Best friend. Therapist. Life saver. My life with Marley the dog
By the age of 17, Rene van der Watt was a promising cyclist for the Northern Free State team. But her prospects of a sporting career came to a halt when she was hit by two cars while training. Van der Watt lost her left leg, and became completely dependent on a wheelchair and crutches. “Being an active teenager to being totally disabled was difficult,” Van der Watt says. The accident didn’t just affect her physically – her mental health also deteriorated. Consumed by a severe anxiety, she couldn’t even leave the house. As Van der Watt sunk into a state of depression, her psychologist suggested an unexpected remedy.
Enter Marley, a bounding golden retriever who is as eager to please as she is to chew on a bone. “The bond was instant,” Van der Watt says. Marley, her assistance dog, can detect Van der Watt’s emotions and alleviate her anxiety in public. She can even pick up something if Van der Watt drops it. But Marley does more than just support her daily activities – she has become Van der Watt’s lifeline. “I never thought that a dog would be able to save my life,” she says. “Marley is my best friend.”
Now, Van der Watt is sharing that help and comfort with others as a volunteer at Paws for People. The NPO trains canines as therapy dogs for people facing physical or mental health challenges. Van der Watt takes the dogs to visit hospitals, schools, and retirement homes. “People can consider getting a psychiatric assistance dog for extra help,” Van der Watt says. She knows firsthand what it’s like to have a loyal companion by her side to brighten her life and lighten her burdens. “Every day I feel stronger,” Van der Watt says. “Facing my mental health illness with Marley doesn’t seem so scary.” Unconditional love can go a long way.