It is estimated that almost 2 percent of the general population will suffer from panic disorder in any given year and 5 percent of the population will experience panic disorder at some point in their life.
The first time I experienced a panic attack, I was 23 years old and had dinner with friends in a local restaurant. Suddenly I had the feeling I that I could no longer breathe. I had no idea what was happening to me, my heart started racing and I thought I was having a heart attack and was going to die. I panicked. My friends called an ambulance. After a few tests, the doctor told me I was fine. The intense onslaught of fear, shortness of breath and rapid heart rate I had experienced was known as panic attack.
That was the first time I heard the name - Panic Attack. Since then I have had many panic attacks each week. The worst was a day when I had eight of them. I was exhausted, depressed and believed that the panic disorder would never disappear. I began to be afraid of almost everything… I was afraid to be alone. I stopped doing sports and going out. Any public place or unfamiliar environment could lead to panic attacks. I did not know when the next panic attack would come and I did not want to lose control.
That was 35 years ago. It was like hell on earth. I was helpless, confused and depressed… After trying some therapies, I noticed that some simple meditation practices can reduce or even stop a panic attack when I had one or felt that one was imminent. After practicing these meditations for a few weeks, my life began all over again. Everything was fine until I moved to Ireland 4 years ago. My panic disorder came back and all of a sudden I was not able to leave my apartment. I felt not only fear but also weakness. I tried to practice my daily meditation again, which had helped for the past 11 years, but it didn’t matter how hard I tried, my mind and my body just could not be calm. And the bad news was that in addition to panic disorder, I had been diagnosed with CFS (Chronic fatigue syndrome). My life became hell again. I spent most of the time in bed until one day I read an article about PTSD assistance dogs and how a trained assistance dog can help people with anxiety disorders. I started to apply for an assistance dog to an Irish service dog organisation for my “unknown mental illness”, but a year later still hadn’t heard from them. Then I decided to find my own potential assistance dog and train it. Max came into my life in January 2018.
Max is a mix of Jack Russel and Yorkshire Terrier. He was bought by a couple as a Christmas present, but two weeks after Christmas they decided they no longer wanted him. So I adopted him. I remember very well the first time I met Max. He was 9 weeks old. He was tiny, smaller than the palm of my hand. I held him in my hands, he looked at me, and then gave me a kiss. That was it. At that moment Max and I were connected.
It was not easy to raise a puppy, and it’s extremely difficult for someone with panic disorder and CFS. I googled online trying to find some useful information on “how to train your own assistance dog from a puppy”, when I found www.servicedogtrainingschool.org. I didn’t have to think twice and immediately applied for the intensive service dog training course. Since then our assistance dog training journey started. It was wonderful. The course is perfectly designed for someone like me who wants to have their own dog trained but doesn’t want to take the dog to a dog trainer and pay high hourly rates. The main reasons why I chose the course were: 1. I didn’t want to go out and meet strangers for a face-to-face dog training session. 2. The fee is much lower than any dog training school. 3. As soon as I have passed the final exam, Max will be certified as a trained service dog with all training histories. There is also something very important about the course: after I applied for the course, about two weeks later I received a “service dog puppy in training” coat for Max. That meant I could officially take him to some public places to practice his public access skills, which I did. This is really useful. The course itself is very easy to understand, I learned almost everything I needed to know about assistance dogs, and the training methods are very easy follow. There are short training videos in each unit. Max wasn’t an easy dog to train, perhaps because of his terrier personality. However, we spent less than 8 weeks completing the course, including repeating some training sessions. It is important to repeat the training sessions until what you have learned becomes a habit.
Now, looking back, I realise that panic disorder had taken me to a very scary and depressing place - but it also changed me in ways I could not have imagined - for the better, I would add. I’ve found my own way to deal with it, and now I have Max. I’m not scared anymore. I can now go out and talk to people without any panic. Last year we did a road trip together traveling in Germany and Holland. The service dog certification allowed us to stay together on the ferry and any public places we visited. I hope and wish that people who suffer from similar mental disorders can have such experiences. An assistance dog can really help you to be free from panic disorders, but more than that, the experience you had with your dog and the recovery process from panic disorder will have given you strength and peace that you never thought possible.
So today I wanted to share my story with you. I firmly believe that if you want to train your own dog to be a service dog, it is worth a try, because this course and Max cured me completely. I know with certainty that the course and your dog will help you.
Good luck with your assistance dog training course!