My life prior to getting Sabrina was hard. When I went grocery shopping, I couldn’t handle actually shopping. I would hold onto the back of Brad’s shirt, look at my feet, and shuffle around after him. I couldn’t look at any items, make any decisions, and definitely couldn’t go to another aisle or even a few feet away from him.
I couldn’t drive due to paralyzing anxiety attacks.
My mood swings were out of control. I was frequently suicidal due to depression, and sometimes psychotic in a manic episode. I was able to harness the hypomanias (a little bit of mania) to my advantage in order to get great amounts of research done, though! For example I wrote my Master’s thesis in a couple weeks, and my PhD dissertation in a month.
I was in graduate school at Chapel Hill, and my therapist recommended that I start volunteering at the animal shelter. My job was to walk the dogs in the shelter. It was a pretty easy job, the main requirement was strength as the dogs would leap after squirrels, run around, bark, and just be typical dogs that had been cooped up too long.
One day a shelter return came in. She was the most beautiful dog I’d ever seen. She was a brindle dog, but instead of black and brown, she was silver and champagne. A Weimaraner and Pit bull mix. Her name was Sabrina.
Below is a picture of the first time we met– another part of my job was to assist in taking pictures of the dogs. There is a picture of her in the shelter, and I am the one holding her! I looked at her cage card, and it was red– separation anxiety. Apparently she had been adopted out before, and that owner had been evicted three times because of Sabrina’s separation anxiety causing destruction and disruption. So she was not likely to make it out of the shelter.
Still, she needed walks. The first day I took her for a walk, I was prepared for a bouncing lunging dog like all the others. We walked outside and over to the grassy area, and she came over and sat on my feet. I was at that point having a lot of anxiety, and suddenly I felt calm. She looked up at me like she was asking for attention, so I gave it to her. We spent probably 15 minutes like that, it was magic.
Every day I volunteered we’d have the same experience. I developed a great bond with Sabrina, but as I did other chores in the shelter I noticed people take notice of her beauty, then run away when they saw her red cage card.
Her time was running short. This was not a no-kill shelter.
I was a poor and busy grad student, and she was a dog that couldn’t be left alone. But she was so special I had to take a chance. So we adopted her.
It took 6 months of grinding dedication, but with training and a building of trust, we were able to solve the separation anxiety!
I noticed around the house that not only was she really helpful in stopping my anxiety, that when I was about to get anxious or manic or depressed, she would sit in front of me and stare me down. She was my first dog, so I didn’t know this was unusual behavior. I found it very helpful in managing my disorders.
Fast forward to a couple of years later, we were living in California and I had just gotten Stevens-Johnsons syndrome from my lamictal medication (which at that point was the only med that had ever helped my bipolar disorder). I was back on the medication merry go round, and it was brutal.
One medication made me faint all the time. Another made my hands shake so much I couldn’t do labwork. One made it so I couldn’t read– so poor Brad had to read my textbooks out loud to me so I could keep up with my classes. I got lithium toxicity three times! It was awful, and clear that medications were not working for me.
A friend mentioned to me that there was such a thing as a psychiatric service dog that helps with your mental illness, and that Sabrina seemed to be a natural at it. I talked with my therapist, and she supported the idea. So I started training Sabrina as my service dog.
It wasn’t an easy journey. At first it was really hard because I didn’t have any support. Then I found Psychiatric Service Dog Society (the predicesor to PSDP) and that helped a lot.
I tried to gain access to my lab with Sabrina– wanting a space by the door for her to stay while I was in the lab. Even though the lab had windows that were open almost year round, my advisor argued it was a sterile facility. I appealed to disabled student services, and they determined I was “too disabled” to be a graduate student so they would not help me. I was kicked out of my lab.
Luckily I found another advisor, a really supportive one, who accepted me into her lab in my third year of grad school. She and my new labmates all fell in love with Sabrina! They were great!
Sabrina learned to do a few other things other than just alert me to my anxiety and provide pressure therapy. She LOVED bringing me my meds every morning and night! And her most amazing task was that if I was dissociating while at work, I could tell her to take me home. She would lead me from my office to the train station, get me on the right train, get me off at the right stop, and lead me home. It was amazing!
Unfortunately, due to bad genetics, Sabrina developed arthritis. With monthly acupuncture and Chinese herbs, she was deemed OK by the vet to work and wanted to work for another year after that. I started leaving her home on wet and cold days, and not taking her on camping trips where she might have to lay on hard surfaces and be cold at night.
I got my second service dog Ollie, and six months later, when Sabrina was satisfied that he was starting to help me, one day she started showing stress signs when she was working. She would yawn and lick her lips. After this happened three days in a row, I gave her a week’s vacation. Then back to work to see how she did. Stress signs again. So I decided that was it, it was time to retire her.
I threw her a huge retirement party and invited everyone who knew her. It was the best way I could think to say goodbye to her career.
She lived out the rest of her life as a pampered pet. But she always brought me my medications every day for the rest of her life!