Year in Review: Psychiatric Service Dog Supports B-CC Student
Looking back at the top stories of 2016
Marxe with his service dog Truffle Bear at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School
Editor’s Note: Over the next week, Bethesda Beat will look back at the stories and trends that made news this year.
Marxe Orbach loves the soundtrack from the popular musical Hamilton. Many of his afternoons are spent playing on Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School’s ice hockey team. He has taken on a leadership role among his peers in the school’s LGBTQ club, Spectrum.
But last spring, participating in activities and interests or simply attending school became difficult for Marxe. His anxiety and depression made getting out of bed many mornings a struggle. He missed dozens of school days, including an entire week when he was hospitalized.
Things are different this year because Marxe, 16 and a sophomore, has a psychiatric service dog, Truffle Bear.
Now when Marxe wakes up for school, Truffle is already by his side, providing companionship. There’s also the sense of responsibility that comes with dog ownership—it’s Marxe’s job to make sure Truffle goes outside, is fed and walked and ready for the day.
Each school day, the duo heads to the Bethesda high school—Marxe adorned with a blue-speckled backpack and Truffle with his red vest labeled Service Dog.
“Having Truffle with him all the time allows him to manage his anxiety, recognize that there’s much more to live for,” said Marxe’s mom, Evie Altman. “It allows him to step back and see that things are bigger than himself, away from any depressive thoughts.”
Truffle, a poodle, is trained to stabilize Marxe when he notices the teen is anxious or upset, often by sitting on his lap and staying still, a type of pressure therapy. He also is trained to recognize and redirect or stop destructive behaviors, like self-harm.
And while Truffle is there to keep Marxe from physical harm and emotional trauma—which he does—the service dog has also improved other aspects of Marxe’s life.
“I’m able to talk to people more easily, I’m able to participate in class more easily, complete things more easily,” the teen said. “Being with people or friends that you love anchors you, at least emotional-wise, and Truffle does a lot of that for me.”
The idea to get a dog for Marxe occurred to Altman last spring. It had been a difficult few months for her family, but especially for Marxe. Her husband and Marxe’s father had died unexpectedly in January, and shortly after—building on conversations the family had been having—Marxe decided to come out as transgender. Between the two life-altering events, Marxe’s depression became worse. He often turned to self-harm, which required hospitalization at one point.
Together, Altman and Marxe consulted his psychiatrist, who prescribed the use of a psychiatric service dog. With help from Altman’s veterinarian sister, they worked with a breeder of service dogs and brought home Truffle in August.
“His mental health is by far the most important thing,” Altman said. “Marxe immediately took to the dog, and Truffle just responded great.”
Emotional support animals play a different role than service animals. While Truffle may provide comfort to Marxe, the dog is trained to help him with his mental illness. Emotional service animals, according to ADA, “provide companionship, relieve loneliness, and sometimes help with depression, anxiety, and certain phobias, but do not have special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities.”
After undergoing training from the breeder, Truffle continues to work with a service dog trainer. Before classes began this fall, Marxe worked with Truffle inside B-CC throughout August to help the dog acclimate to the new atmosphere and met with administrators to go over rules and regulations.
Montgomery County Public Schools acknowledges the right of individuals with disabilities to bring service dogs to school and school functions in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. That law defines a service animal as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”
Marxe and his mother said B-CC and Principal Donna Jones were exceptionally accommodating until about five weeks into the school year when Truffle was kicked out. Marxe missed a week of school while issues raised by the school administration were resolved.
“It was the most stressful week,” Altman said. “My kid wasn’t going to school, my kid was missing stuff, he was not in a good place when this was going on.”
There had been issues with Truffle acting unruly during yoga class and questions about whether he met all MCPS regulations for service animals—but Altman said no one had brought these issues to her before the decision to kick Truffle out.
“I wish the communication would have been open more [with the administration], so we could have taken care of these issues before it became a crisis,” Altman said.
Jones declined to comment on the issues concerning Marxe and Truffles.
With support from Marxe’s psychiatrist, Marxe and his family were able to work out the issues to ensure Marxe was allowed his service dog. A friend at school started an online petition to garner support for Marxe and Truffle, which gained more than 250 signatures.
Now a dog walker comes to the school take Truffle out during Marxe’s yoga period and other issues have been resolved.
Marxe’s dog is “back in school and was allowed back when his family was able to confirm that he could meet the requirements outlined in the regulation including being housebroken, not causing disruptions in class and in the hallways, etc.,” MCPS spokesperson Gboyinde Onijala wrote in an email.
Still, Marxe faces other challenges with Truffle. Because he has an invisible disability, unlike a blind person or someone in a wheelchair, he said people often come up to him and ask what’s wrong with him, or get angry when he asks that they do not pet Truffle. He said he doesn't want to explain his mental illness to everyone.
But overall, Truffle has been life-changing, Marxe said. He began telling his story to other students, including in a course called Peace Studies where he made a presentation about his mental illness and Truffle’s role in helping him. He said he received almost 50 thank-you notes from students in the class. Though he knows the students were required to write the notes, Marxe said their words still meant a lot.
“It makes me feel like I’m actually making a change,” Marxe said. “I’ve been told that I’m de-stigmatizing mental illness.”
While Marxe used to dream of becoming a doctor, he is now thinking about ways to continue advocating for mental illness and LGBTQ rights. This fall he has also taken an active role in supporting the establishment of a gender neutral bathroom at his high school.
“I feel like I’m becoming who I’m supposed to become and I’m improving the world,” Marxe said. “That’s the best feeling.”
This story was first published on Bethesda Beat in October.