Diagnosed with Depression and Anxiety, suffering frequent panic attacks and agoraphobia I would hardly leave the house.
Not even to do the grocery shopping. I was exhausted, extremely forgetful, in pain and just didn’t want to live. No one knew the pain I was in or about my diagnosis. I truly didn’t see the point of going on. Trying to get out of bed was a daily struggle, and while my cat would wake me up and get me to get up, she couldn’t force me to leave the house. And being a cat she was more than happy to have snuggles inside the house all day.
So I began looking for a dog. I have always been an animal lover and grew up with dogs, so my doctors agreed that a dog would be a good idea. I met a few dogs, searched rescue websites and rang about a dog one group had listed. The foster carer I spoke to mentioned this other dog likely more suited to me which hadn’t been advertised on the website yet. I agreed to meet the dog she recommended.
Straight away I knew we were meant to be: This sweet untrained pooch winked at me! She has not done that since, but when we first met, she winked at me and chose me as her person. Her exact history was mostly unknown: All we knew was that she came in to the RSPCA as a stray dog. They had no room for her and moved her to the pound, where she stayed for the full holding time. When her time was up, the ranger saw something in her and refused to put her down. He contacted the rescue organisation and they took her on – a decision I am forever grateful for.
My dog – let’s name her Sasha — got me out of the house. I had to walk her at least twice a day. I forced myself (and sometimes still do) to get out every day to take her for walks. This was a huge step, since I hated leaving the house. I just didn’t feel safe and my anxiety took over, but with every walk I felt a tiny bit less anxious.
Suffering the many facets of depression and anxiety mixed in with my panic attacks, I persisted for Sasha’s sake, and took another enormous step: I decided to take her to dog obedience school. The first class we went to was a disaster. I almost didn’t go back. It was crowded and raining and we were all crammed under the tiny undercover area of the clubhouse porch. Sasha barked and played up, and so did all the other dogs. I was on edge, to say the least. I ran out of treats and did not know what I was doing at all. I had no confidence whatsoever and ended up having one of my dreaded panic attacks. After that first class I swore I would not go back. For Sasha’s sake, I somehow managed to push myself and to keep on going. With the help of my doctors and consistent training, Sasha got better. She had structure, a routine and so did I. My persistence led to us receiving first place in that beginner’s class final assessment, followed by more obedience awards. And most recently, another first place in Primary Companion, the second highest non-trialling obedience class. Now I am actually looking forward to going to dog school most days, and I am very excited to now train Sasha in the highest non trialling obedience class.
With the help of medications and continuous counselling I got a lot better in terms of taking Sasha out for our walks and taking her to obedience classes. However, getting out to shops and work was still a huge struggle for me. I was much calmer and much more relaxed with Sasha around, but unfortunately she was not allowed in malls, shops, cinemas, theatres… and naturally she could not come to work with me either. My life had become very dog-centric: I avoided going to places I couldn’t take Sasha. And while being out and about was an improvement, my participation in every day activities was limited by the fact that Sasha was not allowed to accompany me.
“Then I discovered mindDog”
Finally there was an organisation that assisted mental health sufferers to procure, train and certify psychiatric service dogs. After contacting them they explained what we needed to do and came down to conduct the public access test for me and Sasha. This was a difficult test that put us in many new situations to see how my girl would cope. Whilst I was a mess and struggled with being in a noisy, extremely busy place with lots of traffic, Sasha was a star and saved the day. It’s almost like she knew how important this was. Thanks to the tremendous amount of time and effort I have put into training her, and her performance on the day of the public access test, we came out with a perfect score!
I still find it difficult to go to shops, new places and be in any place that has a crowd, but with her I know I can do it. She knows when I’m not well and makes sure I know she is there and that everything will be ok. Having her has given me back my independence even if it is just to get some groceries: A task that most people would not even think about twice, but for someone who would avoid leaving the house out of overwhelming fear, buying milk and bread is an incredible achievement.
The next step was getting Sasha to come to work with me.Up until this point I was quite happy for her to be out with me, but I was terrified of “dropping the bomb” at work. I was scared people would treat me differently and worried I would be excluded and discriminated against. My doctor kept pushing me to take this big step, as she couldn’t give me any further medication. And since Sasha was now an accredited assistance dog, she was legally allowed to accompany me everywhere – including work. I approached my managers at work, spoke to Human Resources and Accommodation and gave them the legislation to show that we were covered. I also provided factsheets informing staff about assistance dogs, the correct protocol of interacting with them, and worked with Human Resources about signage, informing people that there was an
assistance dog on the premises to obviate possible negative reactions. I had a contact workplace person whom I could speak to about any concerns I had, as well as a Human Resources contact person should there be any issues arising from us being in the building. Once everything was finalised, Sasha came to work with me.
Having her with me has made me much more productive at work. I now work with wonderful people who have accepted me and Sasha, and are looking forward to seeing us every day. My colleagues understand that she is working as well, monitoring my wellbeing, and alerting me should I be headed towards a panic attack or get overly stressed. The people I work with know that they are not supposed to touch Sasha, talk to her, or otherwise distract her without my explicit permission, and they are very accepting of the fact that I cannot put her “off-duty” every 10mins for someone to pat her.I truly believe she knows she is working when she has her vest on. She has been great at ignoring people when she is “on duty.” She is much better at not paying attention than I am: Some people in shops and malls seem to go out of their way to try and get Sasha’s attention, but she is very attentive and keeps her focus on me. She picks up on my emotional state long before I do, and will nudge me or lick my hand when she sees that I’m not doing so well and need to take medication to avoid a panic attack or meltdown.
While I still have a fair way to go, I have taken giant steps already. My journey has not been easy but the result so far has been well worth it. I am achieving much more than I used to, and I know that I will be ok when Sasha is with me. Together we have been to the theatre (a dark room with lots of people!), to the movies, in big malls on weekends, to big events such as the Million Paws Walk. I have also met other doglovers suffering mental illness, and have met likeminded mindDoggers who really understand my disability. I am not alone in this world anymore, and am immensely thankful for and grateful to mindDog. Through their support and help I have regained some of my life back and the future is looking much brighter.