Waffle and I are NOT - in any way - your typical service dog team. I acknowledge that and speak that particular truth more times in a day than I share the truth that Waffle saved my life.
It’s an odd predicament I find myself in. I run a company devoted to telling the story of dogs and I am determined to maintain the integrity of these sacred teams and yet, I am half of a team that defies all semblance of visual integrity to a passerby.
I think about it a lot - how to balance both realities in this visual age. For the past few years and particularly this last one, my practice was to keep Waffle and our work a bit more private. Yet recently, as I spend more of my day defending Waffle than celebrating the miracle that she is to me, I think it’s time to change that.
But, before I go any further, I want to get this on record and be crystal clear - Waffle is the most unconventional service dog I have ever seen and this is entirely on me. But, before you have me apologize for her size or our different approaches to caring for me, I would so appreciate it if you keep reading.
Waffle came to me and my now husband as a puppy. When we got her, I knew nothing of service dog training and had no plans to embark upon the extensive journey with her. I was on psychiatric disability, had intermittent episodes of suicidality, experienced multiple panic attack-inducing flashbacks daily and struggled to leave the house if unaccompanied by my boyfriend or a friend. At the time, four and a half years ago when we decided to get her - my doctors were still predicting that in the best possible scenario of my recovery, I would live outside a psychiatric ward without live in nursing. With that trajectory of recovery in mind, I never dreamed of living this life I have today or even a life outside the confines of my town. So when we got Waffle all I thought was oh my gosh, how gosh darn cute!
During those first four months together, I quit my first job in business and landed myself a remote social media job where I worked from home. It meant we literally spent every moment together. Our days were simple. I did my social media work and then we slept a lot, snuggled a lot and spent the rest of the day trying to get out of the house.
During her 5th month with us, the strangest thing started happening - she started hurling herself onto my lap before my PTSD flashbacks. Before continuing, allow me to explain this a bit more. I live with PTSD from the nine years I was medicated for an illness I don’t have. During those nine years, due to the combination of my extreme anxiety disorder and the medication for the illness I don’t have, I experienced graphic and debilitating hallucinations of my suicide and demons daily. Those nine years were truly a living hell and now, as a result, I have flashbacks of those visuals daily. .
Okey back to waffle.
When waffle started this snuggle tackling behavior (literally the cutest thing ever), I told my now husband about it. He just laughed and laughed and dismissed it without any further discussion. I also told my sisters and my best friend and they had the same response. But you know me, I am strong willed so I set out to prove them wrong with data they could not dispute. I kept a journal for a month of all my flashbacks and also all the times she hurled herself into my lap. At the end of the month, the data was undeniable- she had snuggle tackled me before my flashback every single time.
At this point, I cannot express what incredible glee and hope I felt. To know that there was a way to know when I was about to see my corpse hanging from a tree or a slew of demons take over my vision - well, it felt like a true miracle. The hardest part of the PTSD is the uncertainty of it - the fact it could happen at any moment. To know there was a chance these episodes could be predicted felt like a taste of freedom.
At this point, I took to google, to the library and to my husband’s Dartmouth academic login credentials. After only a bit of research, it became clear that dogs - certain service dogs - can actually be trained to smell flashbacks and cue their teammates. I was fascinated and read and read of all these medical alert dogs that have been trained to assist people for all sorts of conditions in addition to PTSD. But, what I realized is that with no training at all - by some undeniably and I’ll say it, insanely good luck, Waffle had taught herself to do this.
So excited by the prospect that I could know when I was about to see my body hanging from a tree, shooting itself or being attacked by demons, I committed to cementing this newfound skill of hers. I went out and bought ten pounds of bacon from a local farmer. I wrote in my journal, “with enough bacon rewards, my hope is she will never miss another one (flashback) so maybe, just maybe, I can learn how to be free.” .
I won’t ever say that the bacon or decision to train her the way I did was a mistake because I have landed myself here - off disability, off 3 medications, married, joyfully employed - but I will say that the day I bought bacon instead of hiring an accredited trainer is where I determined Waffle’s fate of becoming the most unconventional service dog to date.
Through a smattering of online resources and random YouTube videos, I developed what I called ‘my bacon methodology.’ I trained her to hug my leg (yup, it looks like she’s humping me when she does this) when she smells me before a panic attack. I trained a paw hug - a paw wrapped around my ankle for a PTSD flashback and a double paw hug for when the flashback was going to consume my whole vision. I trained a paw punch for reminders to get outside my intrusive thinking and bring my back to the present moment. In time and many pounds of bacon later, I also added our own version of blocking to her skills and lastly, I added deep pressure training to her regimen to help soothe me when I’m panicking or highly anxious.
This training was done over the course of two and half years and the results transformed my entire world. Instead of living paranoid of these visual flashbacks, I grew to live in love with the world around me and my ability to grow. Waffle gave me back my life.
Years have passed and her cues have propelled my recovery to near unfathomable results. As I sit here, her head on my feet as I write this out, I guess all I can say is I don’t get it. I can’t explain our relationship and I certainly can’t tell you how I did it because the truth is: I didn’t do it. She did. .
All I know is this: Waffle saved my life and as unconventional as it is, I wouldn’t want it any other way.