CONTENT WARNING: Talk of past suicide attempt
When I got Ollie, I was an active graduate student at UC Berkeley. I was still unmedicated, but managing my bipolar to my advantage– using my hypomanic episodes to get large amounts of research done, and staying home during the depressions and psychoses. I had started to get involved with dog training when I had Sabrina, and was wanting to become more involved in that with Ollie.
I picked a Standard Poodle because I wanted a dog that could help me with counterbalance on my high pain days, I wanted a dog that did not shed, and I wanted a dog that could match my high energy levels. Ollie’s breeder lived an 8 hour drive away in Southern California, and she gave me pick of the litter! I can remember on my way home from getting Ollie, I was still wondering if I had chosen the right breed lol, I doubted myself so much.
I did choose the right dog for me at that time in my life, though. I loved to go on hikes, and we would walk at least 2 hours every day and do half-day hikes on the weekends. Ollie’s energy level matched my own, and he was young and well so we spent much of our time out and about, exploring the world I had hid from for so long.
One thing that really helped me with Ollie’s training was starting a Northern California service dog meetup group. There I met my friends Linden with her German Shepherd Iris, and Jeanne with her English Mastiff Zeus. We met monthly to hang out and train together. I learned so much from my new friends, as Ollie did from his new friends 🙂
One big difference between Ollie and Sabrina, though, was that Sabrina really mediated my moods. With Ollie, he seemed to enjoy the ups just as much as I did, and with his energy levels, we rode the wave of bipolar disorder more than I had done with Sabrina.
Partly due to this, and partly due to my inability to successfully use medication (bipolar disorder worsens over time if it isn’t medicated), my mental illness gradually got worse. I started cycling more often and more severely.
I did successfully graduate with my PhD (a hypomanic episode allowed me to write my dissertation from scratch in a month!). But I felt as if I did not deserve this honor, that it was given to me out of pity because I had made clear to my committee that I could no longer handle being unmedicated. And with medication, I could not work in academia– medication changed my ability to think creatively and to accomplish the high workload required of an academic (40-60 hrs a week of research and teaching).
I cobbled together a few part time jobs, and tried to seek assistance for my mental illness, but things kept getting worse. One morning I woke up and a paper I had submitted to a journal had been rejected. That was the straw the broke the camel’s back and I took the rest of a bottle of Klonopin and climbed into bed next to Brad to go to sleep for the final time. Brad woke up and called 911.
I woke up in the hospital with Ollie across my chest licking my face. I didn’t know it, but I had been permanently altered. I had suffered brain damage as a result of my suicide attempt. It led to a significant personality change and new diagnoses surfaced as well.
While before I was extremely energetic and suffered some (disabling) anxiety, now I had no energy whatsoever. Part of it was the medications I was put on, but part of it was that I was a different person. My convictions about things were less strong, and I became much more of a “go with whatever someone else suggests” person. My anxiety intensified into agoraphobia (fear of leaving my house). And while I was in the hospital, another mental illness surfaced unexpectedly, PTSD from childhood bullying.
These new diagnoses and the change in my personality and energy level made it so that Ollie and I were no longer a perfect match. He tried his best to assist me, and we limped along as a team for a while.
During this time, Brad’s disabilities were getting worse, and he ended up essentially being kicked out of his PhD program at Davis over accommodation requests. I was unable to work, he was unable to find a job, and to top it off, our house that we rented was being foreclosed on.
Luckily our good friend Chanda invited us to live with her on her vineyard for a while, so we moved to Lompoc, California. Being in a new place made the agoraphobia even worse! I started noticing changes in Ollie, he was becoming more likely to bark at things (something we had struggled with all his life). This was probably due to the fact that I was not able to exercise him much.
We ended up moving into town to a gang-infested apartment complex, as that was all we could afford (and we couldn’t really afford that, even). A gang member who lived in this apartment complex had an aggressive Chihuahua that he let roam the neighborhood. Every time this dog, Chico, saw Ollie, he attacked. To be fair, Chico attacked every dog that he saw! I was terrified of Chico’s owner, and didn’t want to report him because of that, so I went on with things as best we could.
This was a mistake. Ollie ended up being attacked more times than I could count, and he started becoming reactive around other dogs. When he saw other dogs, he would get extremely anxious, and if they got to close, he would bark.
Eventually after seeing these changes in Ollie, I decided to take action and I started calling animal control after each new attack. After a few months of multiple animal control visits, Chico no longer lived with this gang member. Ollie was free! Or so I thought.
Unfortunately Chico had permanently damaged Ollie– Ollie now had doggy PTSD. I tried to work through it with Ollie, but Ollie was too far gone and I was also so ill at the time that the retraining didn’t work.
Brad and my friends encouraged me to keep working with Ollie. One day at the annual PSDP convention, we were sitting on a patio at a restaurant that allowed pet dogs. Ollie was under my chair and a Yorkie came onto the patio and barked and lunged at Ollie. Ollie barked back, and the restaurant kicked us both out. I had a melt down. After discussing the incident and my reaction to it with some friends, I decided that Ollie needed to retire. He wasn’t going to improve and I couldn’t trust him anymore.
I am embarrassed to say that (with the support of experienced SD handlers and trainers) I continued to work Ollie while I waited to get a new prospect. To be perfectly clear, he never wanted to attack other dogs, but he did “yell” at them because he wanted them not to attack him. He wanted to be away from them. Anyway, we were going to be moving to South Carolina soon, and my reasoning was that I would need to fly him in the cabin, so I needed to continue to work him to keep him in practice. He was helping me, but the stress of worrying about seeing other dogs meant that his anxiety was also impacting mine. The agoraphobia intensified even more as a result.
The minute we arrived in South Carolina, I retired Ollie. At first he didn’t seem to know what to do with himself. But as time has gone on, he has relaxed into his new position as pampered pet. He still barks at other dogs, but it doesn’t send me into a panic attack whenever it happens since he is just a pet. This has helped my relationship with Ollie greatly! I no longer stress or obsess about his behavior, and he is allowed to just be a dog all of the time.
He loves his sister Hestia and has from the moment he met her. He also has become friendly with a neighbor dog that shares a fence with us. He is 11 years old now and is really enjoying retirement.