Author Nina D. Campbell has previously written for HerCanberra about finding her dream career later…
In our Summer Love series, Ginger Gorman explores different kinds of heart-warming Canberra relationships.
There are three folk on the zoom call with me—although one of them can’t talk. He’s a 20-month-old fluffy toy cavoodle with black spots and one black ear. Fittingly, his name is “Patch.”
Although he’s not able to chat, he does continually play ball with the apple of his eye—14-year-old Abbey. Patch is no ordinary dog. He’s an assistance dog in-training.
“It’s just his personality that helps,” Abbey explains with a huge grin on her face, “He just goes around smiling at everything. He just loves life. He’s just such a role model for me. He’s improved my life.
“He just knows if I’m sad. He can just tell, and he will come back sit with me. And he’ll just like, lick me. He come and cuddle next to me. We pretty much are inseparable,” Abbey says.
(The third person on the call is 45-year-old Sarah, Abbey’s mum. But as agreed, she’s mainly there to support her daughter—so she elects to mostly stay quiet.)
When Abbey started high school a year ago, life was hell. She struggled to get to class at all. She missed handing in assignments, and often she’d have panic attacks and just cry.
“I could never find motivation for anything. During classes, it was just so hard to concentrate,” 14-year-old Abbey recalls. “I would like end up leaving almost all my lessons.”
“It’s mainly [a feeling] in my head and my tummy. Like, ‘I just can’t do this today’.”
Abbey has suffered from anxiety since she was a young child. For her, things were made worse because some of her primary school teachers didn’t know how to support her. But the de-personalised environment of high school put even more pressure on her mental health.
She found each teacher had so many students, they were unable to offer her sufficient individual assistance to help her remain calm. And although Abbey had some mates, many of her cohort were cliquey.
Even with medication and regular visits with a mental health social worker, Abbey found it increasingly difficult to go to school and stay there. At the end of 2019, her social worker suggested that Abbey and her family—she also lives with her Dad, Paul, and younger sister, Lucy—might want to consider getting a psychiatric assistance dog.
“I like love animals and I want to run a farm when I’m older. So, I spent like days and days researching about all different breeds,” she says, lighting up.
Through a former neighbour, Abbey heard about Waratah Puppies—a breeder that specialises in breeding puppies for people with additional needs, including children on the Autism Spectrum with physical disabilities or people living with anxiety, depression and PTSD.
And this is how Patch came into her life.
“He just brightens my day because I look at him sitting there like with this little funny face, like making silly faces at me, and I just laugh. He’s just amazing,” Abbey says, adding: “Everything he does, shows that he loves me.”
“He wants to be with you,” Sarah says softly and directly to her daughter. Abbey agrees.
“He follows me around the house everywhere, even if I go to the bathroom he’ll sit outside.” Abbey walks him every day, plays ball with him constantly and loves it when strangers stop to pat and admire him.
When I ask Sarah why this is a love story, her words make all of us (except maybe Patch!) cry: “We have this level of gratefulness and gratitude towards him because of what he does for Abbey. And, you know I’m indebted to him and love him for what he does for her.”
For her final term of Year 8, Abbey started learning with Finigan School of Distance Education. And it further changed her life for the better.
Abbey’s whole face beams when she talks about distance education: “I love it. I just don’t have the stress of everything, and I haven’t had any anxiety for ages. All my teachers are giving me amazing feedback. And I’ve got really good grades.”
At this point, Sarah chimes in: “The other nice part about the distance education is that she’s with Patch all day. And so, their bond has strengthened in the last term because they’ve been together all the time.
“Since she started distance education, she’s had no anxiety at all and it’s because she doesn’t have to be in the environment that she finds really stressful.”
When I ask Sarah what difference she’s seen in Abbey’s behaviour since she started distance education and Patch came into their lives, she says: “She’s much nicer!” and they both laugh.
“I used to be so rude to everyone,” Abbey reflects, “I used to be so mean to everyone at home.”
“She’s so much happier and more relaxed,” Sarah continues and goes on to explain that when Abbey is extremely anxious “…the amount of stress you’re under when you’re feeling like that [is extreme].”
Sarah says that when Abbey was a little girl, she’d sometimes have to spend two of three hours helping Abbey get to sleep at night. But since Patch has been with Abbey, the pair go to sleep together—and immediately.
“It’s a level above what other people have with their dog because he’s more than a pet,” Sarah reflects.
Outside of her learning, Abbey continues to participate in swimming and netball and she still hangs out with her best friend, and chats with her every day online.
Eventually, Abbey and her family are hoping that Patch will pass his official accreditation as a so-called “mind dog” – an animal that’s trained to provide psychiatric assistance. He has to do a formal obedience test, be confident and reliable in public spaces and assist Abbey with at least three tasks. And then, Abbey hopes to return to mainstream school for years 10, 11 and 12 with him alongside her.
Photography: Emma Grey