Psychiatric service dog in training in Morinville

Morinville Lions Club members Deborah Robillard and Maigen Butler with Ladybug at the Morinville Veterinary Clinic. Ladybug was spayed free of charge by the clinic July 8.
– Lucie Roy Photo

by Lucie Roy
Morinville News Correspondent

Ladybug is an Australian cattle dog Maigen Butler is training for Edmonton-based Hope Heels Service Dog Team Building Institute, a program designed to match Albertans with disabilities with a highly-trained Service Dog that will help mitigate their disabilities.

Training for a service dog takes about two years. Butler has been training Ladybug for psychiatric service since March and is expecting training to take another year.

Psychiatric dogs are new in Canada and as far as she knows Hope Heels in Edmonton and MSAR in Manitoba are the only two service dog’s schools in Canada that train for psychiatric dogs.

Butler said Ladybug’s main job would be behaviour interruption, something the dog will do when the handler is starting to show signs of anxiety and, for example, picks at their skin on their arm. Ladybug is trained to interrupt the behaviour and get between the handler’s hand and arm to stop them.

The dog will also receive training in light guide work to – for example – assist a handler who begins to disassociate and panic in a mall or store. The dog will guide the person out of the store.

Though the dog will provide guide functions, Butler emphasized Ladybug is not for visually impaired people. She is trained for disassociate episodes.

The service dogs are not emotional support animals because psychiatric dogs do guide work, behaviour interruptions, body blocks, and proximity checks. The dog will alert the handler if anybody is sneaking up on them. Their tasks also include med reminders and wake ups. If the service companion is depressed, the dog will help to get them out of bed by pulling the blankets off, pulling on the handler’s leg, or bringing their leash or food bowl. The idea is to just get the depressed person up and moving.

Butler said any breed of dog could be used. Collies, an Australian cattle dog, labs and a poodle have been trained in the past. Trainers have two types of testing the dogs must go through – the Volhard Puppy Aptitude Testing and the Clothier Animal Response Assessment Tool (CARAT). Butler said it the tests are personality profiles that can determine any dogs personality type.

Ladybug is not typical of her breed as cattle dogs do not normally make fantastic service dogs because they are so high driven. But Butler says Ladybug is soft for a cattle dog. She is calm and just not like the normal breed type at all. The dog trainer said you could find needles in a haystack as any dog can be a service dog.

Although there are breeders that breed for specific personality traits, Butler contends you can go to a shelter and test a dog and if they test positive you can start training.

Butler is one of the puppy raisers, trainers, and users at Hope Heels.
She said her situation is unique in the school as she and her now retired service dog Hailey are one of the original pilot teams. Butler has been with Hope Heels since 2011, and Ladybug is not the first dog Butler has trained, having previously assisted in training two dogs, and fully training another.

Because her service dog was retired due to an injury, Ladybug is doing a bit of double duty. The school did not have a dog to replace Butler’s, so they had a dog that had the basics and public access skills. While Ladybug is in training, she helping Butler with her difficulties.

“I cannot use her forever as I need [a dog for] mobility as well,” Butler said. “But Ladybug does fantastic for the psychiatric work, which is what she will be trained for.”

Hope Heels Service Dogs do education, training service dogs, public relations, and are a member of the Assistance Dogs International Candidate School. The school began after the founder heard about service dogs for veterans suffering from PTSD. Butler said civilians also get PTSD from a variety of traumatic experiences.

Hope Heels can be found online at

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  1. Maigen, you’re an angel! Can’t wait till you have some time to help out Shasta and I!

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