A woman and her dog shyly standing behind her at a dog park

How My Anxious Dog Became My Best Therapy

After my stem cell transplant, I was depressed and anxious. I had naively assumed that my youngish age and physical conditioning prior to transplant would protect me against the perils experienced by other blood cancer patients. I’d expected some diarrhea, nausea, and fatigue, but I didn’t anticipate the psychological distress. After eight months of chemotherapy, radiation, and several painful surgeries, my grueling transplant seemed to trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and I needed help.

I knew that I could talk with a social worker at the local cancer center (and I did), but I also needed to rebuild my life into one for which I desperately wanted to live. I felt robbed of my life as I had known it and wanted something back -- something that didn’t judge me or care if I was emaciated and bald. I wanted a dog -- a therapy dog.

Welcome, Ziggy

On the ride home after my transplant, I searched shelters and other online adoption sites for a poodle-mix or other hypoallergenic breed. After several hours, I finally found him -- a 14-week-old white, male labradoodle.

My caregiver drove me three hours to meet and adopt him the next day. On the ride home, I named him Ziggy, after my school’s beloved therapy dog who later got fired for peeing on students’ backpacks. Perhaps I should have stuck with my new dog’s given name of Norman.

Ziggy sitting on the floor with his mouth open

Ramae's dog, Ziggy.

Ziggy had more anxiety than I did

Ziggy was easy to potty train, but he came with as much social anxiety as he did cuteness. He barked at people (men, in particular), parked cars, and howled at anything that blew in the wind. I tried to help by taking him to puppy classes, social events, and playdates. I read dog training books and watched videos on YouTube. I bought him a thunder shirt and calming spray, and I even played classical music to drown out scary noises.

But Ziggy still had more anxiety than I did, and I was exhausted. How was he going to be my therapy dog if he needed therapy himself? We both had our own forms of PTSD, and his tireless, anxious energy was triggering mine. Many times I questioned my decision to get a dog and wondered if we were simply the wrong match. But the more I reflected on the true meaning of therapy, the more it was clear that Ziggy taught me more about healing anxiety than a calm, quiet dog ever would.

Exercise is good. Play is even better.

The best thing Ziggy did for me right away was to get me off the couch and outside exercising in the frigid Minnesota winter. His unbounded, puppy energy required endless walks. We walked when I was way too tired to walk. We walked as I cried from fibromyalgia pain. We walked at 30 below zero. We walked when it was the very last thing I wanted to do.

And we played. Ziggy showed me how to enjoy winter. As he bounded through snowdrifts and tumbled down snowbanks, I couldn’t help but smile at his inherent, contagious joy. This same joy he later found at dog parks, where both of us got to socialize. While Ziggy chased and wrestled with his friends, I talked with the people. Dog parks became an uplifting social and emotional refuge for both of us.

We found refuge in each other. When I finally stopped expecting a therapy dog and focused on meeting Ziggy where he was at, things began to improve. As my expectations gave way to acceptance, I responded from a more compassionate place instead of reacting from an anxious one. I also became determined to see both of us through it.

Sometimes we all need a little help

After many months of trying on my own, I hired a dog trainer. I needed guidance to be Ziggy’s human as much as Ziggy needed help becoming the calm family dog. The trainer has helped me to see that by reacting to his anxiety, I am only triggering it. Now, as we do the exercises she assigns us, I see a wonderful, happy dog underneath all that anxiety. And I discover a peaceful, happy person under all of mine.

Dealing with Ziggy's anxiety hasn’t always been easy, but it’s helped me deal with my own. Ziggy needs me to be his therapy human as much as I need him to be my therapy dog. I may not have gotten the dog I wanted at the time, but I got the exact dog I needed, and I couldn’t have asked for better therapy.

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