Anxious dog teaches Afghanistan war veteran to accept herself

Anxious dog teaches Afghanistan war veteran to accept herself

Kirsten has long struggled with anxiety. So it was a welcome surprise when she rescued an anxious dog who taught her the most important life lesson of all: love thyself.

Ears in the sky

In 2006 Kirsten enlisted in the Air Force and served as an airborne Chinese cryptologic linguist. These professionals are tasked with translating messages obtained or intercepted during flight, an essential skill for crew and mission safety.

The Air Force veteran performed intelligence work as part of Project Liberty on the MC-12 surveillance aircraft, as well.

At times Kirsten’s work was perilous, especially when she was on assignment to one of the most volatile war zones in the world.

“I deployed twice to Afghanistan and logged over 1,000 flight hours there.”

Anxious dog teaches Afghanistan war veteran to accept herself

However, the training that prepared Kirsten for such dangerous assignments was a world apart – literally. She remembers fondly her time in language school in Monterey, California.

“What a dream!” she exclaims. “Sandy beaches, riding bikes to Pebble Beach, so much clam chowder. And learning Chinese was so fun. My teachers were fun and quirky and pushed us hard to succeed.”

The Air Force veteran admits that she may have been tempted to serve another tour of duty if she could return to Monterey.

“I would have really thought hard about re-enlisting,” she says, “if they had offered to send me back there for a refresher course!”

Shut down

Life is much quieter for Kirsten and her partner now that she is separated from service. However, the impacts of COVID-19 hit her hard. They were compounded by moving to a city where the couple had no friends or family.

“I work remotely in Walla Walla, Washington as a web developer for a nonprofit. My partner and I moved here for her job with the forest service,” she says. “We moved here in May 2020 – just as COVID was really kicking off. We didn’t know anyone when we moved here and it was tough meeting people with society mostly shut down.”

Kirsten could have dealt with the anxiety of her situation in many ways. Thankfully she chose a positive outlet for the inner stresses she was experiencing.

“My partner and I both always wanted a pet to dote on,” she shares. “We wanted to nurture and care for something, and we definitely wanted to adopt through a shelter. There are too many animals in need out there to go through a breeder!”

Millions of animals enter shelters each year and too many do not make it out alive. Others languish for months – even years – waiting for a home. It is why we champion only dogs and cats who are in shelters, rescues, and municipal animal controls.

Excited about the prospect of adopting a companion pet, Kirsten turned to the internet to begin her search. It was there that she found out about us and how our program works.

“I appreciated Pets for Patriots’ policies helping get the more ‘difficult’ animals adopted,” she says, referring to our focus on more overlooked pets. “I knew I wanted an older dog since they are usually more mellow, so it was a perfect fit.”

Penny for your thoughts

In late August 2020 Kirsten applied to and was promptly accepted into our program. Just a week later she met her match: a five year-old, mixed breed, anxious dog named Fiona.

At the time Fiona was in the care of our partners Blue Mountain Humane Society.

Since 2015 the shelter has extended half-priced fees to our veterans who adopt eligible dogs and cats – and an additional 10 percent off dogs who are six years and older.

Kirsten is delighted to have adopted Fiona – promptly renamed Penny – through our nationwide nonprofit.

“We would have adopted a dog either way,” she says, “but having a support system through the adoption process was great.”

Being well

It did not take long for Kirsten to realize the benefits of adopting a companion pet. In an instant the Afghanistan war veteran became more physically active which, in turn, did wonders for her emotional health as well.

Anxious dog teaches Afghanistan war veteran to accept herself

“Adopting Penny has been extremely beneficial for me,” she says. “She loves her walks – if she could alternate all day between going for walks and napping, she would – so I take her out for walks three times per day. Since I sit at a computer all day for work this is really great for both of us.”

Between moving to a new place and working from home Kirsten had become shut down. That has all changed.

“Before I adopted her I was lucky if I got outside once a day. It’s great for my mental and physical well being to get some sunshine and move.”

The Air Force veteran is not the only one to benefit from adoption. Penny has embraced her humans’ love of the outdoor lifestyle. Together they go camping, to the local brewery, and even out for breakfast.

“We can also dress her up in fun sweaters when it’s cold out,” Kirsten shares. “She’s so cute!”

Anxious dog goes to town

One of the many upsides of having a companion pet is that they help people create new social connections.

Despite being an anxious dog, Penny has made it possible for Kirsten and her partner to become more connected to their new community.

“Penny has also helped us make friends in our new town!” Kirsten exclaims. “We learned that there’s a Corgi play date once or twice a week here, which we attend every weekend when we’re not out of town. Most of the time there’s about six or eight Corgis running around, but sometimes there’s over a dozen.”

Other members of the group have embraced Penny even though she is not a full-breed Corgi.

“Even with COVID and a lot of events still shut down we can still socialize with the other owners and watch all the dogs run around,” Kirsten explains. “Penny doesn’t do much running, but it’s still great socialization for her!”

“…she fits right into this family”

Penny’s personality has emerged now that she and her people have been family for a while. She is equally joyful and cerebral, and despite her anxiety she likes to explore the world around her.

Anxious dog teaches Afghanistan war veteran to accept herself

“Penny is a thinker,” Kirsten declares. “She likes to smell all the things on our walks. She doesn’t really play with toys or know how to ‘dog’ very well, but that makes it all the more special when she gets really excited about something.”

Still, Penny sometimes lets her fears get the best of her. When she sees Kirsten packing for a family camping trip she becomes stressed at the prospect of being left behind. It is only when Kirsten leashes up Penny that the anxious dog calms down.

Living with a dog who has separation anxiety and other fears can be a challenge. But Kirsten would not have it any other way.

The Afghanistan war veteran is quick to point out the many things she adores about her four-legged therapist and family member.

“I love a lot of things about Penny,” she says. “She has a very expressive face and intelligent eyes. Her tail swishes happily side to side when we go on a hike together. She will lay in the dirt right next to her bed, instead of on her bed. She picks up sticks on our walks and dashes off with her prize. She’s aloof and weird, and she fits right into this family.”

Healing at both ends of the leash

It is often said that people adopt pets who reflect their own challenges in life. This appears to be the case with Kirsten and her four-legged charge. Both cope with anxiety and its impacts.

However, the Air Force veteran sees the experience of caring for her dog as a life lesson.

“Penny has some anxiety, which is awfully familiar for both my partner and me,” she shares. “But helping Penny through her anxiety actually encourages me to look at my own anxiety less critically.”

Kirsten’s newfound ability to step back and see her stress with a new perspective has been liberating. The Air Force veteran is learning how to accept herself. She credits Penny with getting her to this realization.

“We don’t love Penny any less when she feels anxious, so why should I be so hard on myself?”

1 Comment

  1. Gary Gonzalez

    This is awesome… Props to you, Kirsten- for having the courage and intuitive fortitude to *open* up to LOVE, *open* up to GOD, *open* up to Penny : ) I mention *courage* here because sometimes opening up to healing could actually be very scary & frightening for some… Animals (pets) make the process a lot less intimidating and thus, more reachable & attainable…

    Much Love & Health to Both of You!!

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