How My Dog Cookie Saved My Life

How My Dog Cookie Saved My Life

When I was thinking about what topic to cover this week,  I was a little bit lost on ideas. I went through my brainstorming list, nothing jumped out. I was at such a loss that I just googled “dogs” to see if anything stood out. Of course there were heartwarming stories and pictures of cute puppies all peppered through other random news items, so I decided it’s finally time to tell the whole story of Cookie & Me.

It all started the very first weekend of my freshman year of college, when I gave myself a concussion in an obscure and kind of funny Slip N’ Slide accident. This incident got the ball rolling for several pivotal events in my life, including meeting and falling in love with my husband, but you’re here to read about dogs, so let’s continue ;)

While I was an excellent and high-achieving student, all of a sudden I was unable to attend classes in person. I also could no longer drive, nor continue to hold my job due to my inability to attend work for a few weeks. While this should have been a temporary setback that only lasted a few weeks due to the minor nature of the concussion itself, it set the ball rolling for a lot of changes in my life.

I temporarily had to meet with the disabilities counselor on campus to work out accommodations while I healed. All of these temporary setbacks brought to the forefront of my mind an existence a sadness and nervousness I had experienced throughout my life- an extremely difficult childhood, traumatic life events- but had never understood the reality behind those feelings. It was suddenly intensified and this was finally tipping point. The counselor recognized it was something I needed professional help for. A few appointments with a psychologist later, I was formally diagnosed with clinical Depression and Panic Disorder. As time continued, it would develop further into Agoraphobia. It was entirely crippling and had finally progressed enough without treatment that I couldn’t function on my own on a day-to-day basis. Even if you do not understand mental illness, I can tell you that this affected my life in an ever-growing way for the years to come.

Together, we decided that I needed help. And we decided that help might be complimented by a four-legged friend.

Adoption Day

While the disabilities counselor at my college continued to research the potential accommodations I would need, one day I decided to stop by a local hole-in-the-wall shelter to just look at dogs as I pondered the potential animal companionship and whether it would be the right thing for me. I opened the door, the smell of fur and kibble gently wafting through the air as I approached the front desk. The sound of the old, well-worn yet well-working bell echoed through the room, which erupted into a chaotic choir of barking, from deep woofs to high-pitched yipping. I was immediately nervous and a little overwhelmed. The friendly face I saw greeted me, speaking with a gentle and laid-back demeanor.

“Feel free to walk around. If you see one you’d like to look at, you can go in to say hello”.

The very first cage I glanced in, I saw him. I knew he was the one.

In the large cage, which reached from floor to ceiling, a little pup dressed in a slightly twisted blue scarf sat at the wire door, quietly and patiently gazing up at me. Though he was small in stature, his calming and gentle presence filled my heart, the chaotic voices of every other dog seeming to fade away into the background. I lifted and released the latch and as I stepped in, his tail brushed back and forth against the concrete floor with a steady, deliberate energy. I sat on the ground and everything I’d been feeling came out- tears, snot, sobbing and babbling. He placed his two front paws on my legs as he leaned up to my face. His warm, slightly damp tongue lapped up the tears on my cheek and his puppy breath replaced the stale smell of pet dander in the air. He knew exactly what I needed the moment he saw me.

The rest of the evening is a blur. It felt like I sat there with him forever before marching up to the front desk and telling them that I needed him in my life and asked how I could make that happen. While I was intent on adopting him, I had to have a place ready for him first. My husband rushed me to his parents’ house and I pleaded with them to hold onto the puppy while I worked out the paperwork with the college, as they had never had a dog on campus before, let alone living in the dorms. They agreed and we drove back to the shelter the moment they said yes. With only a few minutes until they closed, we rushed in and they had him out of his cage and ready to go, having recognized the car from the girl who fell in love with this dog at first sight. His paperwork had listed his shelter name, “Keebler”, but for his new life I gave him a new name- Cookie.

Cookie Goes To School

It wasn’t easy, but it also wasn’t long before we got all the research, paperwork, and accommodations in order for Cookie to move to campus. I was moved into a larger apartment with no more roommates while we figured out how life would now work. Cookie was to be trained as a psychiatric service dog and attend class with me. In order to mitigate the impact of my Panic Disorder on my education, he was to perform deep pressure therapy to calm me during panic attacks and alert me when he could sense I was getting close to having one so I could either excuse myself from the room or take medication to prevent it from happening.

My professors received word on the situation, including instructions and a list of rules for Cookie, as well as their legal obligations under the ADA. If you’re interested in the details of Service Dogs, from ownership to training to what rights they have, you can read more here. The spark notes version was that so long as Cookie was not a disruption and he properly performed his service dog tasks, I could not be prevented from attending class with him. Of course there were a couple of professors that caused problems or made excuses to prevent me from being in the classroom. I had a few other instances where staff members did not understand his role and prevented him from doing his job by distracting him. Almost every other professor, staff member, and student was happy to have Cookie around and respected the work he did.

Generally, while life did not go back to normal for me, I was able to continue my education thanks to Cookie’s support and intervention. He was fantastic and had the perfect demeanor from day one, even staying calm and still during loud wind symphony practices where trumpets blared and cymbal crahes echoed through the auditorium. He was attentive at lectures and even in crowded classrooms with desks that nearly touched, he was diligent in his duty as a working dog.

At home he learned quickly and took up other tasks such as reminding me to take my medication and getting me out of bed in the mornings when I could barely bring myself to move an inch. He gave me a reason to get outside, and while I have always been a shy person, he helped me to make friends. You may think that life as a service dog would get boring, and some people sometimes remarked that it must be sad for him to not get love and attention from others, but Cookie was taught to switch between work and play based on whether he was wearing his vest.

Of course it wasn’t all butterflies and roses. Cookie did all that he could but couldn’t magically fix me and I still struggled with severe depression. Although it may defy logic, there were days that I felt like I couldn’t go on. I felt like my life was meaningless, I thought nobody would miss me if I was gone. My heart ached with a sadness that, some days, would cut me to the core. The continual downward spiral of my mental and emotional state led me to a day that I was ready to finally give up. I made a plan to end all my suffering- and my existence. After a long day of struggling to focus or stay in class due to my intense anxiety, I walked through the door of my apartment, hung up my coat, and I thought  I was ready to do it. But Cookie got up, sensing something wrong, and stood firmly in my way in the middle of the hallway. This tiny pup was not a real roadblock to this ending, but somehow, he was determined. And instead of acting on my plan to end my life, I sat down in the floor and started sobbing like that first day we met. And like that fateful first encounter, I knew I needed him, and he did too.

Cookie saved my life for the first time that day.

That wasn’t the last time he did it either. I completed the semester and passed all my classes with flying colors. While I was highly functional, the depression was another beast. And that summer, something unspeakable happened to me. I developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We added new skills and tasks to Cookie’s list, and sought out professional training to help. It made a huge difference in helping Cookie recognize the new symptoms I was having and how to help, but it wasn’t quite enough, and I had to take medical leave from my college education. I never went back.

There were many other days like that first time, where I came dangerously close to taking my own life. But then Cookie would get up in my face and stare me in the eyes. If I was gone, what would he do? Who would feed him or walk him? Would anyone else commit to caring for him for the rest of his life? Would he feel sad or alone or abandoned if I was gone forever? And the possibilities of negative consequences for my actions affecting him forced me to keep going. It’s strange that I felt like maybe other people would get over me being gone, maybe grieve for a while first, but after years- 5, 10, 20, 30 - people live long enough for that kind of wound to heal. But it would have changed Cookie’s life forever. With depression and all these other mental illnesses- maybe this sounds completely illogical, but even if you can’t wrap your head around it or even reject the idea that it’s even real- it was real to me and my dog was the one thing that kept me going. And thanks to Cookie, after many long years, I recovered.

Life Today

Today, I am happy. I have a wonderful husband about to graduate from medical school. We’re able to live comfortably within our means. I have repaired my relationship with my family and moved on from my difficult childhood. I’m nearing the point in my life that it’s almost time to start thinking about starting our own family for Cookie to be a part of. It’s so rewarding to be here and I’m so thankful for it. Cookie helped me to hang on through the hard times, and thanks to him, I was able to reach today.

Cookie didn’t do one crazy feat- saving me from a pile of rubble after an earthquake, protecting me from some wild animal, finding help while I got lost somewhere in the woods- Cookie saved my life by being there, caring, taking action every day to love me unconditionally. He helped me continue to hold on to this existence. If you do or don’t understand depression, I am sure that, as a dog owner, you understand the unconditional companionship and love of a dog. Cookie’s life is that story.

I hope you enjoyed this little change of pace. We'll be back to our other usual topics next week, so let us know what you want to read about! Thanks for being here, hope you're staying healthy and happy, and I look forward to writing for you again!