A Golden Retriever Helped Her Handle Her Panic Attack

She’d trained Ernest as a therapy dog, but now she needed his help with her anxiety.

by
- Posted on Oct 26, 2020

Peggy Frezon with her husband Mike, and her therapy dog Ernest. Photo by Roy Gumpel

Downtown Albany was as busy as usual that blustery January day last year, with no place to park on the street. My husband, Mike, pulled into the underground garage of the state office complex, 40 city blocks of concrete buildings and four office towers connected by tunnels and a windowless concourse. “You good?” he asked.

I wasn’t good. My heart was pounding. But I said, “Sure.” Sweaty palms, a knot in my stomach. We were six floors underground, and the cold concrete walls were already closing in on me. Our golden retriever, Ernest, tossed his shaggy head and wagged his tail in excitement. Easy for you, buddy.

We were here for Ernest to do his job as a therapy dog, providing stress relief to employees at the New York state budget office. Mike and I rescue senior golden retrievers and together do therapy work with them. It feels great taking them places where they can provide the love and comfort that’s unique to dogs—nursing homes, schools during exams, colleges on freshmen’s first day. Just interacting with our goldens helps people feel calmer and happier.

We first got involved with therapy dogs several years ago, when Mike was in the hospital in serious condition and I was worried sick. A Bernese mountain dog loped into the room, but instead of going to Mike’s bedside, he came right up to me, knowing I needed comfort. From that moment, I knew I wanted to work with therapy dogs.

Our first was Ike, a sweet older golden. Then we rescued Ernest three years ago, when he was nine. We enrolled him in therapy dog training, and he took to it. “He was born for this work,” the instructor told me. Ernest passed his test with flying colors.

 

A manager at the state budget office had requested a therapy dog visit several weeks before. Mike had immediately said, “Let’s do it.” But just the thought of those huge, confusing buildings with their underground garages and elevators filled me with dread. The security checkpoints with the futuristic-looking metal detectors and imposing guards unnerved me. I wanted to ignore this request. After all, we didn’t have to go. But Mike kept bringing it up.

He worked in one of the connecting legislative buildings, and I knew he’d be proud to bring Ernest there. So I agreed to do it. For Mike. For the people in that office. And for Ernest, so he could do what he was meant to do.

I hated my irrational panic, yet I couldn’t seem to shake it. Mike took my hand and squeezed it. He knew I was struggling. I tried to slow my breathing the way I’d learned, back when I thought I had this all under control.

I’d first felt the terrifying anxiety more than 30 years ago, when I was driving down a busy highway one day. Bam, out of the blue, my heart started pounding. I couldn’t get enough air. My vision clouded. I got so lightheaded, I thought I would faint. I was sure I was having a heart attack. After that, I avoided that highway. Then the dread descended while I was driving on another street. So I avoided that street.

Before long, I stopped driving. But the mysterious spells persisted. At the movies. At the grocery store. I kept avoiding places until I had no place left to go.

I finally steeled myself to ask my doctor about it. He explained that I was having panic attacks, a type of anxiety disorder whose cause remains unknown. I didn’t want to take medication. So I spoke with a counselor, who taught me breathing exercises. Controlling my breathing slowed my heart rate and helped avert the rush of fear.

I learned to keep my thoughts anchored in the present, knowing that whatever I was worrying about would most likely never come to pass. And I curled up in my comfy chair with my dog by my side and prayed. I had a fulfilling job as an academic test writer, a loving family and good friends. What did I have to be anxious about? I reminded myself how blessed I was. How God loved me and was with me. I forced myself to go back out, and slowly my world expanded again.

Sometimes those panicky feelings still cropped up, though, especially in confined spaces. I found myself climbing 10 flights of stairs at a doctor’s office instead of taking the elevator. On road trips, I routed us around congested highways and tunnels, even if it took hours longer. Trying to steer clear of all the things I feared was exhausting, but facing the fear was even more so.

Yet here I was, underground at the state office complex, dealing with it head-on. I stared at the elevator—the only way out of the garage for the general public—then shook my head. I couldn’t do it.

“There’s one set of stairs that state employees can use,” Mike said, “but we’ll have to go over the loading docks, down the back way and through a security portal. I can get through with my state ID. Maybe if we explain what we’re here for, the guard will let you pass.” My face burned with shame. Mike shouldn’t have to deal with my fears when there was no real danger. Why did I have to make everything so complicated?

“Follow me,” he said. “There’s nothing to worry about.” Mike led us through the labyrinth of passageways. Ernest kept rubbing against my legs and looking up at me, but I was concentrating on taking deep breaths, trying to calm myself.

We climbed the stairs to the loading dock, my pulse hammering with each step. What if there’s a fire? Or a bomb? My breath came in jagged gasps. Finally we reached the security portal—a tall, revolving metal cage that looked like a torture device. A sign read: Be back in 15 minutes.

I wanted out of this tight space now! Every muscle constricted, and my jaw clenched. I slumped down to the cold cement floor and crossed my arms. Lord, why aren’t you with me? I’m here trying to do this difficult thing. I need you!

I felt something nudge my side. Ernest. A billion thoughts swirled in my head, none of them helpful. What if the guard doesn’t come back? What if we’re stuck in here? Ernest didn’t give up. He pushed his head under my elbow until my arm fell aside. He pressed forward gently until his front legs rested in my lap, his deep brown eyes never leaving mine. I’m here, his expression seemed to say. Lean on me. And so I did, patting his soft fur.

My pulse slowed, and my breathing returned to normal. I felt the fear and tension begin to leave my body. Keeping my hand planted firmly on Ernest’s back, I forced myself to look, really look, at the parking garage around me. You know what? It wasn’t that scary. Certainly not as scary as my projections. I had made it scary.

I hadn’t wanted to come here, hadn’t wanted to confront these feelings again, but this was a struggle I had to face. God didn’t leave me to do this on my own. He sent Ernest, not only to help others but to help me too. I mean, how obvious could God be?

The guard returned and said he couldn’t let me through without the proper ID. “There’s one last way,” Mike said, “but you’ll still have to deal with security desks and detectors.” Ernest gazed up at me, wagging his tail. I smiled and ruffled his ears. Everything would be okay. I knew who to lean on now.

Fear is a good thing if there is something real to be afraid of. But when fear comes first, faith must follow, with a golden retriever right behind.

Read more: Love on a Leash

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