Service dogs: Working for mental illness

“I’m the freak with the service dog.” This is how Mackenzie Lough, 14, has started to introduce herself.

Mackenzie Lough with her service dog, Pepperpod.

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.”

Prescribed therapy

Mackenzie’s family doctor consulted with 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.

Mackenzie and Pepperpod with trainer, Tamara Follett.

Follett, who is also Pepperpod’s trainer, notes that he is trained to fulfill 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.

Pepperod 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 like Pepperpod, who is 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.”

Barriers and challenges

While human rights legislation protects Mackenzie in bringing Pepperpod into public places, it can’t shield her from the judgment and harassment she continues to encounter on a daily basis – in places like restaurants, 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.”

Poster identifies Pepperpod as a working service dog.

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 everyday.

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 that Mackenzie is benefitting from having Pepperpod at her service. “The only proof I need is that my daughter gets up and goes to school everyday.”

Feature photo by Ingrid Misner, Artistic Impressions Photography

In Part 2 of this series, Leanne Fournier will look at the challenges of recognizing the rights of psychiatric service dogs and their handlers. 

Leanne Fournier


I own my own company, MightyWrite, and love to write about Manitoba businesses, mental health, people, and my life off the grid along a great river. Read all about it on my blog at or let's connect on Twitter @mightywriteca.

One response to “Service dogs: Working for mental illness”

  1. Jennita Lough

    I want people above all to remember that she is a 14 year old child. Please be kind with your responses and she follows this closely. I have one wish for my daughter. I want her to have an entire day where she isn’t being harassed by anyone. Whether it be the kids in the school hallway barking at him, the teachers telling her that he should be in his carrier and not with her, the adults in the mall telling her that he is fake, or the adults who run to customer service and complain because we have a Service Dog in the store. Mackenzie has the right to live her life without hate, fear, or rudeness from others. She deserves respect, which so often she doesn’t get because of her age. She fights to hold her head up everyday and it amazes me that even with all this facing her she wants to continue fighting for others. Mackenzie did not need a big service dog, she doesn’t have mobility issues, or need doors opened for her, or retrieving large objects, we chose a small breed so that his impact on her everyday life would be minimal. However she is constantly being told how wrong she is and that she is fake. The only proof I need is the fact that she is still alive and goes to school every day, she holds her head high and walks proud, she doesn’t need anyone’s approval. She has nothing to prove to herself, she knows that because of Pepperpod she can be “normal” and that makes me one proud mom.