Owning a dog seemed impossible to a girl with severe asthma, allergies, eczema -- and not just a little anxiety. After all, I'd almost died several times from asthma attacks and anaphylaxis from food allergies. Doctors joked that I should live in a bubble or on a sterile boat in the middle of the ocean, only ingesting water and gluten-free crackers. I would laugh at their comments, but inside I ached at the thought of a future without pets. I spent years testing out an array of "hypoallergenic" animals, each one ending in a wheezing, hive-filled heartbreak. The food and environmental allergies I could handle, but a life without animals? No way.
In 2007, I found a loophole in my animal intolerance. I interviewed for a dolphin care and training internship in the Florida Keys and six weeks later packed my bags to move to an island 800 miles from my North Carolina home. Working with bottlenose dolphins was living my dream. I worked 40 grueling unpaid hours a week and was enthralled by every aspect of the job, even spending several hours a day elbow-deep in dead fish. Isn't that what all girls' dreams are made of? I was happy, my chronic anxiety was at an all-time low, and I felt like my life had purpose and meaning. I enjoyed the psychological aspect of animal training almost as much as I loved kissing those big gray faces and giving belly rubs to baby dolphin calves.
Unfortunately, after one year of working with dolphins, I developed an anaphylactic allergy to all types of fish. As my throat swelled and my breathing labored, all I could think was, "I can't touch fish, I can't work with dolphins. My life here is over."
Since there is no such thing as a vegetarian dolphin, I was correct. I moved back to North Carolina and tried to let go of the job of animal training. With the realization that my new-found passion and purpose was no longer an option, I went into mourning. If I had never experienced the satisfaction that a deep connection with an animal can bring, maybe it wouldn't have hurt so deeply. I suddenly felt unmotivated to do anything with my life, because the one thing I knew I wanted to do was impossible.
My downward unhappiness spiral continued and eventually took the form of debilitating anxiety and panic attacks. I enlisted the help of a therapist and eventually conquered my anxiety attacks, transforming into a "silver linings" person with a new perspective on life. I even helped a few friends and family members with their anxiety struggles. I felt happy, but I still knew something was truly missing.
Then one afternoon, I came home to find my husband cradling a fluffy, wet-nosed, chocolate brown puppy. In spite of my allergies, we decided to take a chance on adopting a hypoallergenic Labradoodle, with a backup plan if my allergies decided to betray me again. Several of our family members assured us that they would adopt and raise our puppy if allergies became an issue. One look at Henri's eerily human-like hazel eyes and thumping tail brought me to my knees, sobbing uncontrollably. Both my husband and I cried as we embraced our new puppy, our Henri.
I expected that having my own dog would be both fun and a lot of work. What I didn't expect was the impact that a six-pound, miniature Australian Labradoodle would have on overall well-being. For the first time since leaving the dolphins, the something that was missing in my life has arrived and is sleeping on my feet as I write this.
While we assumed a dog might worsen my allergies, the exact opposite has happened. There is a scientific connection between emotions and health, and much research that shows how living with pets makes us healthier. I firmly believe that my dog has allowed me to experience healing, both inner and outer. I know that Henri is no magical canine who has healed my chronic ailments, but she has created the most perfect distraction from them. Where my focus and energy used to constantly gravitate towards my medical issues and what was wrong with me, it now centers on my dog and her needs. I'm now using my dolphin training knowledge to engage, entertain, and train Henri.
I have heard over and over again that training dogs gives them a sense of purpose and security, but I have found that the same is true for the owner. While Henri is not yet an official therapy dog, she is my therapy dog.
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