By Thomas Fields-Meyer
Updated July 17, 2006 12:00 PM

For years, Carey Ivey suffered from a panic disorder so severe she couldn’t hold a job, was afraid to venture from her house to the mailbox and eventually qualified for federal disability benefits. “The panic attacks would hit me from nowhere,” says Ivey, now 34 and living outside Dayton, Ohio. “I couldn’t even go to the grocery store.”

That was before Asta. A new miracle drug? Not hardly. Asta is a 7-year-old Rottweiler Ivey got four years ago. Specially trained to help with her mental illness, the dog stands close to brace Ivey when she experiences bouts of dizziness. More astonishing, Asta has an uncanny ability to sense her master’s panic attacks before they happen. She then alerts Ivey by nudging her head against Ivey’s arm. With that warning, says Ivey, “I can either remove myself from the situation or take medication.”

It’s common knowledge that blind people have long benefited from guide dogs. But in the past few years, people with psychiatric disorders like depression, anxiety and even schizophrenia increasingly are turning to man’s best friend. Once a scattershot phenomenon, the use of so-called “psychiatric service dogs” became an organized movement after Joan Esnayra—a 42-year-old Ph.D. geneticist who suffers from bipolar disorder—started a Listserve to share information in 1997 and, in 2002, founded the Psychiatric Service Dog Society, which now has 300 members. Service dogs, advocates say, can alleviate mental-health problems by helping patients remember to take their medication, stick to daily schedules and navigate stressful situations. Although no scientific studies have been done, some psychologists now recommend service dogs for patients—and say they’ve seen results. “The changes have been enormous,” says Ned Wilson, a Santa Barbara, Calif., psychotherapist.

Wilson says his patients include a bipolar woman whose miniature poodle nudges and licks her when it’s time to take her pills and an agoraphobic woman who once rarely left home and now, with her dog, visits Disneyland—”a much bigger change than I’ve been able to make as a therapist,” he says.

Not everyone is convinced. “To say anybody with a mental illness should get himself a dog or a hippopotamus or a dolphin or a condor is really silly,” says Aaron Katcher, a psychiatrist and professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania who studies human-animal relationships. “If a person can’t go into public spaces without their dog, that’s a condition that should be treated, not encouraged.”

Don’t tell that to Jes Peters, 28, who was diagnosed six years ago with schizophrenia and agoraphobia. So anxious in crowds she would become immobilized, she considered quitting college. She began taking antianxiety medications, but it was only after she got a mixed-breed puppy named Paxil (yes, named after the drug and its soothing effects) that she gained control over her phobias. “I’m more stable and functional now,” says Peters, a sociology instructor at the State University of New York in New Paltz. When her schizophrenia has caused her to lose awareness of her surroundings, she says, Paxil has blocked her from walking into traffic. And, says Peters, “If I’m hallucinating, I will look at the dog to see what’s real.”

Along with reports of success come stories of misuse. Service-dog trainer Karla Brewster of Deerfield Beach, Fla., says she saw a restaurant patron’s bichon frise eat off the table; the customer had told the manager it was a service dog. “When ill-mannered, untrained dogs are being misrepresented as service dogs,” she says. “It ruins it for people who really need them.”

It’s a privilege that growing numbers of people want. According to the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners there are 9,000 service dogs in use in the U.S. for people who are neither blind nor deaf—up 2,000 from 2001. And while professionally trained service dogs can cost as much as $20,000, people can self-train dogs under the guidance of a professional for around $2,000, says Esnayra.

It’s certainly worth the cost for people like Ivey, who spent $3,000 on Asta. She entered college in 2002, and two years later married Douglas, with whom she is raising son Jaxon, 10 months, and Gavin, 8 (who is hers from a previous marriage). She recently started working part-time as a receptionist. “I pretty much lead a normal life,” says Ivey. “Asta has given me my life back.”