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Monday, August 10, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Ammi Midstokke: The dogs that heal us

Ammi Midstokke is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review writing about living off the grid. (The Spokesman-Review / SR)
Ammi Midstokke is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review writing about living off the grid. (The Spokesman-Review / SR)
By Ammi Midstokke For The Spokesman-Review

If you’ve seen me trotting along in the forest or meandering around the streets, you’ve probably also seen my dog (formally known as Freya the Brown Dog) by my side.

And if we’re out in public or a wilderness area, you’ll note she wears a Service Dog harness. It’s a contentious subject these days, what with frivolous use of the term, poor understanding of the law, and an inability to enforce the few regulations that are in place.

In Freya’s vest, she’ll carry some snacks, a wad of biodegradable poop bags, a water bowl and a bear bell. She also packs our trash out because she inevitably has more pocket space than I do. Her happy companionship and squirrel warnings are not what qualifies her. In her sleek, brown coat, gazing eyes and relentless tongue action, she keeps me sane. And that’s not an overstatement.

To qualify for a “Service Animal” (dog, pony or something more exotic), one must meet the kind of insanity criteria that gives you real estate in the Americans with Disabilities Act. While the intention of and rights established by this work of legislation are much appreciated, I’m pretty sure most of us would opt out of needing it in the first place. Disclosing that one has a Service Animal is thus an admittance of having a disability and this comes with many socio-cultural complications, judgments and invasions of our privacy.

My entire adult life, I thought my weird seizure things were a case of bad neurological wiring. Something I was born with. I did not correlate it to my history of abuse, trauma, addictions (mostly cookies and dysfunctional relationships, maybe sudoku), and at least one long night under a big rock. When the specialists suggested I might have some kind of legitimate mental health issue, I did what any avoidant human would do: minimized my history; laughed away the travesties that left me vulnerable, neglected and prey as a child; then ran a bunch of miles. Only healthy, emotionally resolute people do those kinds of things, so surely I did not really have the thing.

It occurred to me later that most long-distance runners probably have a thing that drives them to running and maybe it’s not so different from mine.

Ever the overachiever, I met and exceeded all the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis according to the DSM 5 catalogue of mental disorders. Honestly, if you’re shopping for one, this particular classification seems readily available and relatively harmless in comparison to some of the others. While current and growing research suggests that various therapies are potentially effective in the treatment of this disorder, for a long time the consensus has been that it’s a rather permanent situation. I believe brown dogs – or maybe some white ones – could be the cure, and there are several studies exploring just that.

“Is that a Service Dog?” the kid behind the latte counter asks me. She’s wearing her label, mostly because I want to be considerate of the other patrons. “Yes.” I say.

“What service does she provide?”

If the questions stopped here, I would be grateful. They seldom do. I’m all for awareness of mental health, but I’m not keen on identifying with PTSD before my morning coffee. Inevitably, someone in line hears me refer to Freya’s consistent ability to identify and interrupt what have previously been debilitating dissociative seizures.

The questions and answers continue: “You have epilepsy?” “No, PTSD.” “So she’s a therapy dog?” “Nope, service animal.” “So you are a veteran?” “No.”

I don’t fit the bill for the only seemingly honorable way to have acquired this particular label (I am sure this is no consolation to the afflicted first responders and veterans, either). And neither those heroes, nor other survivors of trauma, or anyone with a disability really wants to explain the validity of their condition in public. Or rehash the history of how they got there. Also, we’d like it to be easier to get life insurance, thank you.

I am beginning to suspect that dog owners have long understood the universal truths found in the strange, unconditional love of our furry friends. If it counted, I would say that my dog provides the service of allowing me to run for the joy of running. She has been a fundamental part of my redemption and the recovery of my health, as has moving into the mountains where nature’s potent medicine patiently works into my cells. She is a constant reminder that it is through connection to and compassion of others that we heal the wounds of life. And you don’t even need a diagnosis for that – just a dog.

Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at

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