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How My Service Dog Changed My Life

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When my disability due to MS progressed to the point where I needed to use a wheelchair most of the time, a friend suggested I should think about getting a service dog to help me. I really had very little idea about how to go about finding a service dog, and so I did what everyone does these days: I started researching online. As I found out about all the different kinds of service dogs that are available, NEADS would come up often in my searches. As a most-of-the-time wheelchair user, the tasks that NEADS dogs are trained to perform seemed most suited to my needs. And I appreciated the high standards to which NEADS dogs were obviously trained. It was a bonus that they were only an hour down the road from my home in Massachusetts.

As I went through the steps to become a NEADS client, first an online form, then a telephone discussion with their client manager Katy, and finally an in-person interview, it became clear that NEADS is very thorough in their matching process. During the 3-hour long in-person interview, Katy asked me about every facet of my life, from a typical day, to travel, family, activities we do regularly, like e.g. going to the movies or the theater, riding the subway… I also got to work with one of the dogs they had on campus that day so Katy could see how I interacted. The interview ended with a meeting with their client fundraising co-ordinator to get me started on my fundraising efforts: NEADS asks that each client raise $8000 within two years of being accepted into the program — a daunting prospect, but ultimately humbling and incredibly rewarding.

About eight months later, in September 2019, I got the call from Katy that I had my match — 19-month-old black lab called Charlie. I would be going to the NEADS campus at the end of October for my training. I’ll admit I was quite apprehensive about going to the campus and staying there for two weeks. I am quite a homebody usually, so two weeks away from home in a strange place filled me with quite some dread. Little did I know they would become two of the most incredible weeks of my life.

I was at the client house with three others who were newly matched with service dogs. We spent the first morning “in class,” learning about caring for our dogs and filling out paperwork, and then after lunch we finally all met our dogs for the first time — a truly special moment. Over the next two weeks, as we all got to know our dogs and each other, it became clear how perfectly matched each dog was to our situations and families. Each of the dogs had a distinct personality. My dog Charlie is very serious about his work, and when his vest and Gentle Leader are on he is absolutely immaculately behaved, as you would expect of a NEADS dog. But during his free time, he turns into the biggest goofball, energetic and playful and funny. He gets along so well with my two teenage sons and loves to run and be silly with them.

During training we spent time in the training room, learning first the obedience commands and then the various tasks our dogs were trained to do for their partners, as well as how to care for our dogs. We had field trips to a grocery store and the mall to practice our public access skills. But there was also plenty of time each day for us to bond with our dogs, whether it was playing get-it in the training room or beautiful outdoor space, or snuggling up in bed in the evening.

One of the final mornings was spent visiting the prison where Charlie was trained. He had spent 15 months living with and learning from specially selected inmate handlers, under the guidance of NEADS trainers, and this was my opportunity to meet them. I was a bit nervous about going into a prison, but we were really encouraged to do it. When we went into the room, 16 very tough-looking guys were sitting opposite us. But as soon as they saw the dogs they all broke into huge smiles. We spent about half an hour talking about what the dogs mean to us, and the inmates shared some stories about their time with the dogs. It was really clear how much the inmates get out of the program, and quite emotional all around. We met Charlie’s primary and back-up trainers, who were clearly both happy and sad to be saying goodbye to Charlie. It was quite honestly one of the most powerful experiences of my life.

Back home, Charlie has made such a huge difference in my life. The biggest change is something that seems so trivial — closing our front door. When leaving the house in my wheelchair, it is really hard for me to turn around and close the front door behind me. In fact, I often avoided going out because I found it so awkward and difficult. But now after going through the door with Charlie, I give him the command “tug” and he turns, takes the rope I have hanging from the door handle and pulls the door closed behind us. Because Charlie can do this for me, I have regained so much independence.

Around the house, I am always dropping things. As soon as he hears something clatter to the floor Charlie comes running, ready to pick it up as soon as I give the command. Other things he can do include pulling open drawers or the fridge in the kitchen; pulling the sleeves of my clothing to help me e.g. remove my coat; he can bark to alert a neighbor if I need help; and he can find my phone by scent if I need it brought to me. In total, he knows over 60 different commands and tasks.

As well as our everyday errands and activities, we have been to the theater, the movies, out to dinner. We’ve been all over Massachusetts, to indoor and outdoor venues, for brunches, lunches and dinners. We’ve walked the HarborWalk in Boston, and along the Charles River in Cambridge and Watertown. Last February we flew to Las Vegas, to spend a week visiting the National and State Parks in the area, including walking over the Hoover Dam, a boat trip on Lake Mead, and the highlight, walking across Badwater Basin in Death Valley, the lowest point in North America and hottest place on Earth (fortunately in February it is only in the pleasant 70s or low 80s). The comment we have received over and over, during the plane flight, in the hotel and casinos, in restaurants and stores was “Wow. We didn’t even realize you had a dog with you!” I think that is the biggest compliment a service dog can receive.

During the Covid pandemic, we have been getting out a lot less. In fact, if it wasn’t for Charlie I probably wouldn’t have left the house at all for weeks. But with him by my side, I have been out for 3-5 mile walks almost every day. And aside from his service dog duties, Charlie has been an incredible comfort to all of our family during some pretty rough times. In April my husband had a severe stroke, and while he was fortunate to make a full recovery, it was quite a scary time for me and our boys. But Charlie took it all in his stride, providing snuggles or distraction when we needed them. Then at the end of June, I fractured my ankle, and so we were back and forth to the hospital. Charlie was so happy to be back at work, and I felt safe having him to push elevator buttons and open doors for me so I didn’t have to touch anything. But I told him I wasn’t going to go fracture another limb just to keep him busy!

One of the biggest things I didn’t realize about being a NEADS client was the incredible community that comes with it. The lifelong friends I made with my house-mates during training. The NEADS staff and trainers we met during those same two weeks. The other NEADS clients with whom I have become friends through the Facebook group. Charlie’s weekend puppy raiser who took him home every weekend to be sure he had a full range of experiences outside of prison. A schoolmate of my son’s who also has a NEADS dog. The weekend puppy raiser we ran into at the theater with her current NEADS dog in-training who turned out to have been a playmate of Charlie’s at the same prison. Complete strangers who donated to my fundraising page and now follow all my updates. And the community at large.

A few weeks after I had brought Charlie home we were at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s Festival of Trees — an annual event where they have over 100 decorated Christmas trees on display. As we were wandering around I heard a young girl, probably about kindergarten age, say to her mother “Look, it’s a service dog like Rescue.” I got talking to the mom, and she told me that “Rescue and Jessica” was her daughter’s favorite book, and she read it every night at bedtime. She had also brought it in to school for her “Sharing” day. I explained that Charlie had been trained by the same organization as Rescue. I put Charlie in a down-stay and asked if she would like to say hello to him. The little girl was so overcome with emotion there were tears in her eyes. I allowed the mom to take a picture of her daughter with Charlie. They were so thrilled to have met one of Rescue’s friends.

Originally published: February 23, 2021
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