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This article was published 10/10/2014 (926 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
"I’m the freak with the service dog." This is how Mackenzie Lough, 14, has started to introduce herself.
People can see the service dog. What they can't see are Mackenzie's disabilities -- depression, anxiety/panic disorder, social phobia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Like many young people who struggle with mental illness, Mackenzie was afraid to ask for help. She attempted suicide when her symptoms became unbearable. Those of us who haven't experienced the darkness of depression may never know the depth of those feelings.
"It's like I can't breathe," Mackenzie says. "I'm in a box, trapped and I don't know where to turn or what to do. I'm shaking, my head is pounding, my heart is racing and I don't know how to get out of that box."
She says it's easier now because she has Pepperpod, a trained service dog, to help her through those tough times. "Pepperpod notices when I'm in trouble. He gives me the confidence to tell somebody what I'm feeling and get help."
Mackenzie's family doctor consulted a psychiatrist and recommended the service dog after numerous therapies weren't working. She was hesitant at first because she didn't want to broadcast her disability.
As her symptoms continued, she realized she had to do something. Her parents began looking into service dogs, which brought them to Tamara Follett, founder and president of Assistance Dogs for All.
Follett, who is also Pepperpod's trainer, notes he is trained to fulfil key tasks to mitigate Mackenzie's disability.
"These include medication reminders where he'll sit by the area where her medication is kept until she acknowledges him," says Follett.
"In the event that Mackenzie wants to hurt herself, he is trained to distract her by putting himself in her way and blocking the activity. He won't settle until she responds. Someone seeing this might think it's a dog misbehaving, but those who know the task would understand what he is doing," she explains.
Pepperpod can also lead Mackenzie to an exit when she is experiencing distress or fear paralysis, get help if needed and do a room search if she is feeling uneasy.
Mackenzie has completed intensive training and certification to support Pepperpod in doing these tasks.
Follett says that a miniature-breed dog such as Pepperpod, a Pomeranian, is the best match because of the specific services Mackenzie requires.
"Since she needs Pepperpod to be with her all the time, portability is a key issue. Also, because he's so small, he causes less disruption in public places," Follett says. "These dogs can have all the heart of a big dog but in a smart, highly portable package."
While human rights legislation protects Mackenzie in bringing Pepperpod into public places, it can't shield her from the judgment and harassment she still encounters each day -- in restaurants and shopping malls as well as her own school.
"People can't see Mackenzie's disability, so they assume it isn't real and that Pepperpod is just her pet," said Jennita Lough, Mackenzie's mother. This occurs even though Pepperpod wears a clearly marked vest and has a carrier that identifies him as a service dog. Lough has also provided posters to numerous places in the community as well as the school.
"What people miss is that Pepperpod is Mackenzie's medical device," Lough said.
"He's as important to her ability to participate in everyday life as a wheelchair is to someone with a physical disability. No one would ask for the wheelchair to be left at the door."
There are, of course, people who have legitimate concerns -- severe allergies or fear of dogs -- in which case these rights also need to be recognized. Mackenzie accepts that. She fights for her rights every day.
Mackenzie says, "I know this is real and that I'm not fake. This is what makes me feel better and I have to just realize that it doesn't matter what society thinks. I just wish more people would be supportive and want to help and care about people with mental illness."
While it's exhausting and has contributed to both her anxiety and panic, Mackenzie wants to speak up and do what she can to make it safer for others like her. "I want other kids who suffer from mental illness to know there is a light at the end of the tunnel. They just have to keep searching for that light."
Lough says there is no doubt Mackenzie is benefiting from having Pepperpod at her service. "The only proof I need is that my daughter gets up and goes to school every day."
Leanne Fournier is one of many citizen journalists who are sharing stories on Community News Commons, a citizen journalism project funded by the Winnipeg Foundation and Knight Foundation. For information about free training to become a citizen journalist -- some classes start Oct. 20 -- go to www.cncwpg.org.