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Service dog eases teen's PTSD from bullying

Bonny O’Donnell and her service dog, Carson, at Savannah High School.

Stephen B. Morton for the Washington Post

Bonny O’Donnell and her service dog, Carson, at Savannah High School.

Washington Post

The other middle school students and ninth-graders told her that no one would miss her if she killed herself. And they dared her to try it.

Because she was overweight from a hormone imbalance, she heard jeers from her peers like "whales are not allowed in shark country." Because she was awake all night with nightmares, replaying the bullying that tortured her by day, she fell asleep in class, and her bullies snapped photographs of her dozing off at her desk, posting them on social media sites.

Bonny O'Donnell, 17, now a junior at Savannah High School in Georgia, was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the bullying, and was taking medications for anxiety, depression and insomnia.

But late last summer, it all began to change for Bonny: Her therapist suggested she try using a service dog to help treat what had become a crippling fear of people and leaving the house. It took months to persuade the school to allow Carson in, but last month Bonny won her argument.

This week she will go to classes with the dog for the first time. And for the first time since she can remember, Bonny is not afraid to go to school.

"This is a huge victory," Bonny said.

Over the past several years, an exploding number of groups have trained and placed service dogs with children on the autism spectrum, adopted children with fetal-alcohol syndrome, combat veterans suffering with post-traumatic stress and brain injury, and the mentally ill.

But Bonny may be a pioneer. Service dog and bullying experts said they had not heard of a dog being used to help treat bullying-related trauma.

After her therapist suggested it, Bonny and her family began looking for a dog that could accompany her, and found Carson, a 50-pound Labrador-Husky mix on Craigslist.

At the time, Carson was being trained as a therapy dog — there is a crucial distinction between that and a working service dog under federal disability law. Bonny and her parents — Vicki, a fourth-grade teacher in the same public school district her daughter attends, and Dale, a security guard at a factory in town — brought the dog, now 3, home in August.

It wasn't long before Bonny noticed how much the dog was helping her, and the family made an appointment with the principal to see if Carson would be allowed to go to school.

It was a no-go, but eventually, citing what school officials said was a painstaking decision, the school agreed that allowing Carson on campus was best for Bonny.

In-depth research into how service dogs like Carson successfully perform their psychiatric duties is in its infancy. Dogs can pick up the scent of the stress hormone cortisol, and Carson can anticipate an oncoming panic attack.

He will rub his nose against her or lick her face to distract her from the source of her anxiety, and he has repeatedly helped to lower her pulse, Bonny and her mother said. The other savior for Bonny, Carson's ability to perform another officially recognized service dog task known as "deep pressure therapy," comes when Carson leans against her in a tense situation, his weight acting as a calming mechanism.

"There is good science behind this," said Brian Hare, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology who is heading up new research at Duke University, looking at what specific canine traits could make for the best assistant dogs. "But in a classroom, there are going to be people who have phobias, who will be allergic — you have to balance it all out."

Service dog eases teen's PTSD from bullying 01/25/16 [Last modified: Monday, January 25, 2016 4:14pm]
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