Losing Liberty: Transitioning to Life Without a Service Dog

Photo of LIberty, a golden retriever

Retiring my service dog was an eventuality nobody talked to me about — realistically, because nobody really talked to me about living with a service dog, either. Liberty and I always figured it out as we went along. And just like our life working together, we’re figuring out her transition to retirement, as well.

For the last ten years, Liberty has been my everything. My guardian and protector, my best friend. We’ve spent the decade navigating and expanding my world together, pushing the boundaries of my independence as far as they can go. As age slows my golden girl down, I’ve been forced to gradually relearn daily life without her by my side.

My childhood was notably marked by early onset depression and anxiety. I avoided school even though I loved to learn and regularly cut my arms and legs with pencil sharpener blades. I was prescribed various medications, given multiple diagnoses and attempted every kind of therapy available in our rural area. I experienced my first emergency psychiatric hold by the time I was 11.

In my early teenage years, I spiraled into severe posttraumatic stress disorder after being sexually assaulted. While I had already been struggling to manage my existing mental illness, I truly had no frame of reference for coping with rape.

I couldn’t leave the house. At just 14 years old, I withdrew entirely from the world and gave up on things like showering and brushing my hair or teeth. A shadow of what a teenage girl should be — vibrant, thriving and full of potential — I was suicidal, empty and broken.

My mother, my biggest advocate, spent countless hours researching how to help me. In early 2009, psychiatric service dogs were still relatively rare and typically reserved for veterans. It took months to convince a doctor to write a prescription. They required her to submit documentation that a service animal might help my condition; documentation that scarcely existed at the time.

After receiving the prescription, finding an organization that would work with my needs proved difficult and expensive. My condition continued to deteriorate as we searched, leading to longer and longer stays in treatment centers. Psychiatric service dogs for civilians remained a novelty and it was well over a year before I was matched with Liberty.

Eventually, a small training facility called my mother back. They had a dog who was too small for physical work like bracing a handler during a seizure, but smart and eager to please. At a year old, she had completed all of her basic training and was prepared to learn more specialized tasks, like grounding me during dissociative panic attacks. On February 14th, 2010, I got to take her home.

In the years since, Liberty and I learned everything about each other. When my paranoia and anxiety was most acute, I relied on her consistent presence to feel safe while I underwent intensive therapy. She interrupted self-harming rituals, woke me from night terrors and calmed me during panic attacks. I kept a spot for her next to me everywhere I went, religiously fed her bananas (her favorite treat) and doted upon her.

When I was healthy enough to go back to school and eventually start working, Liberty helped facilitate my interactions with a world I was terrified of. She became the extra set of eyes I felt I needed to have watching out for me at all times. My service dog accompanied me to every class I needed to graduate highschool and earn my Associate’s and Bachelor’s degrees. She walked across the stage with me for two graduations.

Liberty gave me a reason to get up in the morning and something to care for as I learned to care for myself. She served as both a shield from things I feared and a guide to explore them. For 10 years, people have recognized me as “the girl with the dog” and I’ve identified myself that way. Her presence allowed me to explore the world safely and empowered me to live independently.

I’ve been grateful to take care of Liberty with the same love she took care of me. To look out for her best interest. I knew she was predisposed to hip dysplasia; golden retrievers often are. In the last year, my 11-year-old companion, who has been with me every step of my adult life, slowed down considerably. Her feet started to drag when we walk around the block, she could no longer spend a whole day working with me.

Looking out for her, as painful as it was to decide, meant reducing the number of daily outings she worked and venturing into the world alone.

It started with an hour or two, then a full afternoon without her. There aren’t words to explain how naked I felt in the beginning. Vulnerable and exposed. Thankfully, years of medication and therapy had eased my PTSD symptoms considerably, but my anxiety crept high the first few times I left home without her leash in my hand.

The sky didn’t fall. In her absence, I learned I could navigate my daily life on my own – a gift my service dog gave me that I’ll never be able to repay.

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