Diagnosed with major depression and anxiety, and suffering from frequent panic attacks and agoraphobia, I would hardly leave the house. Not even to do the simplest task like grocery shopping. I was exhausted, extremely forgetful, in pain and just did not want to live. No one knew the pain I was in and my diagnosis was kept from everyone. I was suicidal and struggled to get out of bed every day. My cat would wake me up and persuade me to get up, but she could not force me to leave the house. 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 which she thought would be more suitable but 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 and clearly chose me. Her exact history was mostly unknown; all we knew was that she came 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 – that decision is one that I am forever grateful for.
My dog- lets call her Sasha was the reason that I was able to get 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 going out. I just did not feel safe and my anxiety and panic regularly took over, but with every walk, I felt a less and 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 and ended up having a massive panic attack where I could not breathe or stop shaking and started crying. After that first class I swore I would not go back. However, for Sasha’s sake, I somehow managed to push myself 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. We are now in the Secondary Companion class, which is the highest non-trialling class. Sasha has received a silver medal and we continue working towards the gold. After several years, I actually enjoy going to dog school because Sasha just loves it so much. This is her time to practice some obedience whilst having fun with her friends, meeting challenges and learning new things.
With the help of medications and continuous counselling I was able to cope with taking Sasha out for our walks and going to obedience classes. However, getting out to the shops and work remained a huge struggle for me. I recognised how much calmer and much more relaxed I was with Sasha around, but unfortunately, she was not allowed in the shops, cinemas, theatres, etc… 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 her and while being out and about was an improvement, my participation in everyday 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 [PAT]. This was a difficult test that presented many new situations to evaluate how my girl would cope. Whilst I was a mess and struggled with the noisy, extremely busy environment with lots of traffic, Sasha was a star! What a triumph for an untrained rescue dog that previously no one wanted and was due to be put down! 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, we came out of the Public Access Test with a perfect score.
I still find it difficult to go to the shops, unfamiliar places, or to be in any crowded space, but with her I am able to do it, even on a bad day. 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 means buying some groceries. Going to the shop is a task that most people would not even think about twice, but for someone who would avoid leaving the house because of overwhelming fear, buying milk and bread is an incredible achievement.
The next hurdle was getting agreement for her 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 bringing her to work. I was scared people would treat me differently and I worried that 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, the law allowed me to have her anywhere I went– including work. I approached my managers at work, spoke to Human Resources and Accommodation, and gave them a copy of the legislation. I also provided factsheets informing staff about assistance dogs, the correct protocol of interacting with them, and worked with Human Resources about signage and 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 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 us and are looking forward to seeing us every day. My colleagues understand that she is also working – monitoring my wellbeing and alerting me to a panic attack or, more recently, new medical conditions that would have remained undiagnosed had it not been for Sasha. The people I work with know that they are not supposed to touch, talk, or otherwise distract her without my explicit permission. I truly believe she knows she is working when she has her vest on. She has been brilliant at ignoring people when she is “on duty.” Some people in shops seem to go out of their way to try to get Sasha’s attention, but she is very attentive and keeps her focus on me. She notices my emotional and physical state long before I do, and will nudge me or lick my hand when she sees that I’m not doing so well. This way I become aware that I need to take medication to avoid a panic attack or to attend to my other health conditions.
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 am always ok when Sasha is with me. Together we have been to the movies, weddings, shops, markets, fundraising events, theatre, comedy and musical shows, numerous ambulance rides, hospital visits, and have flown together with her in the aircraft cabin. I have also met other dog lovers suffering from a mental illness who want their dog to be a mindDog. I enjoy the task of helping them through the process that is necessary for registration. I can support people through training, education and any access issues they may encounter. I am not alone in this world anymore and am immensely thankful for and grateful to mindDog. Through their excellent program and invaluable support, I have regained some of my life and confidence. I can make a positive difference to others and the future for me is looking much brighter. Thank you mindDog and thank you Sasha.
What is mindDog?
mindDog is a not-for-profit organisation that exists to help people procure, train and accredit psychiatric assistance dogs. A mindDog comes in many shapes and sizes, and may look different to other assistance dogs experienced by the public previously.