Service Dogs, Allergies and Trauma: Making Spaces Inclusive

Chaya Grossberg
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The movement of rethinking psychiatry is one of questioning what it means to be disabled, and how we can change not only our individual selves, but also our environments and society, to be more inclusive of people with a variety of marginalized abilities, gifts and challenges. In some ways it is up to us who are working for alternatives to the mainstream medical model to lead and set examples. We need to continually ask ourselves how to include more marginalized people of differing abilities, health challenges, types of trauma, eccentricities and the like, to lead the way for mainstream mental health programs and spaces to do the same (and pressure them when needed).

With the recent dramatic rise in mental health service dogs, therapy dogs and emotional support pets, which are often used as supplements or alternatives to psychiatry, those with dander allergies (or dog trauma) face a new set of accessibility challenges. These obstacles to accessibility are increasing in mental health settings, as well as settings designed to be alternatives to psychiatry, which ideally should be accessible to people with disabilities — including disabling allergies.

For those who experience asthma from dog dander, or trauma triggers from the presence of dogs, an increasing number of spaces such as peer support centers, conferences, activist meetings, therapy offices and other social support spaces are becoming increasingly difficult to access.

Clearly many people find comfort in having an emotional support animal alongside them, and at the same time there are a significant number of folks with disabling dog allergies who are now unable to participate in activities that would be supportive and healing. For these people, the presence of lots of dog dander triggers constricted airways, an inability to breathe fully, and asthma attacks.

This is something I’ve been challenged with my whole life, so I’ve had a lot of time to study what can help reduce allergens and the anxiety some people experience around dogs.

Historically, dogs were used to scare or attack Jews and black people. People still report dogs growling and acting otherwise aggressively towards black people, and the cause may be that dogs are mirroring the racism of people. There can be intergenerational trauma amongst Jewish people, black people, and other groups who dogs were used against, which can result in feelings of anxiety, fear, panic, grief, rage or dissociation around dogs, especially if off leash. Of course some Jewish and black people love dogs, and there is no race that has dog trauma across the board, but the history of dogs being used to scare certain groups is helpful to be aware of.

Here are some ideas that can help allergy sufferers and those with dog trauma to be safer and more included alongside those who are comforted by dogs.

1. In indoor spaces, air filters can make a big difference in accessibility for those with allergies. Even a large office with many rooms can invest in one high quality air filter which moves from room to room as needed. This has given me access to spaces I otherwise would not have been able to be in on many occasions. Conference organizers can also bring an air filter to the conference, perhaps at no extra cost if someone has one to lend. Air filtering plants also help in offices. Better air quality benefits everyone, and there are many allergens in indoor spaces besides pet dander. Having air filters can also dramatically reduce anxiety for asthma sufferers. Allergy and asthma attacks are emotionally traumatizing; helping survivors feel safe is crucial to accessibility.

2. Carpet free spaces are ideal. Any carpeted space would benefit from an air filter and regular vacuuming. Bare floors can be mopped to clear allergens. Generally keeping spaces clean makes a huge difference.

3. Windows that open are ideal for bringing in fresh air, and a great investment on many levels, including, of course, reducing trauma for those who have been institutionalized.

4. In a multi-room office or conference space that has multiple service dogs, keeping all rooms accessible to allergy sufferers may be more work than people can handle. In this case, keeping at least one room (ideally several) free from dogs and clean can be a great start in being inclusive and accessible to those with severe allergies.

5. Clean the vents. If you have forced air at your office, cleaning the vents once a month or so will make your space more accessible to those with asthmatic allergies. Dander, dust and other allergens stay in there and all of the air blowing out into the room is passing through a bunch of allergens that can easily be cleaned out even by simply spraying water on/in them and wiping the dust away.

6. Some herbs and supplements that have made environments a little more accessible for me are: Vitamin C, homeopathic allergy meds, caffeine (coffee/tea), sage tea, honey, apple cider vinegar, lobelia tincture (in tiny amounts), skullcap, Echinacea, grindelia, and any adaptogens/herbs that support the adrenals. Having some of these substances available can also make spaces more available to allergy/asthma sufferers.

7. If you are in a position of authority or leadership at a social service center or conference, make rules, signs and memos that only trained service animals are allowed, they must be kept on leash except when performing a necessary task, etc. Let people know that allergies and dog trauma are issues and to use them responsibly and when necessary, but not otherwise.

8. Be willing to have the conversation. Facilitate dialogue between those who bring dogs and those who have allergies or are otherwise disturbed by dogs (with a trained mediator if necessary). Oftentimes people haven’t considered the effect their actions are having on others.

9. Keep dogs/service animals on leash at all times unless they are doing a trained task that is necessary. Keeping your dog on leash and close to you in public spaces keeps allergens from spreading around the whole room as much, and keeps your dog from rubbing on other people or running on their coats/bags/other items and getting dander on their things. For severe allergy sufferers, getting dander on their fabrics will result in needing to wash them ASAP.

For Dog Owners:

1. Never assume people want your dog to jump on them or brush against them. Service animals aren’t allowed to be pet or played with by other people, and this spreads a lot of dander around. It also gives the impression that the dog is a pet rather than a service animal.

2. If your pet isn’t a trained service animal, avoid bringing them into public indoor spaces. Yes, it’s easy to pretend any pet is a service animal nowadays, but the more dogs there are in an indoor space, the harder it will be for those with allergic disabilities.

3. If you are acquiring a service or support animal, choose a hypoallergenic breed. Even so-called hypoallergenic breeds have small amounts of dander in most cases, but the amount is far less and makes a huge difference. Your allergic comrades will definitely appreciate it. This shows cross-disability solidarity and ensures one person’s disability accommodation isn’t disabling or excluding someone else.

4. Keep animals off of couches and furniture, when possible, which are much harder to clean and more likely to go overlooked in cleaning procedures. If couches do get dander on them, they can be covered with a removable, washable sheet or cover.

5. Tangential but relevant: chemical fragrances and cigarette smoke also pose accessibility problems for those with disabling allergies and asthma at conferences, in meetings and at peer support/activist centers. Avoid wearing fragrances and smoke far away from the entrance to increase accessibility for people with these disabilities.

Many people have a bias towards dogs because they like them or think they are cute, which makes it harder for allergy sufferers to advocate for themselves. We feel outnumbered, or as if we are the only one with this problem, so we should just suck it up and “deal”.

Yet there are many people with disabling allergies and asthma. I’ve encountered quite a few others, most of whom have resigned themselves to not being able to breathe, or avoiding offending environments altogether, because those seem to be the only options.

By opening up this conversation, a minority disabled group is at the very least heard and acknowledged. Ask people with allergic disabilities what can be done to accommodate them. This will result in them being far less disgruntled about dogs since their needs will be acknowledged and addressed.

None of this is hypothetical. I’ve had to leave conferences (such as Alternatives 2012 in Portland), decline medical care, and opt out of involvement in entire peer support organizations due to carpeted offices with no windows that open, no air filters or plants and numerous dogs present, because I wasn’t able to breathe in these spaces.

Many mental health type offices and conferences have a stale air quality about them. The great thing about making air quality breathable for those with asthmatic disabilities, is that it also improves the air and environment for everyone.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. Great article! I think it’s definitely important to be aware of how a service dog is affecting others in the environment. I think, at least at provider’s offices, it would be reasonable to ask not to be scheduled on the same day as someone who brings a service dog. Just allowing extra time for air exchange should help.

    I have never dealt with serious pet allergies but I’ve come to understand asthma differently as a result of a hospital stay half a decade ago. I was on a trauma unit in a well known private psychiatric hospital. I have asthma. I brought my inhaler with me. The first time I had an asthma attack, they refused to give me my inhaler. They said I was panicking. I freaked out. I survived, obviously. But I have also witnessed multiple other patients be refused their inhaler on the same basis. You have not seen terror until you’ve looked into the eyes of someone who can’t breathe and thinks they’re dying. However, that experience changed my view of my own asthma and how my anxiety fueled it. I haven’t used my inhaler in five years though I still keep an active prescription for it, just in case.

    That’s just food for thought and not meant to negate any of your points, obviously.

  2. My friend was allergic to dogs. Over time this developed into a fear of dogs as well, which is of course a logical progression. She also suffered from nightmares since childhood. In fact, she was extremely fearful of many things when I first met her. So she went to a therapist, who told her she had a mental disorder. After that, her marriage went downhill, as did her career.

    One day, she found out that she might not be allergic to Poodles. She decided to go near one and see if she was allergic. It was scary to do this, but she found she liked the dog very much. Soon enough, one day, she got her own Poodle. After a few years, she and her husband had a number of Poodles!

    She tells me that her decades-long struggle with nightmares, that therapy could never solve, are gone. She tells me her marriage is more loving and caring with dogs in the house. She tells me they are like children to her. Yet when I first met her, decades ago, a fearful and timid woman, I couldn’t imagine her ever having a dog. Today, she has a successful career, is a pioneer in her field, raised a family, and for sure is a person I look up to and admire.

    What I know about the hypoallergenic breeds is that not all hypoallergenic breeds are hypoallergenic. I lucked out, though, or, rather, those with allergies did. I’ve never known anyone to be allergic to Puzzle. That doesn’t mean everyone likes her. I don’t think she cares so long as I feed her. Judging by that look she’s giving me, it had better be soon.