OBERLIN, Ohio — Jane Miller trains dogs to change lives.

What You Need To Know

  • Healing companions is a nonprofit that trains shelter dogs to become psychiatric service dogs

  • Psychiatric service dogs can help those with mental illness lead a life of freedom, productivity, and self-reliance

  • This gives the dogs, as well as the person, a second chance at life

“In fourth grade, I came home from school and I told my mother I wanted to be Jane Goodall,” Miller said. “So I guess what's so interesting about my life is that I never knew where the path was going to lead me, but I wanted to somehow save the lives of animals and transform the lives of humans.”

Miller is a licensed psychotherapist and founder of Healing Companions, a nonprofit she started 20 years ago. She trains shelter dogs to become psychiatric service dogs to help clients struggling with severe mental illnesses to function in society.

“As a therapist, all the work in the world, all of the therapy in the world, doesn't get you up out of bed in the morning, but a dog does,” Miller said. “And to see clients be able to function at a much higher level than I ever dreamt they'd be able to, and they ever dreamt they would be able to, is really the gift of Healing Companions.”

Healing Companions helps clients like Amanda Guttman, who said she has dealt with mental illness her entire life.

“I'm an incest survivor and I had pushed down memories of what had happened as a kid. And around this time all started surging up and I felt like I could not tell the difference between the past and the present or where I was,” Guttman said. “And I was having disruptive memories at work...Between the memories and the nightmares got so bad, that was when I was like, I don't know what else to do. Like, I want to take my life because I don't know how to navigate this.”

Her first psychiatric service dog, Nina, saved her life 20 years ago, and now her new teammate, Lola, is doing the same thing.

“That model of caring that much about another creature sort of opens a window to, like, I wonder what it's like to care about myself that way,” said Guttman.

Diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Guttman leans on Lola in ways many wouldn’t realize.

“At times I can be hypomanic and Lola will, she'll just plop herself down in whatever I am fixating on and buzzing around, and all I can do is focus on her and it's kind of a wake up, a reminder of like, hey, come back, come back, you know, slow down,” said Guttman.

Miller said the dogs have changed lives in big ways.

“I have clients that really weren't leaving their homes before they got their dogs that now have full-time jobs, or were able to go back to graduate school or to do all kinds of things they were incapable of doing before they got a dog,” said Miller.

Many of the dogs Miller trains were once unwanted puppies from various shelters. Rescued and then trained, the dogs, like Lola, get a second chance at life just like the clients.

“One of the biggest gifts Lola has given me is laughter. She's a silly hound and that I just, really, has lightened up my life quite a bit,” said Guttman.

Miller hopes to increase awareness about the benefits of psychiatric service dogs as a form of treatment for mental illness in Ohio and beyond.

“Expanding, having Healing Companions Inc. all over the world so that people can benefit from what I've experienced,” Miller said. “And I have to tell you, I have people that probably wouldn't be alive today if it hadn't been for their psychiatric service dog.”

Guttman said her dog is teaching her.

“She's curious. That's helped me to become more curious,” Guttman said. “She's also very lighthearted and that's helped me to also lighten up, and watching her just lie down in the sunshine and sniff, I'm learning how to be still and just enjoy the world around me. Lola just by being Lola motivates me to live.”

These dogs with seemingly ordinary beginnings are changing lives in extraordinary ways.

Mental health professionals interested in learning about psychiatric service dog training or those in need of Jane’s services may go to the Healing Companions website.