Monday, November 27, 2023

If you would have asked me seven months ago if having a dog was in my future, I would have said “no.” I am too selfish with my time to care for another living being. I like to go as I please and sleep in on the weekends. During that time, my was sister living with me, I was going to therapy, and I felt content where I was in life. Life wasn’t perfect, but work kept me busy and, outside of that, I had a built-in best friend. Then my sister graduated, and both of my siblings moved across the country to pursue their dreams.

Suddenly I didn’t have anyone to welcome me home or to rely on as a companion. Life was changing, but I wasn’t ready to change with it. Work was a good, but I realized my emotions and well-being were inadvertently being tied to my job. I felt more anxious at work and home. I often brought work home with me. I racked it up to added stressors at the beginning of the school year.

Dynamic Support

A year ago, Student Care and Assistance onboarded its first therapy dog—Wilkie—guided by one of our care coordinators, Elley Mohling. Wilkie’s primary responsibility is to provide 1:1 support for Iowa students, specifically those navigating mental health crises. Wilkie’s role is an extension of the student care coordinators who provide oversight and response to mental health concerns and manage follow-up care. Wilkie is a bridge that helps us connect with students in ways we previously had not, and students have welcomed this new form of support.

Navigating Change

Fast forward, my boss walks into my office and says, “Would you be interested in becoming a handler for our therapy dog program?” I approached this with great trepidation. As I said, I was selfish, it was the beginning of the year, I had a lot on my plate, and knew that caring for another was not just an addition, it was another lifestyle change. I knew I didn’t want to pass up on the opportunity and thought, “what’s a bit more work?”

Whoodles of America is an organization that donates one dog from each of its litters to a Veteranor to becoming a therapy dog. Finn was donated, like Wilkie, to the University. On the day Finn arrived, I came home with a puppy in hand, not understanding what I was getting myself into. Challenging, nerve wracking, and exhausting are understatements when it comes to new puppies. I never had a dog before and thought this would fit into my life. Was I wrong! My friend sent me a poem that spoke to me at the time:

“I dropped a ball in your lap, it’s time to play.

I just put a ball in your lap, so it’s time to play.

See that ball I placed in your lap? That means it’s time to play.

You can have your emergency appendectomy any other day, but I dropped a ball in your lap and now it’s time to play.”

- Francesco Marciuliano, “I Could Chew on This: And Other Poems By Dogs.”

Weeks later, as I waited for Finn to do his business and come back inside at 3 a.m. it hit me, what was I doing to change my lifestyle? I was exhausted and went to work feeling anxious, left work feeling anxious, found time to feed Finn, take him on a walk, and then eventually sleep. Balancing conflicting priorities was a challenge.

Lessons Learned

Many may be thinking, ‘Anna, taking time for yourself isn’t selfish!’ They are absolutely correct. It took having the responsibility of a dog to realize the areas of my life that I needed to attend to. Self-soothing is important when it comes to navigating daily stressors. Seeking out methods to help regulate emotional states by yourself can feel daunting, but with practice can be powerful. Now having navigated puppy teething, I can share a few things Finn has taught me.  

1. Find your favorite piece of furniture and chew the heck out of it!

   a. Find something that brings you joy and commit to making time for it. So often we sacrifice moments of self-care, but are there ways you can add that to your work, to your routine, to your life?

2. Say ‘hi’ to your friends at the dog park.

   a. Community and communication are important. If it were not for my colleagues and the folks willing to impart knowledge about owning a dog, I wouldn’t be where I am. I met a community of people who I may have never interacted with and am better because of it. Support is key. You are not alone.

3. Chew your owner’s homework or important documents that they need. 

   a. I like to hold on to things I could easily delegate to others. Let go so you can focus on being where you need to be.

4. Sneak outside when your owner has the door open.

   a. It is easy to sit in our offices all day. Enjoy nature, get outside of your work environment, and get a change of scenery. A fresh space produces a fresh perspective.

5. Embrace the zoomies!

   a. Exercise and active movement are important. Take a walk around the building or stop by a colleague’s office to say hello. Movement is a powerful tool for self-soothing, taking your mind away from what is consuming your time and energy.

6. Take a nap.

   a. Do you need a day off? Rest is important and necessary to function. 

7. Bury your bones.

   a. Put things you are done with in the past and be done with them. Lingering can be self-destructive and takes you away from your purpose and goals. 

8. Bark a lot! Preferably in the middle of the night to wake up your owner.

   a. Talk it out! Communication is key so find your support network. Think about getting a therapist or revisiting an old therapist. Communication provides clarity and a new outlook on a situation. Find your community and utilize it. Reach out when you need help. 

Although I have a long journey ahead of me, I can’t imagine my life without Finn. I appreciate what he has taught me, and the necessary growth dog ownership has challenged me to make. I seek to live my life more like Finn. I greet those I care about each day like they are the most important person in the world, relax when needed, and live in the moment.

Cover image by Richard Brutyo.