Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How a Service Dog Helped With Anxiety and Depression

A Personal Perspective: Michelle and Rumba’s story.

Source: Courtesy of Michelle Kephart
Source: Courtesy of Michelle Kephart

Dogs can be a great addition to families. But, in the following case, Rumba the dog not only was a great addition to Michelle’s family but also found a creative way to get Michelle out of anxiety and depression and taught her how to have fun again.

In my previous post, I describe how Michelle Kephart became quadriplegic at the age of 25 after falling from a tree. Yet, she still managed to become a nurse and marry a wonderful man.

But life as a full-time quadriplegic working nurse was not easy. Michelle had caregivers helping her two hours in the morning and one hour at night, but the rest of the time, she was alone. Michelle’s husband was also working full time and was only home at odd hours.

Because Michelle’s neck was broken at the fifth cervical vertebrae level, she had no movement below her waist; her legs were completely paralyzed and so were part of her upper extremities. She could move her shoulders and biceps but not her triceps, wrists, or hands.

Source: Courtesy of Michelle Kephart
Quadriplegic Michelle and Rumba.
Source: Courtesy of Michelle Kephart

In her house by herself, being in a wheelchair, Michelle would often drop her cell phone, pens, or pencils on the floor without being able to pick them up. She also couldn’t open the front or back door of the house or the refrigerator door to grab food.

Because Michelle needed to work as a diabetes educator in several different places, all within walking distance, she went to those places with her wheelchair but often dropped her purse or cell phone on the ground between places, sometimes having to wait 30 to 45 minutes before finding somebody who could help her pick her purse or cell phone up. And what about pushing buttons to activate a crosswalk? Michelle couldn’t reach to press those buttons. For a 30-minute trip, she had to allow for two hours just in case something went wrong.

Michelle became increasingly anxious and depressed, going out less and less, being more and more afraid of leaving her house by herself because so many things could go wrong.

That’s when Rumba the dog came into her life and turned everything around.

Source: Courtesy of Michelle Kephart
Rumba pushed crosswalk buttons for Michelle.
Source: Courtesy of Michelle Kephart

Michelle had learned about service dogs when she was in the spinal cord unit in Denver, and after one year of being quadriplegic, she applied for a service dog and got Canine Companion service dog Rumba who had been trained for two years (since being a two-month-old puppy) and could understand and obey 40 commands.

As soon as Rumba met Michelle, it was love at first sight, and Rumba immediately became Michelle’s best friend, always ready to help.

Michelle's anxiety and depression immediately decreased. Michelle was not alone anymore, and her best friend always knew how to help her. Rumba was able to open the front and back door for Michelle when she needed to go outside. Rumba was also able to open the refrigerator door, grab the food that Michelle needed, and bring it to her.

Whenever Michelle dropped her pen, pencil, cell phone, purse, or any other item, Rumba grabbed it with her mouth, then put her two front paws up on the side arm of Michelle's wheelchair and dropped the item on Michelle’s lap.

At road intersections, Rumba pushed crosswalk buttons for Michelle.

Source: Courtesy of Michelle Kephart
Rumba picking up Michelle's purse after it fell on the ground.
Source: Courtesy of Michelle Kephart

What’s more is that Rumba taught Michelle how to laugh and have fun again with her paralyzed body. Rumba loved to go to the park and play fetch in the grass, but her favorite thing was to run through the mud in a creek nearby. She’d run and run and rolled endlessly in the mud making Michelle laugh from the bottom of her belly. Of course, at night, it was Michelle’s husband’s task to clean up Rumba.

Michelle’s mind tended to go 100 miles an hour but, with Rumba by her side, Michelle was able to slow down, smile, and enjoy the moment. There is a video showing how Rumba changed Michelle's life.

How are Michelle and Rumba now?

Unfortunately, at 11 years old, Rumba got diagnosed with a tumor in her belly and passed away last October. At first, Michelle didn’t want to replace Rumba, but she felt herself becoming increasingly anxious and depressed again and going out less and less, afraid to get stuck on the road with no help.

Source: Courtesy of Dan Flynn
Source: Courtesy of Dan Flynn

Michelle decided to apply for another service dog. On February 10, 2023, Michelle adopted Canine Companion service dog Earlene, a 2-year-old female yellow lab–golden retriever cross who just graduated from service dog training. My husband and I were at that dog graduation event, and that’s when we met Earlene, Michelle, and her husband for the first time.

Now Earlene is the one helping Michelle during the day. Earlene has a different personality than Rumba and is teaching Michelle how to interact with her. Earlene is very sensitive, sweet, and affectionate; loves hugs; and likes to help, so Michelle’s anxiety and depression are now at their lowest.

So, if you or a loved one have anxiety, depression, and/or a disability, consider asking for a dog’s help.

More from Chris Gilbert, M.D., Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today