I think it has to be a doctor that can address mental health issues.

Benson: But even with certification and a letter from a mental health professional, you might still feel unwelcome.

Barton: When I was looking for apartments and houses when I was young it was harder to find a place that was dog friendly. It narrowed my options considerably. I got a note from a reader saying she got a letter from her primary care physician saying that she needed a dog, but that it still didn’t make her want to stay in her current apartment building because she felt unwelcome because everyone said, How come she gets a dog when nobody else can have a dog? So I think there’s a lot to discuss here. I mean I understand some people don’t want dogs in their buildings. I get it. For some people it’s a lifesaving necessity.

Benson: For example, people like Barton. Loving and caring for a pet gave her a reason to live and love again.

Barton: My dog adored me. He loved me. I was the best thing on earth to him, and that made me feel like I was likeable and was really important to somebody. That made me want to stay. For many years I thought what’s the point? Why am I here? But this dog needed me and loved me so intensely, and it was so clear we were so connected. That was my purpose.

Benson: Dog owners know it’s not for nothing dogs are called man’s best friend.

You can learn more about Julie Barton and her book Dog Medicine: The Unbreakable Bond Between One Woman and the Dog That Saved Her Life through a link on our web site, radio health journal dot net.

Our writer/producer this week is Polly Hansen.

Our production director is Sean Waldron.

I’m Nancy Benson.

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