September 19, 2018 ~ We caught up with Jane Miller, a Mandel School alumnus who will be part of Alumni Authors Alley on October 12. Miller is a licensed independent social worker, psychiatric service dog trainer, certified dog behavior consultant, celebrated author, and founder of Healing Companions, Inc. Healing Companions is a non-profit organization dedicated to assisting people with disabilities such as depression, post-traumatic stress, bipolar disorder, anxiety, panic attacks and more, by partnering them with Psychiatric Service Dogs In-training (PSDIT).
Her book, Healing Companions: Ordinary Dogs and Their Extraordinary Power to Transform Lives is a groundbreaking book that provides a window into the new world of Psychiatric Service Dogs (PSDs) and how they can offer some of society’s most vulnerable people a second chance at life. The book is a great read that offers hope and shares stories of how these dogs have changed and enhanced the lives of their human companions.
In Healing Companions, Jane Miller introduces these amazing dogs and explains how they have helped vulnerable people improve their lives in profound and unexpected ways. PSDs have allowed them to gain self-esteem, self-confidence, assertiveness, and so much more. These dogs provide emotional support, as all dogs do, but they are specifically trained to perform certain tasks unique to each individual’s needs.
Q: When did you discover the ability of dogs to perform the work of PSDs? As a child of divorced parents, I learned early on the comfort of our black lab, Tasha. She was my best friend and confidant, especially through the trials and tribulations of adolescence. But really, Umaya, one of my golden retrievers, set my life trajectory. At age four, Umaya contracted cancer. I was working at a clinic and seeing clients all day. Umaya’s oncologist suggested that I take her to work every day to keep an eye on her. She looked rough. She was bald with scars etc. She looked sick. But she was happy and she would make the rounds in the waiting room in between sessions. The office environment went from sad and depressed to cheerful and chatty. Umaya changed everything. She was my co-therapist and had a huge impact on my sessions with my clients. Her demeanor would so clearly mirror the clients’ feelings that they would start to look to her for a read on themselves. She was very helpful in that way and it gave me a window on where this could go. Then, in the 1990’s, the Americans with Disabilities Act was amended to allow those that are severely limited in their ability to function due to mental illness to qualify for a service dog to mitigate the effects of their symptoms. This changed the whole landscape of what was available to those with mental illness.
Q: Does one experience stand out for you? There are many amazing stories but one stands out. My client Mindy, who was a survivor of physical abuse and incest, was struggling in her therapy. I had been seeing her for many years before Umaya started coming to the office. Once, when I left the room and came back in Mindy was on the floor speaking to Umaya but not in her voice. She sounded like a four year old. This was a turning point in her therapy. It turns out that she has Dissociative Identity Disorder. She had buried that for so long. But she felt safe with Umaya and she was comfortable to let her other parts come out. Memories started flooding back.
Q: Tell us about your pet dogs. As an adult, when I went looking for my first dog, I chose not to get a black lab because he or she would always be, in my mind, compared to Tasha. I found the same qualities and temperament in dark Golden Retrievers. When I first visited the breeder of my first Golden, I was greeted at the door by their 17 year old son who had suffered a devastating columbine accident causing severely disfiguring burns. He started breeding dark Goldens after the accident and he told me how the dogs accepted him for who he was, not for how he looked. The dogs gave him back his life. I knew that with this family, I had found my dogs.
Q: How do PSDs differ from Guide Dogs? Every Guide Dog learns the same set of skills. Each PSDIT learns the specific skills that are needed by the client. The client and I train the dog together. A client does not adopt a fully trained dog. I involve the client in finding the dog, bonding with their dog, learning about dog’s body language, positive reward-based training techniques and communication. So, the client is bonding with the dog and helping to train the dog to the necessary tasks. The training process is therapeutic in itself. The client learns positive reinforcement training, patience, non-verbal communication and how their own feelings and issues can impact the communication process. So building this relationship is very therapeutic.
Q: Why do you choose to train shelter dogs for PSD? Trauma survivors want to help dogs who have been through trauma. Plus, they frequently would feel overwhelmed with a puppy. Therefore, all of our dogs are shelter dogs or dogs who are needing to be re-homed.
Q: What do you look for in a dog? I look at health, age, history, issue, temperament and potential. When my client adopted a dog who survived Hurricane Katrina, I was skeptical at first. The dog would need help with the same issues as the client and it turned out to be a match made in heaven. They were both afraid of thunderstorms, wind and rain. So, they worked through their issues together. They had many parallels.
Q: Who has inspired you in your life? When I was in the fourth grade, I learned about Jane Goodall. She has remained a huge source of inspiration for me. As an adult, when I was asked to write an excerpt for her birthday book and it was actually included in the book, I knew that I had come full circle.
The other person who really inspired me was Dr. Allen Schoen , author of Kindred Spirits: How the Remarkable Bond Between Humans and Animals Can Change the Way we Live. He and I presented together at a conference on the healing power of dogs. He was the one who really encouraged me to write Healing Companions.
Q: What made you start the Healing Companions organization? I did an internship at the Free Clinic of Cleveland where mental health, dental health and physical care are free. I saw first-hand how many people have needs and they know of no way to seek help or help themselves. I also learned a huge amount by working with people with AIDS. Because they were facing their mortality, they were willing to explore alternative healing modalities. Implementing various complementary healing modalities made a huge impact on their quality of life. This inspired me to discover additional healing modalities for my clients many of whom had limited options. .
For my whole life, I knew I wanted to work with animals and people but the only options back then were research or veterinary care. I tried the research route. Also, I knew that I wanted to work with healthy animals, not sick ones. So, as an undergraduate, I majored in Psycho-biology, the study of animal and human behavior. Then my path became clear.
Q: How did your time and experience at Case-Western influence your path and your success? My time at Case Western Univ. MSASS and certain people there helped me to see that I could do whatever I set my mind to do. The first person was Anna Fritz, who taught the anti-discrimination and racism class. She lit a fire under me and encouraged me to start a NASW group in Ohio. I was appointed the national representative and I became every active and often traveled to DC.
Second, were Neal Abell and Jim McConnell. They took me under their wing and we did a study on how HIV/AiDS impacted families. An article on the topic was published in the NASW Journal. Being published as an undergraduate was very beneficial.
I was also very inspired by Dr. Alvin Schorr who taught Social Public Policy Analysis. He was one of the leaders on public policy in the Johnson administration and a genius. He had faith in me and encouraged me to aim for the stars.
At graduation, I was chosen for the Irene Sogg Gross Award. It is given to a member of the graduating class, chosen by his or her peers, “in recognition of outstanding interest and accomplishments in the areas of humanitarian service.” I was outspoken and very political. I was an advocate. They picked me.
Graduate school for me at Case Western was such an honor. It meant so much to me having these amazing people say to me: “Jane, follow your heart and passion. Take off and go for it. You can do anything.”