2020 has undeniably brought us crisis after crisis, but it’s also brought surprising opportunities to reconnect with our loved ones.
For me, it’s meant coming back to my family home, and the location stability that came with that has also led me to another opportunity: to get a personal therapy dog.
First, I’ll address the obvious question: Emma, why do you need a personal therapy dog?
The mental health of this entrepreneur
Well, I don’t exactly need a personal therapy dog, but I would undoubtedly benefit from one.
I’ve had anxiety my whole life, although it got worse with age and certain experiences until I got diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) when I was 21. That diagnosis, therapy, and a good SSRI (anti-depressants often used to successfully treat anxiety) changed my life dramatically for the better.
However, anxiety is largely genetic in my case, which means it’s something I’ll be living with for the rest of my life. The resources I’ve learned over the past 5 years inside and outside of therapy are an important part of how I manage my life.
In early 2020, living alone in Spain and going through the stress of leaving my Master’s degree, I had the desire to adopt a dog top of my mind. I constantly wished I had a dog to snuggle up to, or to walk around with. I wished I had one in time for my move to Valencia.
One of the reasons I wanted to experiment with living in that city is because it’s so walkable and dog-friendly. I thought about how much easier it’d be to make friends and establish a community there with a buddy at my side in the dog park. There are huge emotional benefits to having a dog; particularly a snuggly one who’s sociable.
But, Valencia was only guaranteed for 3 months before I’d visit Toronto for the summer. And I didn’t know where I’d be after that, since I’d only just launched my business full time. I couldn’t commit to adopting a dog just yet. But I did know: emotionally, I was ready for one.
Then, COVID-19 hit, and within 1 month of moving to Valencia, I had to emergency repatriate to my family home in Canada. Times were tough, starting a business the same year as a pandemic. And when my anxiety spiked due to all the stress in August, it was time to expand my resources for managing anxiety yet again.
Finding out about personal therapy dogs
My mom had heard me mention how much I felt ready for a dog for months, and after that August anxiety spike, she shared an offhand thought with me in September: What if you could get a therapy dog just for you?
It wasn’t meant all that seriously – but she had said it to ME. The person for whom it was a perfect solution. I immediately decided it was worth some quick research. Was there such a thing as a personal therapy dog?
Turns out, yes! At least, there is in Canada. There’s only one program of its kind here, called Companion Paws. It’s organized by The LifeLine Canada Foundation: a fantastic nonprofit dedicated to providing programs and resources for mental health. Companion Paws is just one of the programs they run, and it’s special for connecting Canadians in need with rescue dogs who need a forever home and have the temperament to become a therapy dog.
What is a personal therapy dog?
Personal therapy dogs are different from service dogs, largely because the latter does more complex tasks for their owners in addition to providing emotional comfort. Those tasks might include bringing them medication or sensing medical episodes. Because of their crucial role in their owners’ lives, service dogs need to be with them at all times so they have access rights to transit and establishments ordinarily off-limits to pets.
In contrast, personal therapy dogs are technically a type of emotional support animal (ESA). They have a particular temperament and also receive training (unlike the typical ESA) to be comforting to their owners and remain calm even under stressful conditions when ordinary pets might panic.
A psychiatric service dog might’ve been more fitting for me if I had problems taking my medicine, or if I suffered from panic attacks (which, gratefully, are not a symptom of my particular GAD). So the Companion Paws personal therapy dog program, focused on emotional support, was the right fit.
Now, it is possible to train your own dog as a personal therapy dog (or even, a visiting therapy dog – the type that visits hospitals and retirement homes) through Companion Paws, but our family dog, Luna, would not be a good fit. That’s partly because she stays with my parents; she’s not really my dog. Even more importantly, she doesn’t have the temperament for it.
Luna’s sweet and generally calm, but she’s also skittish (which is the opposite of the “calm under pressure” description of a therapy dog), and doesn’t like to cuddle – which is one of the benefits I’m looking for in a therapy dog. And I respect her just the way she is!
Benefits of getting a personal therapy dog
So, speaking of the benefits, these are some that I shared with my therapist when asking her to write a recommendation letter for me to the Companion Paws program:
- Deep tissue pressure is incredibly calming to me, including my weighted blanket. The only thing better than a blanket is to cuddle up with a dog or a cat on my lap. My heart rate slows and my everyday stress level lowers. This helps my anxiety long-term as well as in the moment.
- Having a dog to take care of will help me take care of myself when my anxiety’s high — making sure I go outside for fresh air because the dog needs a walk, tidying my space so it’s comfortable for my dog to live in, etc.
- A dog would help alleviate loneliness, whether during challenging times of isolation (like through the current pandemic) or during future moves by myself to new places.
- Having anxiety can sometimes make it hard to face social situations or leave the house during spikes, but having a dog will motivate me and give me concrete reasons to go to social events and meet new people, including the therapy dog training program, dog playgroups, dog parks, and special events geared to dog sports.
- It feels wonderful to love someone with all of my heart and to feel that unconditional love back.
Plus, Companion Paws’ adoption program is entirely focused on rescue dogs, and I’m a fervent believer in “adopt, don’t shop” whenever possible.
Companion Paws even takes care of finding a rescue dog who’s your perfect fit. That means that I could ask for a dog of a certain size because of my lifestyle, and even a low-shedding dog so my dad and brother (who are mildly allergic to dogs) can fully enjoy being around them too. The program was just perfect.
What comes next?
In a future blog post, I’ll share the process of getting accepted into the Companion Paws Personal Therapy Dog adoption program, and any updates about my new rescue pup! If you’d love to learn more about the journey, please sign up to the Intrepid Emma mailing list so you’re the first to hear the details — and be the first to see pictures of my dog!
Part 2 is now live! Come see my therapy dog match and here about the obstacles we’ve overcome to get him here!