22: Watchful Devotion

22: Watchful Devotion

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Very Good, Very Bad Dog

Watchful Devotion

Fun fact: It’s believed that the Icelandic Sheepdog was brought to Iceland in the late 9th or early 10th century by Viking settlers.

My finger slipped. The word escaped me: “Oops.” My dog, Kai, hurtled across the room, barely cleared the screen of my laptop, and landed squarely on my chest. I laughed even as I scrambled to shift my laptop to a side table — an awkward task with twenty-five pounds of Icelandic Sheepdog on top of me — then wrapped my arms around him, ruffling the long, silky fur that had never really lost its puppy softness. “I’m fine, bud. I made a typo. Okay? A typo. I’m fine. I promise.”

He was not immediately convinced, but I made my breathing slow and calm as I petted him, and after a minute or so he seemed to conclude that all was indeed well here. He hopped up over my shoulder and onto the back of my chair, where he sprawled like a cat resting lazily on a branch, draping down to rest his nose and one front paw by my ear.

If he could talk, I thought, he would probably mutter, “I only left for a minute.”

I understood. It was different when he first came to live with me. I was different: washed out of grad school, and so anxiety-ridden that I doubted I would ever again make it out of my room at my parents’ house for long enough to have anything resembling a normal life. I was having panic attacks daily. Virtually anything could set them off — even, on bad days, something as small as a typo.

But when Kai came to my home, this began to change.

I will always remember that first day. He was a nine-and-a-half-week-old ball of black-and-white fur with ears that didn’t quite stand up yet, all kisses and tail wags, completely unbothered by the fact that he had been plucked away from his siblings and his familiar yard and playpen. I sat on the floor of my room playing with him, tossing a stuffed toy that he happily chased. He would pounce on it, then snatch it up and prance around the room with his head held high and proud, as if he had just found the world’s greatest treasure.

I laughed at his delight, but then the dark got in, as it always did. This moment was good, but it couldn’t last. I knew something would go horribly wrong. My breathing changed, and Kai spun to look at me, toy forgotten. Head on one side, he trotted over to where I sat, climbed up on my lap, and put his nose a few inches from mine as he studied my face, his dark brown eyes curious.

I made myself smile at him. “It’s nothing, bud. It’s okay. I’m okay.” I didn’t entirely believe it, but it was close enough to be true. The nightmare that had invaded my thoughts had disappeared quickly in the face of Kai’s support.

It happened again the next day. I sat on the floor, head in my hands, and hyperventilated. I couldn’t stop.

Even as the panic attack started, I worried about Kai. He was a very young dog in a new place, very sensitive to the moods of those around him, and here I was hunched over on the floor, screaming at my imagination. He was a confident little boy, but this might be too much. I might scare him, make him wary of me. I knew it and hated it, but I couldn’t stop.

With no hesitation, as if it were a job he’d been preparing to do since he was born, he marched across the room and climbed into my lap again. He was very quiet, but the set of his ears and his tail suggested no stress on his part. He leaned his small weight against me, letting me feel his steady heartbeat and unhurried breathing, and stayed there calmly while I hugged him and sobbed. Slowly, my own breath settled until it was under control again.

Over the next weeks and months, Kai got older and more observant. If I panicked, he was there to sit with me until I wasn’t panicking anymore, but his self-appointed duties did not stop there. If I started pacing with too much urgency, he would put himself in my way and jump up on me, interrupting my steps. If I started talking to myself — a thing I did so much I didn’t always realize I was doing it — he would climb in my lap, whining and wanting to kiss my face, as soon as he heard stress in my voice. If I gesticulated too wildly as my thoughts tripped over themselves, waving my hands as I tried to get out what I couldn’t express in words, he would paw at my arms frantically until I stopped. These were not responses that I or anyone else trained him to give; they were his own, and apparently instinctive.

Whatever was actually going on in his head, the result was that whenever I began to work myself into a panic attack, he interrupted me. Soon, he was catching subtler signs, warning me at hints of agitation that only he could see. With his patient help, I gradually learned to catch myself when I was in trouble, early enough that most of the time I could pull myself out of it.

Kai is three years old now. Most of the time, he doesn’t have to play the role of mental-health monitor anymore. I still have dark days, but I’ve learned I can get through them. Real panic attacks are rare beasts now instead daily occurrences, and it’s largely thanks to my dog and his watchful devotion.

I’m back in school, something I never thought would be possible when I left. Kai curls up near me when I do my homework, ready to jump up and stick his nose in my face if I so much as say, “Oops.” I don’t mind. He knows, and I know, that sometimes little problems lead to bigger ones.

These days, when he does this, I smile back and tell him it’s okay. And I believe it.

~Cris Kenney

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