Celia, a young woman in her late 20s, had lived with depression her whole life, managing her daily affairs by “gritting my teeth and willing myself to go forward.” After several years, however, Celia found herself sliding further into a deep depression, and she developed a tremor that shook her entire body. She couldn’t gather what little energy she had, began to lose interest in eating, and struggled to go to work. Finally, although she had unsuccessfully tried therapy in the past, after weeks of cajoling from her boyfriend, in desperation she made an appointment with a therapist.
Her new therapist regularly brought her dog to the sessions as part of her practice. The dog would sit next to Celia, who would just sit quietly and pet her. At first, there was no eye contact with either the dog or therapist and often Celia wouldn’t speak at all. Now, Celia found herself opening up in her sessions and divulging the pain and anxiety she often felt but had never revealed to anyone else before.
The therapist’s dog seemed to give Celia the courage to speak, to discuss the painful details of her life. Often, Celia would simply focus on the dog and at times would almost forget the therapist was even present as she shared her feelings. Seeing how Celia had opened up in her sessions, after several months Celia’s therapist suggested that Celia consider working with a PSD (public service dog) of her own.
Finding the Perfect Match
Celia had happy memories of the dogs she had had while growing up. On her 30th birthday she made a visit to her local ASPCA. While the rows of cages elicited feelings of being trapped, helpless, and neglected, she was determined to find her dog. Although she had had male dogs in the past, Celia quickly honed in on a 4-year old female named Spike, a shepherd mix. Although the dog was underweight and cowering in the back of her cage, when Celia asked to meet Spike, the dog immediately ran to her, nuzzling her nose into Celia’s belly. That was the beginning of her journey with the dog Celia renamed Scout.
When Celia took the dog home, she found Scout to be a troublesome roommate. Despite their affectionate first greeting, Scout did not like to be touched, a trait Celia shared. Celia recognized the similarity in their temperaments right away. She also realized she did not have the slightest idea of how to care for the dog.
The saving grace for both of them was the long walks they shared. Before Scout entered Celia’s life, she rarely went outside and now she was walking around in her neighborhood for hours a day. While they were out walking, people would often stop to chat with her about Scout, and Celia found herself interacting more frequently with other people.
From Pet-Friend to Therapist-Healer
Celia and Scout attended obedience classes which helped them learn to work as a team and soon they were known to everyone they met as “Scout&Celia.” She then embarked on training Scout to perform tasks to assist her in coping better with anxiety attacks and other problems.
When Celia was experiencing severe anxiety levels and migraines or when she was dissociating, Scout was trained with the cue “find home.” Celia frequently dropped things when she was experiencing tremors and she trained Scout to pick these items up for her to prevent her from getting dizzy or nauseous, and possibly falling. After a period of time, with reinforcement, Scout would automatically pick up dropped items from the floor and deliver them to Celia.
Perhaps the most valuable task Scout performed, one that helped alleviate Celia’s agoraphobia and fear of being in public places, was to keep people at a distance in a crowded situation by blocking them from coming too close and invading Celia’s space when she experienced high levels of anxiety.
Taking The Dog to Work?
Celia also struggled with lack of motivation to eat when experiencing deep depression. Scout was trained to lead her to the refrigerator whenever she got up and to do a Sit Stay in front of it until she opened the door. If she hadn’t eaten for long stretches of time, seeing Scout patiently waiting there served as a vivid reminder she needed to eat.
Then Celia took the next step. Despite her disabilities, Celia had always managed to keep a job, but when her disabilities began to interfere with her functioning at work, Celia made the difficult decision to have Scout accompany her to the office. Celia readily admitted that she was anxious about the questions that would arise over Scout’s presence. With education, however, she found her coworkers receptive to Scout and understanding of her disabilities.
Dog Offers Protection from Panic Attacks?
Scout was trained to lead Celia away from situations that were triggers, when Celia began to shake and have the tremors that were precursors to her panic attacks. The shakes and tremors Celia experienced out of increased anxiety were the cues Scout was trained to respond to. Scout would lead her out of that environment as this disrupted her symptoms and could sometimes prevent an oncoming panic attack.
Once Scout led her outside, if the tremors worsened instead of subsiding, Scout was taught to respond by leaning against her and nudging and pawing Celia to interrupt these tremors and convulsions. Scout would continue this task during the panic attack until Celia was no longer shaking and able to breathe normally again. This would prevent her from disassociating and she’d be able to come back inside and return to work and focus.
In addition, Celia became an advocate for people with PSDs, including her rights as a disabled person to have Scout travel with her on the New York City subway. Since then, Celia and Scout have traveled all over the country, their world made ever larger as they face new experiences together. With Scout at her side Celia now faces conflicts head on with stoicism and pride.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, New Page Books
a division of Career Press, Pompton Plains, NJ. 800-227-3371.
All rights reserved. ©2010. http://newpagebooks.com/
This article was excerpted with permission from the book:
Healing Companions: Ordinary Dogs and Their Extraordinary Power to Transform Lives
by Jane Miller.
Healing Companions details how dogs are increasingly benefiting those who suffer from a range of emotional ills, from eating disorders and anxiety to agoraphobia, depression, and post-traumatic stress. Healing Companions will teach you: * What criteria to consider when choosing the right dog for you. * What kind of training service dogs require. * What to expect and how to respond when you take a service dog out in public. * How a dog can compliment other forms of therapy. * How to navigate the procedural regulations that apply to a service dog. * How to recognize the dog's needs and provide it with proper care. * And much more.
About the Author
Jane Miller, LISW, CDBC, works in private practice as a clinical psychotherapist and licensed independent social worker, with a particular interest in holistic healing. She has lectured in a wide variety of settings, including many national and local organizations, schools, and dog-training facilities. More recently, Jane has consulted with NEADS (National Education for Assistance Dog Services), the Canines for Combat Veterans program for soldiers returning from combat in Iraq with post-traumatic stress, as well as other veterans organizations. She has appeared in the PBS program "Health Visions: Animals As Healers" and other local and national media. Visit her website at www.healing-companions.com