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Working Dogs

Waffle the Working Dog: A Tale of Triumph

Ruffwear Ambassador Kate Speer is a mental health advocate, writer, and the teammate of her two service dogs, Doctor Waffle and Tugboat. Together, an enthusiastic team of three, they fight to de-stigmatize serious mental illness and normalize the messy magic of healing out loud in the great outdoors.

*Scroll to bottom of page to read disclaimer

I remember the moment my doctor told me that I would only survive in a locked psychiatric ward like it was yesterday. I was sitting at the head of the table in the care team’s narrow office. Crowded in front of me were three doctors, three nurses, and two therapists, most of whom had spent the last ten years fighting to help me manage my suicidality, extreme mood lability, and intermittent psychosis. They had tried every evidence-based treatment psychology and psychiatry had invented as they supported me in my fight to navigate serious mental illness and 21 inpatient stays. But that day, as the doctor uttered those words – Kate, this is the end of the road. Your illness is too severe to live freely – they gave up on me and didn’t even have the decency to look me in the eyes as they did so.

I think about it often — how I was treated more like a specimen than a human being that day, and as much as I hold space for their very human shame, sorrow, and anger at the severity of my illness, I still keep suffering from it. I still keep aching to be seen in my capacity, however different. Perhaps it's no surprise then, that after that meeting, after the plans for residential locked inpatient care were shared, I refused to listen to them and I set out to prove their belief entirely wrong with the help and companionship of a dog.

Back then, being ten years ago before social media normalized mental health and service teams, I never set out to have a service dog. I merely set out to survive my illness and the system that had failed me and to have a companion in my invisible madness. Of course, that sounds like a line from a movie but I promise you – it really isn’t one. Ten years ago, so disabled by intermittent psychosis and PTSD so severe it induced chronic incontinence, all I wanted was to maintain my ability to live outside a hospital.

So, motivated to try anything I could to maintain my independence, my partner Dave brought home an adorable Bernese Mountain Dog puppy to keep me company in my fight. She joined us on Valentine’s Day in the middle of a blizzard and we named her Waffle Ellis Lutz.

Waffle the working dog.

Now, I won’t pretend that getting her didn’t create a total mess at first. Puppies are hard – so very hard. But amidst the chewed drywall, my little sister and parents stepping in for sleep duty, and my care team increasing my medications, the most amazing thing happened. Waffle started to hurl herself upon me and comfort me whenever I had panic attacks or severe anxiety from my hallucinations. When this cute puppy who chewed drywall, howled all night, and could barely sit on command started hurling herself upon me into a deep pressure therapy position when my body dysregulated from the hallucinations, it seemed more like absolute happenstance. But after two weeks of these “fluff bombs” as I named them kept happening, I knew this wasn’t just a mere coincidence. I knew it was something special – something I had been searching for since I first experienced the depths of terror and paranoia psychosis induced a decade earlier – someone I could trust to be there with me and support me in my terror and madness.

“When this cute puppy who chewed drywall, howled all night, and could barely sit on command started hurling herself upon me into a deep pressure therapy position when my body dysregulated from the hallucinations…“fluff bombs” as I named them… I knew this wasn’t just a mere coincidence.”

When I proudly shared with Dave that Waffle was going to solve “all of my problems” by supporting me in my symptoms, he kindly pet me on the head like the goofy puppy I embodied, sweetly placating my dire belief that this adorable monster of ours was the solution to the serious mental illness that had almost landed me in a locked ward for life. But his kind dismissal did not dissuade me. I had already been told I was doomed for psychiatric confinement and worked my way out of that one, so I set out to prove him wrong too and cement the “fluff bombs” and snuggles into actual reassurance which I could trust.

Back then, so disabled I was only working four hours a week, I had ample time to devote to training Waffle. So like the nerd I am, I researched everything I could find about the human body in times of stress, dogs’ olfactory capacity, disability rights, Temple Grandin’s deep pressure technique, and how narcotics dogs and hunting dogs were scent-trained. I learned about elevated cortisol and how humans emit it in their sweat during times of stress. I learned that dogs have 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses compared to about six million in us, and that deep pressure therapy has been proven to reduce the stress response in mammals. I also learned about how narcotics dogs were trained with two samples – one target scent of the drug and another scent that served as the control and devised a comparable version for my own circumstance.

Pulling together what I’d learned and the limited “mark and reward” lessons I had picked up in Waffle’s puppy obedience class, I set out to teach Waffle how to smell, alert me, and lie upon me in deep pressure therapy whenever I had a panic attack and fear response due to my hallucinations. To do this, I used a panic attack sweat-soaked t-shirt in a Ziploc bag as the fear scent sample and a workout t-shirt for the control scent sample and rewarded her for giving me a paw when she correctly alerted for the fear scent. If she also lay upon me after the alert, she was then rewarded a second time. I lovingly named the whole thing ‘the bacon protocol’ in honor of the ten pounds of bacon I had bought at a local farmstand. We spent the next few months practicing it daily.

Waffle and Tugboat wearing their service dog vests.

Waffle loved it! Not only was she a big fan of the bacon reward, but she thought the entire thing was the best game she had ever played. Within a week, she could tell the difference between the two scents and paw accordingly. And after we practiced every day for a month, she would come running from anywhere in our cabin to alert me and offer deep pressure therapy when I had a panic attack or fear response upon seeing hallucinations.

Once Waffle had mastered paw alerts and comforting snuggles in the house, I started training Waffle outside. After another month of training, Waffle would come running any time I had a panic attack or opened the heightened cortisol bag in the woods to alert me, no reward needed. I remember the joy of those early adventure alerts vividly – the beaming pride on Waffle’s face and the astounded glee I felt at the absolute miracle of this dog’s skill.

“I remember the joy of those early adventure alerts vividly – the beaming pride on Waffle’s face and the astounded glee I felt at the absolute miracle of this dog’s skill.”

The feeling of astonishment only grew from there. With every paw and deep pressure therapy snuggle Waffle gave, I trusted her more and more. And day by day, with her by my side, I began to trust our partnership enough to venture out into the world beyond our cabin and short walking trail. Over the course of the next year, I public access trained Waffle, and thereafter, I trained her in additional tasks too – blocking, night terror interruption, alerting for visitors, grounding assistance, and more. We spent more than fifteen hundred hours training together and every single second was worth it because with her newfound skills and our partnership, my life completely transformed.

Waffle and Tugboat enjoying the outdoors.

Over the years, Waffle has gotten me off of disability and taken me all over the country – to New York to run a start-up, to the altar to marry my husband, to Boston to teach at Harvard, and to countless adventures worldwide with friends and family that I had once lost to my illness. But more than that – more than any achievement society might deem impressive, the most amazing thing Waffle did was give me back my humanity. Yes, a dog – my dog – my beloved service dog gave me back my humanity because she lives the truth we all should learn to know and live: She looks my pain in the eye and says, I see it. It matters. I am here with you and I will stay and fight until we make it better together.

And though such an act will never be a service dog task or make the headlines in the New York Times, today, let it be enough and let it serve you so others like me no longer sit invisible and alone in their hidden fight.

Kate, Waffle, and Tugboat posing together.

*Disclaimer: This article discusses mental health struggles and suicidal ideation. If you or someone you know is struggling, please know that help is available. Here are some resources:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (US): 988
  • Crisis Text Line (US): Text HOME to 741741