The journey so far 23

Welcome to the first post of my new site!  I thought we’d kick things off with the story of how we got here.

Weimaraner and pit bull mix Sabrina, in a purple vest in front of bean plantsI’m Veronica Morris, PhD, otherwise known as Doctor V.  I’ve been working with service dogs since 2005 when I trained my first dog, Sabrina.  Sabrina was a Weimaraner x Pit mix, a beautiful blue brindle.  I first met her when I was volunteering at the animal shelter where she was turned in.

Sabrina had a red card on her cage, indicating severe separation anxiety.  In fact, she had previously been adopted out, and had caused her owner to be evicted twice, so she was a shelter return with pretty much no hope.

One of my jobs as a volunteer was to walk the dogs.  Usually when I walked the dogs, they pulled on the leash, tried to run around, sniff everything, you know, dog stuff.  But Sabrina was different.  I took her out and all she wanted to do was sit on my feet and love on me.  We had a very special connection.

When it came time for Sabrina to be put down, I figured I’d take a chance on adopting her and see if I could retrain her out of her separation anxiety.  She was just so special to me that I couldn’t bear to think of her being put down.

Long story short, Sabrina did have horrible separation anxiety, but after about 6 months I had trained it out of her.  I also noticed during this time that whenever I was about to have a panic attack or a mood swing that she would come and sit directly in front of me and stare at me.  I had never even heard of a psychiatric service dog before, so I thought it was just something cute and special.

A few years later I was on the medication merry-go-round trying to find something that worked for me.  Either the medications didn’t help, or they gave me horrible side effects.  My psychiatrist recommended that since Sabrina was already alerting me to episodes, that I train her as a psychiatric service dog.  Luckily she took to it very well!

Sabrina developed arthritis, so when she was about 8 years old, I bought a silver standard poodle puppy, whom I named Ollivander, or “Ollie”.  After about 6 months of having Ollie, Sabrina seemed to realize that she didn’t need to work anymore.

I never worked her when she didn’t want to work or anything, but she was slowing down and I think had not shown me her pain because she wanted me to have the help I needed.  One day I noticed stress yawning on the subway.  I took her out of duty for a week to give her a break, and she didn’t want to go back to work after that.  So I had a big retirement party for her with my friends and labmates (at the time I was at UC Berkeley).

Silver standard poodle, Ollie, staring straight into the camera, wearing a green PSDP convention bandanaEnter Ollie.  He was a great match for me at the time.  We were both very active, walking miles every day, and enjoying intensive training.  Ollie helped me finish the graduate work that Sabrina had started, and I graduated with my PhD in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management.  My previous degrees were a BS in Biology, and a MS in Genetics and Molecular Biology both from UNC Chapel Hill.

When I graduated, I had a hard time cobbling together work.  I had been kind of limping along during my PhD, knowing I needed medications, but unable to get back on them because I needed my bipolar manias to get my research done.

I tried to find less stressful science-related jobs, but it was hard going.  Eventually I cobbled together three part-time jobs to make a salary.  I was also working on writing up my research for publication.  One early morning, I got notice that the article I had been working on editing with the journal would not be accepted.

I had been suicidal before, but this was my lowest low I had ever been on.  I overdosed on Klonopin.  I was in the hospital for 3 or 4 days, and spent a few months in an intensive outpatient program.

I mention this attempt not because it was my worst attempt, but it is the attempt that left me with the most change.  Previously, my diagnosis had just been bipolar disorder with some anxiety.  When the floor fell out from under me, two new illnesses reared their ugly heads.

PTSD from childhood bullying, and severe agoraphobia (fear of leaving the house).  The overdose also changed my personality quite a bit.  I went from a confident, active person, to someone who rarely left the house, and was not confident at all.

Ollie continued to work for me, though we were no longer a perfect match.  He was under-exercised and still confident and wanting to do everything.  I couldn’t afford to replace him, and he was still working OK for me, so we kept plugging along.

Shortly after that, my husband Brad had to drop out of his PhD program at UC Davis in Philosophy due to his disabilities.  The house we were renting was foreclosed on, and without any money, we moved in with a good friend Chanda, and her husband Wes in Lompoc, California.

It was great living with a friend so close by, kinda like being back in the dorms!  Eventually we got a place of our own in town.  But it was a gang-infested apartment complex.

One of the gang leaders had a little chihuahua named Chico that he let run loose all day long.  Every time Chico saw Ollie, he attacked.  I was too afraid to call the police or animal control because of his gang status.  So Ollie got attacked probably 20 or 30 times (luckily with very little actual damage) and developed a fear of other dogs.

We were not a good match anymore at all.  I looked to him for courage, and he looked to me for it, and neither of us had any of it.

We knew we were moving to South Carolina to be closer to family.  I knew Ollie couldn’t go under the plane, so he worked as a service dog until we got to South Carolina.  That plane ride was his last outing as a service dog.  The day after we arrived, Brad’s dad drove me 2.5 hrs to Snow Camp, North Carolina to pick up my new puppy, Hestia, a tiny Japanese Chin.

Black and white, 8 lb Japanese Chin Hestia lies in Veronica's lap.  She is wearing a green vest with a red stop sign patch and a yellow in training tab.Hestia was perfect for me from day one.  She is low-energy, so me not being able to walk miles anymore wasn’t an issue.  She also loves everything and is one of the happiest dogs I know.  I finally had a dog I could trust and look to in order to ground myself.  Her personality changed my personality.

Slowly with Hestia’s help, I was able to claw my way out of my severe episode that I had been having for the last couple of years.  I started driving again, which I hadn’t done in 10 years.  I started going places on my own, making friends, and getting involved in the community.

It has been amazing having Hestia as my service dog in training.  She has helped me so much that it is almost unbelievable.

This blog is a journal of my adventures with Hestia, and with any future service dog I might have.

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