How an Emotional Support Animal Saved My Life

People joke about emotional support animals, but my dog saved my life.

By Amanda EL 

I’ve always believed that every household needs a dog. The undying loyalty, the effervescent greetings, the irrevocable love — how could anyone not want that?

Growing up in a hostile home environment, I always sought comfort in my dog. When friends betrayed me, my parents hit me or someone bullied me, I’d lie down with my dog and wrap my arms tightly around her. She was my best friend — sometimes my only friend — and my favorite family member. I could never feel alone with her by my side.

But there was also a comfort in petting her soft fur in moments of panic. When anxiety attacks occurred, I felt calmer each time I stroked her head or ran my hand down her back. No words were needed — her physical presence and ability to remain by my side through emotional outbursts were all I needed to relax.

My dog helped me through some of the toughest times, and when she died, my parents discovered that the only way to save their daughter was to get another dog. Three weeks after I said goodbye to my 17-year-old companion, my family welcomed its newest member into the household—an 8-week-old Maltipoo.

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Though I was lamenting the loss of my former friend, the new puppy was able to alleviate some of my depressed feelings, and within a short amount of time, she became my favorite companion.

When I moved into my first apartment, I had to leave behind the family dog. Although my anxiety decreased with my parents’ absence, I began to feel lonely and depressed again. I went to therapy to learn new strategies to cope with my stress, but nothing could compare to my dog’s abilities. As my anxiety continued to control my life, my therapist recommended that I get my own dog, but with pets not permitted in my housing complex, this wouldn’t be feasible.

Since my depression and anxiety were severe, my therapist “prescribed” a service dog — or rather, an emotional support dog. She wrote a letter with my diagnosis and her recommendation for a dog, and within a few months, I was preparing for my very own Maltipoo.

I found a nearby breeder, and as soon as the litter was born, I was able to choose my puppy. I visited the litter six weeks later, and that is when I decided upon the name Sophie. I took a close-up photo of her face, and later that day, I registered her with the USA Service Dog Registry.

While Sophie is the best form of therapy for me, I’m often hesitant to inform others of her registration because some people take advantage of this registration — they see it as a way to evade housing restrictions on pets or a way to board an airplane without an additional fee. I was surprised by how easy it was to register Sophie — all I needed was a credit card.

So when I tell people that Sophie is certified, I often receive eye rolls or disparaging remarks about how I’m one of “those” people. But what makes Sophie and me different is that our bond is essential for my health. Just as a diabetic needs insulin to live, I need Sophie to live.

Sophie gives me a purpose in life. When I have nervous breakdowns or consider giving up, I look at Sophie and think, “She is my purpose, and I could never betray her by leaving her behind.”

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But Sophie has given me much more than just a purpose — she puts a smile on my face every morning, makes me laugh, makes me exercise and forces me to socialize with everyone in sight. We cannot walk past a single person without Sophie introducing herself and getting some attention. I’m learning how to overcome my shyness through all of the conversations that Sophie initiates for me with strangers.

If I’m having a stressful day at work, I know that I can look forward to Sophie welcoming me home as soon as I open the front door. She’ll wag her tail, lick my face, bring me her toy, and make me feel like the most important and loved person in this world.

My love for Sophie is ineffable, and while I enjoy the privileges of having her with me in places where dogs aren’t permitted, I’m now faced with a predicament — do I bring Sophie for my health and have to expose myself as someone with a mental illness or do I leave her home and silently suffer from anxiety?

When my coworkers used to ask me why I registered her as a service dog, I lied and said that I did it to evade the pet restriction in my apartment or so that I could bring her into stores with me, but I’ve realized that these seemingly innocuous lies are contributing to the “emotional support dog” stigma.

So now, when others question me about Sophie’s registration, I’m upfront and honest. I don’t divulge my full history with mental health, but I simply explain that I’ve struggled with anxiety and Sophie helps to reduce it.

I always carry Sophie’s registration papers with me, along with my doctor’s prescription letter. Having an official letter from a licensed psychologist helps to suppress any doubts or uncertainties regarding my legitimate need for Sophie.

Since emotional support dogs are still a topic of controversy, I don’t abuse Sophie’s privileges. If animals are prohibited in certain places where I know I won’t be anxious, then I don’t bring Sophie. But because Sophie has improved my life, I’ve begun to consider ways that she can help others.

Maybe in my future career as a school psychologist, Sophie will be my little assistant who sits beside my desk and helps to ease my students’ anger and anxieties. Without any words, Sophie has the power to save a life.

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