Pokémon Go! and Psychiatric Service Dogs


My two youngest daughters finally convinced me to download the Pokémon Go! app. So a few days ago, wanting to spend some quality time with my 17-year-old daughter before she left town for the rest of the summer, I found myself on a walk with her and Franny.  Pokéhunting. Yes, Pokéhunting! Even Franny got in on the act. She’s a bird dog after all.

In the course of our walk, we collected an array of Pokémon to add to our collections (I achieved Level 4, one level away from being gym-worthy). We meandered close enough to three neighborhood churches where we found extra Pokéballs, necessary for catching the Pokémon. We also laughed, talked, bonded and had one of those perfect moments I cherish — where it just all goes right, even if for just a short while. I remembered to catch my own special memories of those moments in a metaphorical Pokéball that I could stow safely away for those harder times in life. 

A few days after that, I noticed the plethora of social media responses to Pokémon Go! from people suffering from mental illnesses as well as mental health professionals. These Twitter, Instagram and Facebook posts extolled the game’s impact on people with depression and anxiety — people who normally were not prone to going outside or being social.  Pokémon Go!, it seemed, swept them right off the couch and out into the sunshine, where they discovered local landmarks, visited new points of interest, met other people, and gained real-world experience in a positive social setting.

It’s fun. For a couple days,  without the excuse of either daughter alongside, I confess I snagged a few Pokéballs after yoga class and caught a Pokémon or three wandering down my street. I’m even made it to Level 5 while out grocery shopping.

Then when I got home with my groceries, I was greeted as a long-lost friend by my very real animals (naturally, they demonstrated the good manners they’ve been taught) and I was inspired to compare the benefits of playing Pokémon Go! with the benefits of owning a real, live service dog.   
I have been a service dog trainer for over 14 years now. Many of the dogs I have carefully selected, raised, trained, placed and supported provide psychological and psychiatric support for their person. These dogs can fulfill a variety of concrete functions for their people, easing the oftentimes crippling affects of symptoms stemming from depression, anxiety, social phobias and PTSD, among other conditions. In addition, service dogs can decrease people’s reliance on medications, elevate mood, encourage independence and improve overall functioning is many different ways — in the providing the services the dogs were trained for, of course, but also in new ways that just seem to sprout as the relationship between dog and person evolves and develops. And of course dogs get people up and outside and moving — with the same benefits reported by Pokémon Go! players. 

Pokémon, however, are imaginary.  And while you can invest time and energy into them – by catching, training or evolving them, Pokémon can’t return the favor. Dogs, in contrast, can provide unconditional love and trust if well enough cared for; dogs don’t judge people on looks, stock portfolios, their taste in furnishings, the size of their homes or if even if they have a home. For the human partner, the presence of the dog, like engaging in Pokémon Go!, gives them a reason to go outside, with one big difference:  Going outside with a dog requires coping with tangible undeniable reality. Interacting with a dog (as opposed to a Pokémon) requires relationship building; they have the opportunity to develop an ongoing relationship with a dog which can be supportive and life-changing, and which can become even more so with the application of love, dedication, and training.

Dogs live and breathe. Dogs don’t rely on technology to navigate the real world. They don’t succumb to the modern mind’s gravitation to be absorbed in unimportant matters. I thank my dogs every day for breaking my tendency to get too absorbed. For using a cold wet nose to nudge my hand away from my computer mouse and towards movement, not forcing but encouraging a walk to enjoy nature and all the world has to offer. I thank my dogs for giving me what people are only just starting to understand through this new game that is sweeping the nation, for giving me the unconditional love everyone deserves — even on a short walk.

I will now go kiss their furry little heads, and hope to spread this simple joy of real animals to whomever I can.