I was raised by wolves. Never the princess, always the Dalmatian I was born obsessed with dogs.
I grew up with Jesse, a sophisticated yet neurotic Collie who taught me everything from the art of growling (it’s a warning, people) to compassion. He showed how to “be” without complexity and that an empty floor is all you need to comfort, protect, and love. His walk across the rainbow bridge when I was 17 closed the chapter on my childhood and launched me into a bigger world.
Freshly graduated from high school, I yearned for independence. Dreaming about the next four years, I envisioned a life in service, community, and naturally, with dogs. For two years of college in Tallahassee, I marveled at the unwavering freedom, friendships, and joy based on one bonding inevitability: opportunity. It was a limitless feeling that would not last long.
It was 9PM. The air was clear with hints of musk. I waved goodbye to friends and started walking home. Carefree, I’d be asleep in no time.
I had just one block to go before my path was intercepted. I felt a disorienting wave as two men approached. Flashing badges, they identified as security. I focused on being polite and worried about acting dismissive. They deemed the area unsafe due to criminal activity. Access in my direction was restricted, I’d require an escort home.
“Sir, may I ask why you are not in uniform?” His response was swift, smart even. “Undercover. I’m here to protect the streets you walk on.”
I was led off-route with crowds nearby; students laughing as they walked along. I took notice of a couple glowing under a streetlamp. My eyes squinted as they moved further out of sight. When I realized what was happening, every light went dim.
I was described by the State Attorney as “brutally beaten and assaulted by a stranger, resulting in severe damage to the face, body, and being.” Criminally defined as kidnapping, sexual battery, and armed robbery.
Lasting around 40 minutes, the assault was the beginning and end to forever. I pleaded for a way out but there wasn’t one. I wanted to fight, I needed someone to hear me scream. I was kicked, beaten, and held to the ground. Demanding silence, he whispered, “it will all be over soon.”
The other men watched me slip away, standing there as my dress was torn off. I entered a state known as “tonic immobility” or fear-induced paralysis. I saw flashes of my parents and my heart filled with dread over pain they’d endure. The unnecessary pain of losing their girl. I told them I loved them, and tears slid down. As I fell unconscious, I saw light, I saw black, and then finally, nothing.
Hospitalized, I woke the next morning fully distressed. My face unrecognizable and body unfamiliar, I was concussed from trauma to the head. Later that day, forensic evidence revealed two DNA profiles outside of mine. I recognized my darkest hour.
I worried less about wounds and more about life as I grieved my old self. My parents arrived to take me home, with little information of what occurred. Witnessing them receive the news rivaled enduring the event itself.
Fast forward two weeks, I became a regular at The Sarasota Women’s Center in my hometown. There, crises met counselors, doctors and experts. They called me the “girl in uniform” donning my cap, hoodie, and two black eyes.
By the 6-week mark, I started to consider lost affairs. I disappeared in the middle of the semester, so what about school? Does a future still exist for me? Is healing one size fits all?
There, between discussions of lawyers, trauma, and confidential hotlines my newly minted status was revealed to the room: ‘Victim of The State.’ After a momentary pause, I interrupted my counselor and said, “I’ve made my decision. I’m going back.”
It was as if the bruises to my face traveled to my soul, and my spirit said, “not today.” I refused to be defined by misfortune and opted out of victimhood. The truth is, I wanted normalcy when I felt powerless. I built my decision around “reclaiming self” and doing what I feared meant trying.
My choice to resurface was, not surprisingly, struck by challenge. Socially, I feared rejection or being reduced to ‘the girl who was raped’ like a Scarlet Letter. I imagined judgment, stigma, and shame from my peers. I separated from friends because I couldn’t speak the truth. I could never say, “Sorry to miss dinner, work, and class. Due to developing trauma, may I take a raincheck?”
Unintentionally, I concealed my story and internalized recovery. I couldn’t bear community when all I felt was shame. Withdrawal was a defense from acknowledgment and buried my life under false truths.
As reality outmatched my will, PTSD roared. I started to suffer from irrepressible crying, flashbacks, and nightmares. Lacking awareness or support, symptoms worsened. In a devastating transaction, I filed administrative clearance of all semesters. Sparking humiliation, I felt unfit for the world. When I crept into bed, I don’t recall a will to rise. Ladies and gentlemen, I present Rock Bottom.
Depression hit and I coped with isolation in bed. Turns out, shame is nothing next to hopelessness. With sorrow clouding my mind, I barely noticed triggers or hypervigilance. Six months without improvement, and staring down an insatiable tipping point, I broke.
In a period marked by darkness, I put failure on the tab. Dreams, gone. Identity, gone. Friends, future, hope. Gone. This wasn’t life and I wasn’t living.
What comes after assault, hospitalization, investigation, surgery, bruising, and bleeding? What’s after failure, trial, depression, anxiety, therapy, shame, fear, disassociation, hopelessness, and suffering, anyway? I may have survived, but for what? Something needed to change, but how?
That’s when a friend asked, “what about a dog?”
Novel, despite glaring flaws. Provide an animal what I’m denying myself? A dog requires love, training, and care. Inconceivable, but it took, and the search began.
20 shelter visits later, we met. An English Shepherd with inviting eyes and quite the vertical jump. His name was Max, and he was perfect. Looking back, I believe he found me first. Secretly wondering what in the hell I had gotten into, I noticed Max trembling on our way home. “Of course, he’s scared,” I thought. “His whole world is upside down.” It dawned. “You and me both, buddy. Let’s do the best we can.”
It didn’t take long to realize the value of my canine cohort. Until you put a price on purpose, you’ll never know its worth.
Max’s arrival had immediate impact on my well-being. I found myself rising with the sun, enthusiastically stringing laces together for walks. To some, it’s a simple act unworthy of measure. To me, it was the dawn of a new day.
Max was strong, intelligent, and bold. He tested me in ways I’d never seen. He enjoyed bolting through doors, eating off tables, and ignoring commands. Waiting to see if he’d be kept around, he was vying for leader of the pack.
If you want to question your level of self-respect, a 10-month old Shepherd is the way. “Step up, or step aside” was his message, and those early days would make or break us.
I accepted his challenge, and energy renewed. Someone needed me, and teaching commands became an important part of our bond. Each time I asserted my voice, a barrier fell within. I turned from numb to confident, as gentle yet effective communication broke emotional walls.
With Max, there was no judgment or expectation. I felt a love and radical acceptance unlike anything else. The states of apathy, withdrawal, and trauma I adopted had become less desirable. With each passing day, I sensed my soul’s return. When the recognition of safety came, it signaled long-awaited change.
One thing that persisted, however, was my dread of the night. I was paranoid and reactive, and locked doors twice to greet the dark with open eyes.
Max became the weapon I couldn’t sleep without. I recall the first time he sat at the foot of my bed. It was the first time I’d felt peace, or anything besides fear. Alert by nature, he carried a protective instinct with business drive. Upright and intentional, he seemed to check perimeters with dutiful ease. Granted permission to sleep, my road to transformation paved.
Despite outward progress, I continued to suffer physiological discord. Haunted by severe nightmares, I attached sleep to dismay. Enduring tears, panic, and sweat; my evening routine was a ticket to the horror show.
I’d wake up feeling imminent danger or experience the assault in another way. I couldn’t control the storm or when it might strike and didn’t have a say when spasms ran through my flesh. My body responded however it could for reality, ranging from shouting and shaking, to screams.
Despite the aforementioned, Max continued sleeping next to me with an all-access pass. He seemed unbothered, passively observing the waves. I was scared I’d push him away and didn’t blame him if he wanted peace.
Late one night, I felt a growing restlessness, trapped in a cycle of palpable flashbacks. I was tense and shouting, desperate for dawn. I shook, and Max sprang into action, catapulting his body to cover my chest. I was instantly calm, and this motion set me free. Five years later, I’d know this as “nightmare interruption” and “deep pressure therapy.” A task of trained service dogs.
His instincts brought improvement to my physical self, and emotional health followed. Prior to Max, PTSD defined my world as a dangerous place. Being out together fueled a desire for more. I wanted Max to experience the joy he deserved to the best of my ability.
Soon, the local park became our ritual. By grace, I unwittingly entered exposure therapy in primary form. With Max by my side, I had a passive barrier and felt secure from perceived threats. My ability to venture out publicly, engage with strangers, and integrate into society had been restored. Both of us felt it. It felt like living.
With focused training and help from my health professional, Max became a registered service dog in 2013. Since we met, I’ve learned “once in a lifetime” is real, and if you have it, you’ll know. It’s a love that’s raw and stable. It’s vulnerable, yet powerful to heal. It’s a bond that sees fear, shows love, and chooses love alongside that fear. It’s gentle but will force you awake if needed. It’s a reminder that you’re not alone. By letting me cry, scream, and be seen, Max has been my teacher and my heart. Through every tearful mishap, I’ve never felt doubted or less than worthy (besides the fight for pack leader, which I’m okay with.) He’s the safest love I’ve ever known.
Today, Max remains in service to my disorder. I still experience occasional nightmares, still require a barrier in certain settings, and still suffer anxiety born that fateful night. He has learned to cue and anticipate my needs, which grants my freedom to rise.
Beyond every crisis is time to heal and life to live. Our time encouraged a beautiful mess in spirituality, friendship, and love; my broken parts found peace. In 2018, I married, and Max’s Dog-Dad may be the only one to love him more - I couldn’t dream it if I tried.
Together, life with Max has been a ride. Fighting side by side in court, we placed a villain to rest. We’ve surfed Californian seas, wandered NYC, and danced barefoot on the beach. We finished school (twice) and vowed to change the world. Max gave me a version of myself that is stronger than I ever imagined. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, I am here because of him.
A dog took my world by storm and in doing so, showed it can be done. There’s not a single day I don’t look at him with heightened wonder. How did you get here? Do you know that you saved me? Hey Max, guess what? We did it. You and me, we’re dreamers now. But you already know that, don’t you?
It has always been my intention to share my story and help others. If a dog saved me in ways I did not understand, how many others could benefit? How many people healing from trauma, with the help of animal interventions, might dare to live?
From shelter to service, Max’s legacy will live through generations. Because of him, I will walk this life with gratitude for even the darkest chapter. It is his gift to me, and without it, I may have missed the light.
So, “what about a dog?” It’s simple, really. It’s why this story is not about despair. My story is resilience, and a dog named Max.
Caitlin Jones was the victim of sexual assault her sophomore year of college. 3 years later, her testimony led to the conviction and sentencing of her attacker, a repeat offender against women.
Today, she is married with a career in health technology. Caitlin is a member of the National League for Nursing and American College of Healthcare Executives. She is active in Atlanta’s wellness community where she resides.
Caitlin founded a charitable organization for dogs and has been a featured speaker on animal welfare. She was awarded “Young Professional of The Year” by Sarasota Women’s Center in 2014. Gaining 2 degrees in Nursing and Public Health, she used her experience to drive education by studying animal therapy and service dogs.
She is partner to her psychiatric service dog, Max — by sharing her story, Caitlin hopes to inspire and raise awareness for animal healing.
“Max loved me when I was weak and taught me to be strong. I’m honored to share our story, and I look forward to yours.”
In pursuit of passion, storytelling, and DOGS,