Student, Spirit Make a Team

THE CITY: Jennifer Francis has her golden retriever to help her cope with bipolar disorder
Last Updated: 18th November 2009, 9:34am

The panic can strike Jennifer Francis at any time. And when it does, her heart pounds, her breathing grows shallow, her head feels light and her hands unsteady.

Those are the physical symptoms.

The psychological ones — what the experts call “depersonalization” — are even more unsettling, as Francis suddenly feels as if she’s floating outside herself.

“It’s just an overwhelming feeling of anxiety and I don’t know where I am,” she says. “I just feel very out of it . . . You want to run. You just want to get away.”

In clinical terms, the London woman is afflicted with a mood and anxiety disorder. More specifically, she’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder type 2, obsessive compulsive disorder and panic disorder.

It’s a brew of mental illnesses that would, you’d think, trap and submerge a promising young life.

Not this one.

“I will never lose to this illness,” she says in a tone of certainty.

As Francis forthrightly explains in her fast-paced style, it’s taken six years of therapy, medication and counselling — plus three periods of hospitalization — to get to where she is today — a confident and ambitious young woman finishing her final year of civil engineering studies at the University of Western Ontario.

It’s taken something else, too: A dog named Spirit.

Spirit is a four-year-old golden retriever. She’s also London’s first “mental health assistance dog.”

“She’s a gift,” says Francis. “And the bond we have goes way beyond words.”

You’ve likely encountered service dogs before — animals trained, for instance, to open doors for people in wheelchairs, or guide the blind, or interpret sounds for the deaf.

But Spirit is different.

Trained by a Hamilton-based organization called Encouraging Paws Service Dogs, Spirit has been taught to help Francis cope with her mental illness.

“She’s not the answer to my therapy,” says Francis. “She’s an addition to my therapy.”

If, for instance, Francis has a disorienting panic attack in a mall, she tells Spirit to “find the exit” and the dog pulls her to the nearest one.

If Francis starts to get distracted during a lecture, Spirit will nudge the woman with her head, a gesture that helps refocus her attention.

If Francis starts feeling the disorienting symptoms of a panic attack while on the street, Spirit will park herself beside the curb and refuse to let Francis cross a road until given the appropriate command.

If, as sometimes happens, Francis is in a deep sleep because of her various medications and doesn’t hear her morning alarm, Spirit jumps onto her bed and licks her face until she rises.

Francis recalls one night when she awoke with a massive panic attack. Spirit, who was sleeping in a room at the other end of the house, bounded into Francis’s room, jumped on her bed and calmed her down.

Although that’s not exactly how Francis describes it.

“She attacked me with love,” she says.

That may not be an official treatment for anxiety. But it sure seems to help.

Ian Gillespie is Free Press city columnist.

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