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The service dog who saved a bullied girl with PTSD

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Most people are familiar with guide-dogs who help the blind navigate through the outside world. A number of service dogs have the ability to sense when their owners are about to undergo a medical emergency, such as an epileptic seizure or a diabetic shock. The Washington Post recently ran a story about how a service dog is helping a bullied high school student deal with her PTSD.

Bonny O’Donnell was bullied almost to death

The story starts with Bonny O’Donnell, a Georgia teenager, who was overweight due to a hormonal imbalance. While she was in Middle School, O’Donnell was relentlessly jeered at by her fellow students, who called her a “whale” and suggested that she kill herself. The bullying caused her to have nightmares, which meant that she found herself dozing off at her desk. Photos of O’Donnell sleeping in class were posted on social media in a vicious campaign of cyber bullying.

O’Donnell did not commit suicide. But she was placed under the care of a psychiatrist. She was hospitalized three times as a result of nervous breakdowns and suicidal feelings. She was taking a variety of medications to deal with anxiety and depression. O’Donnell was eventually diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the same mental condition that afflicts some soldiers who have been in intensive combat. She was afraid to go to school or even to go outside. All that began to change when O’Donnell’s psychiatrist suggested she get a service dog to help her cope with her PTSD.

Service dogs to help with mental health issues

Service dogs have been used for the past few years to help people deal with a variety of mental health issues, including children with autism and soldiers who have PTSD. But Bonny O’Donnell may be the first person to get a service dog to help with bullying-related post-traumatic stress.

Soon after her psychiatrist suggested it, Bonny and her family acquired a 50-pound Labrador/husky mix named Carson. Carson, trained as a therapy dog, had an immediate effect on O’Donnell’s well-being. By this time, she was in high school. So O’Donnell’s parents made an appointment with their daughter’s high school principal for permission to have Carson accompany her to school.

School officials resisted the idea at first. O’Donnell’s parents had to obtain a certificate for Carson as a service dog, which covers the animal under the American with Disabilities Act. Her mother presented a great deal of documentation that proved that Carson was providing a great many benefits for O’Donnell. Finally, the school relented and allowed Carson to come to school with O’Donnell.

How a service dog helps people with mental health issues

Bonny O’Donnell is not being bullied at her high school. However, her PTSD can often trigger feelings of anxiety and even panic when noise or bustling crowds of students bring back memories of rejection. Carson helps her deal with these feelings in two ways.

First, as is common with dogs, Carson offers O’Donnell unconditional affection. She realizes that Carson is one creature who will not reject or taunt her. She derives comfort from that fact.

Second, Carson can sense, perhaps by picking up on hormonal changes, when O’Donnell has a panic episode. When this happens, Carson distracts O’Donnell by licking her face, rubbing her with his nose, or pressing his body against hers. Carson is thus able to stave off a panic attack and lower O’Donnell’s heart rate.

Bonny O’Donnell is incredibly lucky. Other young people who have been bullied as she was have been driven to suicide. But, with the help of her new best friend, O’Donnell now has a way to cope with the trauma that has been inflicted on her.

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