By Siobhan Heanue
In many ways Avery is just like any other well loved pet — but the greyhound, and owner Emily, have given one another a new lease on life.
Avery is a psychiatric assistance dog who helps Ms Smith deal with debilitating anxiety.
Ms Smith said both her parents suffered from mental illness, and she had a breakdown when she was in college.
“It was pretty severe and it was really lifechanging because I went from being able to do anything to not even being able to drive a car or leave the house,” she said.
She turned to ACT Greyhound Rescue for a new pet.
After the pooch’s life on the race track, he became a regular house dog. But with Emily’s help, Avery was quickly trained up to provide mental health assistance.
PHOTO: The pair have formed a special bond. (ABC News: Siobhan Heanue)
Since 2011, the charity mindDog has trained more than 600 canines to provide psychiatric assistance to their handlers.
There are about 100 animals in Canberra.
Unlike many service dog organisations, mindDog trains existing pets so a strong owner-dog bond is already in place.
The owner does most of the training, with plenty of guidance from expert trainers.
A dog with the right temperament can learn a range of hand or verbal cues and provide emotional support on command.
Ms Smith’s dog often leans against her to ‘ground’ her when she is on the verge of a panic attack.
Avery also stands in front or behind her when she’s in need of extra personal space in public places.
“It’s just that kind of perceived barrier, a sense of security,” Ms Smith said.
“When I’m having an anxious day or feeling vulnerable that’s a lot of comfort.”
Avery goes to work with Ms Smith and is also by her side during shopping trips.
For instance, the animal knows to stand behind her when she’s using an ATM.
“He’s got my back, so I can turn my back because I know that he’s got it,” Ms Smith said.
Like all assistance dogs, psychiatric helper hounds shouldn’t be patted when they’re wearing the vest that denotes they are working.
Ms Smith said having Avery’s unique set of skills has been life-changing for her.
“It’s everything, it’s independence,” she said.
“When you live with a mental illness it’s really hard on your family.
“My husband isn’t worried when I go out anymore, he’s not waiting for a phone call saying that I’m curled up in a ball somewhere and I need to be collected.
“If I’m not coping, Avery is there and he’s guiding me through it.”
The mindDog charity is so overwhelmed with requests for help it recently had to turn away all new applications.
It has only one paid staff member, but together with volunteers, it has managed to turn around the lives of hundreds — both humans and hounds.