Animal trauma therapist: "My dog taught me that emotional bonds do not have to hurt"

Not all disabilities are visible. Especially psychological disabilities are often being suppressed or not viewed as such. It is still widely unknown that an assistance dog can help with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other psychological disabilities for example.


Photo: Assistance dog Ette

Assistance dog Ette; © privat

Kerstin Blume* lives with so-called dissociative identity disorder (DID) she developed because of traumatic violent events during her childhood. She explained to how her assistance dog Ette supports her in everyday life.

Ms. Blume, what kind of assistance dog do you have?

Kerstin Blume: My dog is a so-called "seizure assistance dog" or rather a "multipurpose assistance dog for persons with multiple disabilities". However, I prefer the term "assistance dog" because neither my disability nor her job as an assistant is the focus of our relationship.

What actual duties and responsibilities does your dog need to fulfill?

Blume: She alerts me when I am about to have a dissociative seizure and assists me in finding my bearings again when the seizure is over. She also alerts me in situations when we are alone if somebody or something approaches from behind or the front. She can also help me in maintaining my personal space to others. That is to say, she puts herself between me and other people so that I can better regulate contact with other people. This ensures that such contacts are less stressful for me, which in turn lowers my seizure threshold.

Other things Ette simply does because she is a dog with whom I have built a great relationship. When we are out and about together, I have generally fewer problems experiencing and registering cars, traffic lights, people or my environment for instance. I now no longer stand around disoriented in town, get stressed about it and subsequently have a seizure. What’s more, she builds a bridge to other humans. With her by my side, these situations are easier for me to tolerate.

How did Ette end up being with you?

Blume: I met Ette during my work at an animal rescue facility. Even as a puppy, she alerted me on her own about my seizures – something the other dogs did not do. I rewarded and encouraged this behavior. After a while, the German Center for Assistance Dogs referred me to a trainer for self-instruction, and I learned to specifically control Ette. However, during the training she only learned what was important for the two of us as a team. This is also, why she is not trained for specific procedures or commands, but rather for paying attention to me and reliably seeking the relationship with people in every situation.

Photo: Assistance dog Ette sitting on meadow

Spending time in nature is relaxing for Kerstin Blume - always by her side: Ette; © private

So you two are a well-oiled machine?

Blume: Yes, that’s true. Incidentally, she also does things for me that other dog owners frown upon – for instance when she pulls at her leash and walks in a zigzag pattern when we go out. Many people believe she is out of control by doing that. However, in reality, she helps me to overcome my dissociative tunnel vision and in doing so, helps me to notice my surroundings, and thus keeps me grounded. She literally takes me by the hand or rather the leash. This is something I have wanted as a relief from other people for a long time since I had a lot of anxiety when going out and subsequently lived in isolation.

How has your life changed because of Ette?

Blume: My life has changed by becoming overall richer because of her. Ette gives me the chance to move outside and among people and participate in what is happening. I am less anxious and don’t feel at the mercy of my seizures. My dog also taught me that emotional bonds do not have to hurt. Until this day, this is hard for me with people and even with Ette, things weren’t like this from the beginning. Not until three months ago – on her sixth birthday – I realized that I feel love for her and that we have a great, truly unconditional bond with each other.

She is also a great trauma therapist. This is also something she makes possible for me; she is a part of a time in my life where I am no longer traumatized. Every time she sits with me and I pet her, I know, "Today is today and today is okay." This is a new feeling for me, has rendered many things possible in my life, and has changed me.

So Ette is truly an enrichment?

Blume: Yes, but not everything has gotten easy (easier) with the dog and many things are not possible even though they would help me. At the Deutsche Bahn (German Train Travel) for example, dogs need to stay in a box to travel free of charge. This is why the effort to travel like this with my assistance dog oftentimes stresses me almost more than if I traveled all by myself. My assistance dog is also not on an equal footing with guide dogs for the blind. That means that I have to pay the full dog license fee and need to pass on her assistance in public buildings and stores. Yet, those are exactly the types of environments that are most stressful and strongly increase my risk of seizures.
Photo: Assistance dog Ette runs towards the camera

Playing on green meadows: Ette enjoys her time off; © private

Is Ette generally perceived as your assistance dog?

Blume: No. The general public often doesn’t know much about assistance dogs. People approach my dog and me for instance as if we’re not working at that moment and as if we welcome interruptions. Even service dog vests frequently don’t help at all. My dog wears one that reads "assistance dog" – along with a symbol of a wheelchair user. I don’t use a wheelchair and my disability is also not outwardly visible. Many people don’t realize that I might be the person with the disability that is being assisted because their judgment is typically rooted in stereotypes that are based on visible aids.

So further awareness raising is needed in this area.

Blume: That’s correct. Something many people also don’t know is that the training programs for assistance dogs are not standardized and all of them are very expensive – especially for people like me who live on social security and can often only fund this type of training with financial contributions, while the care and maintenance of the dog is also a never-ending subject. If training is therefore not being approved and put on the same level as training programs of guide dogs for the blind in the future, many will be left out in the cold.

Ette is a big help and provides emotional enrichment, which helps me register and cope with life after the trauma. However, it is also a part of a political issue that gets practically no platform in debates over inclusion and considerations about assistance for persons with disabilities, since assistance dogs are still more of an "exceptional case".

That said you couldn’t attach a prosthesis to a soul to support it. Oftentimes, one soul is the best way to help another soul. I have found this soul in Ette and I am grateful to experience her every day.
Photo: Nadine Lormis; Copyright: B. Frommann

© B. Frommann

Nadine Lormis
(Translated by Elena O'Meara.)