Junior Rickie M. decided it was time to take Sasha, his five-year-old Husky, outside. He rigged up her longest leash to a pine, stretched out a blanket and unloaded his bag of art supplies. Sasha flopped on the cool grass beside him, tongue lolling in the warm breeze.
Before Sasha, Rickie didn’t spend much time outside — at least not alone.
Until last year, he could barely leave his dorm by himself. Simple tasks like taking a solo trip to the grocery store would trigger panic attacks.
“It was hell,” Rickie said.
Rickie has suffered from anxiety and depression for as long as he can remember. He developed PTSD in high school, he said, after being sexually assaulted and first attempted suicide at 14, following the assault. When he attempted suicide again during his freshman year at Knox, he knew the stakes.
Therapy and medication weren’t enough. Rickie read about psychiatric service dogs online and decided he needed to give it a shot.
Emotional support animals, which provide companionship and lessen anxiety or depression for many people, are becoming more common at Knox and across the country. But Sasha isn’t an emotional support animal: She’s a trained service dog, meaning she performs tasks that directly address Rickie’s disabilities. And unlike most service dog owners, Rickie trained Sasha himself.
If Sasha senses a rise in blood pressure or change in breathing, she will lead him away from crowds to calm him down. If someone approaches him from behind, she’ll alert him with a guttural howl. If he’s dissociating in class, she’ll lick his hand to bring him back to reality. And if he can’t sleep, she’ll sit up with him all night long.
But none of this happened overnight.
Pre-trained service dogs don’t come cheap. Rickie’s initial research turned up a figure that far outpaced the college student’s budget: $20,000. Undeterred, he began scouring the Internet, learning how he could train a dog to treat his mental disabilities and looking up shelters.
It also took Rickie several months to gain permission for an emotional support animal in order to keep a dog on campus during the training period.
That process led him to Learning Specialist Stephanie Grimes, who arranges accommodations for Knox students with documented physical or psychological disabilities that impact their academic and personal life in substantial ways.
Grimes said they discussed Rickie’s needs as well as the logistics involved with bringing a dog on campus: Ensuring that the animal would be well behaved, receive all the necessary shots and not inconvenience any suitemates.
Despite the time it took to receive clearance from the school and the eight months Rickie would spend training Sasha, he knew then that it was worth it. A big dog would bring him a sense of safety and a reason to get out of bed in the morning — whether or not she could master service skills.
Freshman year had been a daily struggle for Rickie. His PTSD had worsened, making going out alone in public a terrifying experience. The summer before college, Rickie explained, he was sexually assaulted on a cruise ship. He felt afraid everywhere he went, thinking that if it could happen twice, it could happen again at Knox. He started cutting.
“I need something or I’m not going to survive college,” he remembers thinking at the time, unsure whether he wanted to live or die. “I was so lost,” he said.
When he picked up Sasha from the shelter in Champaign, he cried out of excitement. He had seen her photo online days before and knew instantly she was the one.
“I’m here for the husky,” Rickie announced to the shelter attendant, handing over the $250 he’d saved up.
They started with the basics: obedience and manners. Rickie recalls with pride the day Sasha mastered a crucial skill: leaving food alone. He set a steak on his kitchen floor, told Sasha to leave it and walked out of the room. When he returned to find the steak untouched, he cut it up and gave it to her. It was a reward well earned after the month they’d spent practicing with treats.
Sasha’s service training followed a similar pattern. Rickie trained her to lead him away from crowds by pretending to hyperventilate in public areas, pulling the husky’s harness towards a secluded space, then giving her treats and belly rubs. After a few months, Rickie said, Sasha was able to perform the task on her own. And whenever Rickie felt a panic attack coming on, he would press Sasha’s paws to his stomach, then reward her, teaching her how to calm him down.
But Sasha also began performing tasks her owner never trained her to do.
If Rickie refuses to eat, Sasha won’t take a bite of her own food — to the surprise of some of his friends. He said it’s helping him recover from years of anorexia. And if he’s not feeling well, Sasha will stand guard outside the bathroom door, according to one of Rickie’s housemates, junior Celina Pedit.
Sometimes she does more than stand guard.
One day last summer, Rickie, intent on cutting, locked himself in the bathroom. He had just come out to his family as transgender and gender fluid and wanted Sasha to go away, leaving him to relapse under the pressure. But Sasha ran and fetched his mom, he said, barking and refusing to leave her alone until she managed to open the door.
“Help’s really not optional. Whether I want it or not, I’m going to get it,” said Rickie.
Pedit feels at ease with Sasha at her housemate’s side.
“I know that they’re making progress in the right direction and I know Sasha has helped with that,” she said.
Junior Thalia Reinoso, who lived with Rickie freshman and sophomore year, sees a dramatic change in her friend. Gone are the days when Rickie wouldn’t go anywhere unless Reinoso or another suitemate accompanied him.
“Now, [Rickie’s] so independent,” Reinoso said. The two still hang out regularly.
Rickie is also surprised by how much Sasha has changed him. Feeling comfortable when he goes out with her emboldens him to make trips on his own.
“I think she’s almost trained me on how not to be afraid,” he said.
Currently an intern at Safe Harbor, Galesburg’s domestic violence shelter, the neuroscience-psychology double major has his sights set on graduate school, followed by a career in therapy or social work. He wants to share what he’s learned from his own struggles.
“Mental health advocacy is a big thing for me: helping people understand there’s nothing wrong with you, this is okay,” said Rickie.
Sometimes, Rickie said, people don’t understand the role Sasha plays in his life. Shopkeepers and airline attendants have even attempted to deny him service. And passersby will often touch Sasha without asking or mistake her for a pet, despite the vest she often wears when working.
“It’s frustrating,” Rickie said. “She’s not a pet, she’s my lifeline. It’s like somebody took everything my disorders took away from me and put them in a dog.”
There are still bad days. On Flunk Day last year, Rickie again considered taking his life. But he looked at Sasha, who started licking his face, and realized he couldn’t abandon her.
“I wouldn’t be getting my degree if it wasn’t for her. I wouldn’t have turned 21 if it wasn’t for her,” he said.
When Rickie thinks about graduation next year, he pictures Sasha striding across the stage at his side.