First in a series: See: You Can Do It! Train Your Own Service Dog
I thought I was getting better. I had gone back to college full time, I was working. People grow out of anxiety, right? But I didn’t grow out of it. Although I graduated, I stopped, and then slowly restarted working.
The truth was, I had been giving in to my panic and anxiety in ways I didn’t notice. I had stopped doing anything alone. I was hypervigilant no matter where I was and I was constantly afraid. I wish I could say I was afraid of death or destruction or failure. I wasn’t afraid of any actual thing. I was just afraid to be alive.
I stepped back and looked at what I was dealing with: Insomnia. Circadian misalignment. Night terrors. Panic Disorder. General Anxiety Disorder. I needed something to change before any of this continued getting worse.
Enter Atlas, my Psychiatric Assistance Dog. I trained Atlas myself and he has changed my life. I feel safer. I haven’t bolted from stressful situations. Atlas lets me know my cortisol levels are rising, so I can start calming myself before I even feel the panic. I can go to the grocery store and public restrooms without a human chaperon. He leads me to my boyfriend, Vlad, or to exits when my brain is too fogged to find them myself. He wakes me up when I’m having nightmares. He lays on my stomach to combat my insomnia and cuddles me to sleep.
My therapist suggested a service dog to help with my sleep disorders after I actually took a nap because a friend’s dog, Maeko had fallen asleep on my chest.
During my research period, I had one of the worst panic episodes I’ve ever had. I was living in Boston and my parking permit was expiring. I worked up all the courage I had to take the train alone. I later “woke up” in the Boston Common terrified. I had been awake the whole time, but I had no memory of the train ride, getting my permit or walking back to the train. Panic does that to me. It robs me of memories, control, and function. I realized I needed SOMETHING to keep me tethered to reality in these times.
Medication was not going to be that thing. Doctors had suggested my symptoms were exacerbated by medications I took as a child. I had tried yoga, oils, vitamins, but ultimately none of it worked. Why not try a dog? I was out of other ideas and so were my doctors.
As part of my research I learned of a whole class of dogs I had no idea about: Psychiatric Assistance Dogs. Often known for their work with veterans with PTSD, these dogs could do A LOT! The problem was, I wasn’t a veteran and any organization that trained these dogs for civilians had a long waiting list and charged $1000 to $13,000.
Then, I realized I was more equipped than I thought. I reached out to trainers in my area to figure out what I would need. My degree is in biology, focusing on Animal Behavior, I had trained rats and guinea pigs and helped friends with their dogs. I had professional trainers willing and able to help. My boyfriend, Vlad, had no idea what he was getting into, but was more than willing to help.
I found Atlas on Petfinder: a Border Collie Mix. My days off are often spent hiking and camping and I wanted a dog that could keep up with that. All we knew was he was male, neutered, about a year old and house broken.
I left Vlad in charge of the questions. When my emotions get high, I panic. I do stupid, things. He was there, as he often is in my life, to be the logical voice of reason. This proved to be necessary when the kennel door opened and in true Border Collie fashion, the dog slinked out of the cage and immediately melted into a heap at my feet. I was sold and ready to love him forever, but Vlad was already asking questions: “Has he ever growled or shown aggression? Does he get along with other dogs? How’s his prey drive? Has he been cat tested? Any interaction with young children?”
We spent 2 hours asking questions, touching paws, trying to startle him, walking him on a leash, seeing how eager he was to please and learn. He passed almost every test with flying colors.
The next morning I took a sick day to stay with him and named him Atlas. He was an angel. No shoes were chewed, no accidents. When we went for a walk, I found he could heel, sit, stay, lay down and shake.
The next couple of steps, were a lot harder. I hadn’t told anyone I was looking for a dog, much less a service dog. There was a lot I was still unsure of and I wasn’t sure how others would react. I started by confiding in close friends. I was amazed at their support and their honesty about how they had noticed me getting worse.
My friends and boyfriend were eager to learn and happy to help with training and intercepting strangers. I shut down and often panic in any form of unpredictable environment, and talking to strangers is about as unpredictable as interactions get. I’ve had friends patiently explain the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to bouncers at bars and stand up for me to strangers while I too busy was training or listening to Atlas’ alerts to notice what was happening.
I’m not a huge fan of being the center of attention. However, working on distraction training with a dog in the meat department of the grocery store is going to grab attention no matter what. It’s a give and take. I need Atlas around to keep me safe and keep me as sane, but for that to happen we need to train in the meat department. Now, the butcher knows us and saves Atlas pork feet, his favorite.
The biggest challenge is the 45-pound physical shadow that says “something is wrong this person!” The advantage, if you can call it that, to invisible disabilities like mental illness, is you can hide them. I can avoid situations, mask symptoms and look like a fully-functioning human. Having a service dog marks you in a very public way. The attention and questions he draws are often well-intentioned, but feel intrusive and exposing. The balance of politeness and privacy is the hardest part of having a service dog.
I started an Instagram page for Atlas to document our training and adventures. This is a place I can be honest about my health, about the ups and downs of training, a place I can interact with other handlers and find support. It’s revealed my struggles with mental health that I spent years trying to hide. That alone has been life changing.
I’ve had people I thought were great friends call this choice a cry for attention and dismiss any help Atlas gives as false. And that’s been really tough, though a sacrifice I’m willing to make to keep getting healthier. I have also had many acquaintances reach out to tell me they’ve learned a lot from reading my posts about how to treat service dogs and how they treat mental illness. If talking openly and honestly about my service dog can make it easier for someone else to navigate the world, it’s worth it. Now, I can smile at strangers’ comments while Atlas buries his nose in my hand to keep me grounded and we get through it together!