What we can learn from our dogs

Pet canine creates opportunity for laughter and a path to rewire columnist's limbic system functions.

My dog Bella is the cutest dog ever— she is a little Shih Tzu-Bichon cross. Part teddy bear, part Ewok. She is an adorable furry four-legged soul with a very childlike and kind disposition— except for those times when the doorbell rings. Then she morphs into an over-excited psycho dog.

When Bella was a puppy, her favourite toy was Freddy the Frog.  Bella took Freddy everywhere with her and would often plop Freddy down at my feet wanting to play fetch. With a toy frog at my feet, Bella would look up at me with her tongue hanging out in an ear-to-ear smile and a look in her eyes that clearly stated; “Throw the frog…throw the frog!” To my dog, this was an awesome game and quite often the highlight of her day!

Fast forward now to 2007 when I was suffering from extreme environmental illness and had moved onto a broken down houseboat in order to merely survive. I was isolated and alone—except for my dog Bella.  Nightly I would phone my partner James for love and support during this difficult time.

As one can imagine, living in isolation with an illness that doctors could not diagnose or effectively treat was very disheartening, to say the least. Suffering from severe chemical and electrical sensitivities, fibromyalgia and situational depression consumed my life.  Without the ability to work or socialize, and feeling like I was slowly dying a tortuous death, illness was understandably front and center in my mind.

Even though I had once considered myself to be a very positive person, the injury to my limbic system caused the survival and threat mechanisms in my brain to become hyperactive.  As a result, it constantly felt like I was being poisoned by my environment or that I was continuously under attack.

Some of my senses had also morphed into super human powers to detect anything in my environment that could be a potential threat to my safety.  My sense of smell, taste and ability to detect electro-magnetic fields had heightened in order to protect me from danger.

As well, the associated maladapted stress response was causing breakdown of many of the systems of my body.  My thoughts and emotional patterns were concerned with one thing only—my survival.  Gone was the happy-go-lucky Annie that many had loved and cherished.  Instead, having a conversation with me would be enough to make anyone feel depressed.

Then on one particular cold and rainy evening, I was standing at a phone booth, placing my nightly call to my partner James and recounting the daily battles that I struggled with.

While I was recounting the challenges of my day, James suddenly interjected. What he said to me in that moment was both shocking and brilliant.  It took me with such unpredictability that I asked him to repeat what he had said.

As I stood in the chilly wet darkness of the night, this trusted voice from the other end of the phone repeated to me: “Throw the Frog! Throw the Frog!”

In that moment, I “got” what he was saying. Instantly I went from crying to laughing hysterically. In that moment I realized that I had the power to “change the channel” in my mind.  And for that brief interlude, I found relief in the laughter that had replaced the unrelenting survival loop that my brain and body were stuck in.

As it turns out, learning how to shift out of survival patterns and learning to “throw the frog” are just a part of the essential tools that we use to rewire limbic system function. However, when suffering from a limbic system impairment, this can seem like defying gravity itself and takes great understanding of brain function, immense dedication, persistence and patience.

Annie Hopper is a Limbic System Neuroplasticity Specialist.








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