Updated: Mar 22
I’m sitting at my desk at work, with an empty dog bed next to me. ‘My assistance dog’ has quickly become ‘The assistance dog’, and sensing some new humans in the building, she has followed a couple of my colleagues into the conference room to greet the newcomers who have arrived for a meeting. Sunny has only been in training for 12 weeks, but already her ability to understand when she is working is quite developed.
I live with bipolar disorder and the medical professionals who treat me would describe me as ‘high functioning’. I work, I maintain a creative life as a professional musician and I have a healthy social life. People are generally surprised when they discover that I have a mental illness. But as we know, when it comes to mental health, appearances can be deceptive. There are times when for weeks on end, I struggle to leave the house or even get out of bed. My ‘functioning’ can go from 'high' to 'barely' in a matter of hours.
Sunny came to live with me two years ago and the benefits were immediate. As a two-year-old Border Collie who had been rescued from an environment where she’d had almost no stimulation, Sunny needed exercise every day. No matter how I was feeling, this happy, gentle but energetic pooch needed to run every day. If I was lying on the couch, she would stare at me, statue-like, with her huge amber eyes and gently nudge me until I rolled off the couch, grabbed the keys and headed for the beach. And watching her run, roll and toss sea sponges into the air would inevitably bring me joy, no matter how I was feeling.
After watching how much an assistance dog helped a friend, training Sunny to become an assistance dog seemed like a logical next step. I chose MindDogs Australia as their model of training and certifying assistance dogs involves working with your existing dog and training the dog yourself. The bond between handler and the dog is the most important aspect of MindDog training, and this bond must be absolute. MindDogs are encouraged to sleep with their handlers and trained to be aware of changes in physiology and be able to sense the handler’s moods. All of this is possible because of the special bond between dog and handler.
Our first three months out in the world as a trainee MindDog and handler have been pretty smooth. I’ve been amazed at how quickly Sunny has made the connection between being on duty and off duty. As soon as her yellow trainee assistance dog jacket goes on, Sunny knows there are a different set of rules. She is a dog with a ‘healthy’ interest in food (OK, she’s a pig!) so she’s always been pretty easy to train with treats, but once the yellow vest is on, we hardly even need them. Obedience becomes something that is no longer optional.
Our biggest challenge has been the office stairs. Working on the second floor of a very old building, there are two flights of steep steps to reach my office. My approach, laden with laptop, bag and dog bed, is to take it slow and steady. Sunny’s not so much. Hers is to take a big run-up and take the steps two at a time dragging her hapless owner behind her. There's been some close calls, and I’ve stopped wearing heels to work, but after a couple of months of treats and encouragement, she now walks slowly at my side, one step at a time. The people working on the ground floor applaud when she does this and Sunny wags and wiggles with joy at the praise for getting it right.
I had initially thought I would take Sunny to work only on days when I wasn’t feeling great, but pretty much after day one it became evident that the workplace for all of us was better when Sunny was there. I’m lucky, I work in an organisation that is fairly quiet and very relaxed. There are only ten of us in the office and only occasional visitors. Busy workplaces can stress an assistance dog out. That I work for a mental health advocacy organisation really helps too and my workplace couldn't be more supportive. Sunny stays mostly with me in the office but she does regular 'rounds', checking in on my colleagues.
Our building faces out into the beautiful North Adelaide Parklands, which means Sunny gets a break every few hours in the park. And so do I. We all know our productivity is better if we do things like take regular breaks away from office aircon, but how many of us actually do it? Sunny forces me to do this several times a day and it has made such a difference to my working day.
The most unexpected benefit has been the interactions with strangers. Sunny loves people. Even without her working jacket, people are drawn to her. But when she wears her yellow MindDog jacket there is a different kind of reaction from people. People are intrigued by assistance dogs and I’m not exactly sure why. Some days it takes forever to buy my lunch in the local shopping centre! People stop us on the street and admire my beautiful girl and ask about her training. Even if they don’t stop, every second person smiles and nods. ‘ Why do you think people react so strongly to assistance dogs?’ I asked a friend, ‘Empathy’ he said ‘She’s an opportunity for public empathy. People don't get enough of that’
Older people tell me of dogs long passed and others tell me how well-behaved Sunny is and tell me about their own recalcitrant puppies. Most people talk through Sunny and it’s a great way for me to stay connected to the world, one step removed on the days when all I want to do is lock the doors and pull down the blinds. This is Sunny is doing her job and keeping me connected to the world when it’s quite possible I would lock myself away.
As soon as we are in the car, the working jacket comes off and Sunny sticks her nose out the window as we drive home, letting go of the day. At home she reverts back to some of her not-so-assistance dog traits; chasing the cat, barking at birds and announcing the neighbour’s arrival home from work with great fanfare. But in reality, she is always on the clock. Always checking in on me, with her ‘Sunny’ disposition and gentle determination to keep me connected to her and the world around us. I can’t imagine my life without her. And now I can’t imagine work without her.