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Going to the Dogs

Mickey Niego of upstate New York is a different kind of dog trainer. She teaches dogs how to help humans with a very important mission: relaxation.

48 Hours' Richard Schlesinger first reported on Niego in February.

Niego, in her 40s, trains "emotional support dogs" for people with panic disorders.

When she orders a dog to heel, it obeys. But it also delivers in the sense that it heals.

"You pet that dog; you stroke that dog; your blood pressure goes down," Niego explained.

"Do you know that when you talk to these dogs, your vocal tones are different?" she pointed out.

Niego trains special pooches for people like Celia Holm.

"If it weren't for Scout, I might not even be here," Holm said with a sigh.

The New York City librarian has a severe panic disorder. Her dog, Scout, helps her cope, she said. "If I do start to shake,...or I lose some control, it's not as bad when I have her with me, because I can focus on her," Holm said.

Before Holm got Scout, her panic attacks caused uncontrollable tremors. "It was like a convulsion all the time," she said. "I finally ended up in the emergency room because of them."

She tried seven medications, and they did nothing. "Everything in life for her was a stress," said Dr. Nancy Jainchill, Holm's psychologist.

Dr. Jainchill came up with the dog remedy when the drugs didn't work, she said. "I prescribed an emotional support dog."

Scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that being near dogs can lower blood pressure and reduce stress in all sorts of ways. As early as 1990, a University of California at Los Angeles researcher called dogs "stress buffers."

Holm relies on her dog the way some people would use anti-anxiety drugs, she said. "I'll hang on to her....I'll pet her, or I'll give her a hug....I start to relax."

It's part biological, part psychological, but Scout now helps control the shakes.

Even while experiencing the onset of one panic attack, Holm explained that Scout is "making me feel a lot better."

"Dogs normalize people," Dr. Jainchill suggests. "The dog isn't going to reject her, is completely devoted to her, will do what she wants it to do."

"There were times when I was pretty close to the end," Holm reveals, explaining she means suicidal.

Holm rescued Scout at the pound about eight years ago. "She was in the kennel by herself and kind of crouching in the corner," Holm recalled. If Holm at the time saved the dog's life, one could say that now the pooch has returned the favor. "She kept me going and she still does," Holm said.

"The dog for Celia is like a wheelchair for someone who can't walk," explained her psychologist. "It provides her with the support that she needs to go about her daily business."

But Holm still finds it hard to go about her business, as 48 Hours discovered while following her and Scout with a hidden camera.

Federal law requires public places to allow sevice dogs, but some employees still seem confused. After one grocer confronted Holm and declared that no dogs are allowed, Holm explained that Scout is a service dog. She was told to speak to the manager.

"What does this dog do for you?" another grocer asked her.

"That's personal; you can't ask that," Holm responded.

"That's a seeing eye dog?" asked yet another grocer seeming very confused.

"No, it's another kind of service dog," Holm replied.

Holm said it's been difficult because people don't understand.

That's where Niego, the dog trainer, can lend a hand. While all the dogs enter public places, "Not all (the) public is comfortable with a dog," Niego said. So she makes sure therapy dogs behave in public.

"If I'm saying, 'Down, Bruno! Wait, wait!' and...white-knuckling it, the person in the store is not going to feel comfortable," Niego said, while demonstrating. "As far as the public is concerned, he should be a therapeutic tool....He should be invisible.

But during one visit to Manhattan, Niego was not training a dog for a client; she was training Satchel for herself. She needed the dog because she also has a panic disorder.

"I can conjure up a migraine, vomiting and not breathing in moments," she said. "It stops me from going place(s)."

For years Niego remained housebound and couldn't work; she stayed at home. Then she got her first dog. Her reaction? "Oh my God, what happened to me?" she said. "I had this dog, and it was like this big breath came out of me."

"Once I had my first dog, that was it," Niego explained. "There was this level of comfort; there was this level of calm that enveloped me."

Niego's world now revolves around her dogs, and training them allows her to make a living and have a life free of panic.

"They gave me everything. My dogs gave me everything," she said. "I love my life."

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