Being diagnosed with a mental disorder, a physical disability or an illness that can be triggered by our environment are all issues that are frequently treated with the assistance of a service dog. They are seen every where, all the time. If you’re anything like me, you are overwhelmed by a necessity to shower them with affection, at times oblivious to the impact that could have on the well being of “their human”. Despite the fact that we know service animals undergo years of extensive training, it doesn’t diminish the magic that is experienced in watching them work.
In 2010 I became wheelchair bound and was diagnosed with a boatload of issues that would clearly change the course of my journey. I’ll save the details of my disability for another time, but I do have to say that PTSD was probably one of the most difficult to adjust to. A number of doctors recommended a service dog. We were certain that a battle buddy would resolve over half of the challenges I was facing. What we didn’t know was that obtaining a service dog would feel next to impossible regardless of what doctors said. Every organization, for the most part, was gracious and attempted to accommodate our circumstance. Unfortunately, every call ended promptly after I mentioned that our household was composed of “two humans, two kitty kids and two k-9 babies”. One particular phone call lead me to a woman who seemed rushed and less than thrilled to speak to me. Before I could get a word in edgewise, she told me that I was now being placed on a two year waiting list. In the mean time I responsible for travel arrangements as needed once training started, and I would need to work with the organization to raise the funding for the purchase, medical maintenance and training of the service animal which would take place throughout a two year period. She concluded by announcing that I had up to twelve months to find homes for any existing pets. I think she sensed the boiling point on the other end of the line because she immediately asked if I felt that twelve months was not enough time for me to re-home. My response was “I’m not sure… can you tell me how long it would take for you to give away your children so that you could adopt another? The only difference between my kids and yours is two extra limbs and little more hair!”. The next thing I heard was the dial tone. Frustrated and disappointed, I was forced to admit that even I knew we simply did not have the capability to accept a new set of paws in our home.
Just when we thought I would have to deal with the struggle on my own, we received a phone call from my brother in-law who was unable to care for his dog for an extended period of time and was hopeful we would be willing to care for her in the mean time. To “rehome” a fur-baby outside of the family that they know and love is simply not an option for us. Lola is a four pound Miniature Yorkshire Terrier who was rescued from an abusive owner and is now literally startled by her own shadow. I had met Lola on one prior occasion, when we drove her from Atlanta, Georgia to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. It was the first time she was away from her “Papa”. To calm her shaking I put her inside my sweatshirt, thinking she was cold and stressed. She was clearly comforted and spent the entire trip adorably protesting any time we attempted to take her out. Our next encounter would be an unexpected blessing for everyone involved. It was a bitter sweet moment when Lola and her Papa made it to our home. I was beyond ecstatic to have her stay, but it was as if she knew he was leaving without her. She laid on his chest, looking like she was listening to his heart beat. She would wrap her tiny little arms around his neck and then “breakdance” playfully on top of his t-shirt stealing his scent for later. Then the tears came. When it was time to say goodbye, his eyes welled up with tears as he kissed and hugged her. He left quickly after that… and then it got really sad. Lola was exhausted from their car trip. The rest of that night, and those that followed would be spent holding her until she cried herself to sleep, then listening to her whimper in her dreams. After a couple of days refusing food and water, I panicked and decided attempt feeding her by hand and gave her water to drink from a bottle cap. She was so small we were afraid to leave her at home when we ran errands so she came along. Her size also made her susceptible to slipping right off my lap when I used my manual chair. We decided to try a baby-wrap that would free my hands and keep her safe. My electric scooter was a different story, she enjoyed sitting inside the basket lined with a super soft kitty pouch. We quickly realized that her trembling was not fear but cold, so we decided to put tiny pajamas on her. When she refused to stop having “accidents” inside our apartment, we opted for premature infant diapers (cheaper than doggie diapers and fit the same way). Unfortunately, the more she wiggled and played, the faster they came right off. We had to get creative once more and found premature infant onesies that fit just right, the snaps were magic. Everywhere we went people thought we dressed her up for fun… but it all had a purpose. Throughout the first month, she had the opportunity to wow my primary care doctor with her great behavior and adorable wardrobe. She soon came to share the title of “Emotional Support Dog” with our two fur-babies. Sadie, our Border Collie / Aussie Mix, who had turned seventeen and had difficulty getting around on her own and Cali, our Brittany Spaniel, had been injured and had a permanent drainage hole at constant risk of infection. Lola carried the title like a teen tiny champ. After working with her for several weeks, she began to behave as if she’d spent years in training (minus the diapers).
Not long after I was injured, I was diagnosed with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), among other things. Both seem to worsen as time passed. Most days, I could barely stand clothing on my skin or a hug from my wife. Petting our little ones, taking a shower, the wrong fabric, a car ride and especially the weather often triggered a “flare up”. Most of the time, I was able to tolerate it by taking pain medicine and sitting very still for as long as it took to pass or at least die down. Other days medicine and not moving simply didn’t help. On those days the pain was so bad it brought on suicidal ideations. Rushing to the emergency room was a coin toss. On the rare occasion that I met with staff that knew what RSD was, I would be quickly hooked up to an IV with a combination of pain medicine, steroids and sedatives. If no one knew what it was, I would be seen as a “drug seeker” with nothing but a rash. Eventually, I learned telling the doctors that it wasn’t a rash, visibly reacting to the pain or asking them to Google the “Suicide Disease” would only make them angry and more likely to forget their beside manner. On the days when I could work through the pain, I would have panic attacks in public and would have to return home, sometimes just after being buckled into the Wheelchair Transport Van outside our front door. I became a hermit… spending more time than I’d like to admit trying to make up excuses for friends and family that wanted to visit or take me out. The more time Lola and I spent attached at the hip, the more we began to notice the full blown panic attacks in public were fewer and farther between. Flare ups, although still very much present, seemed less daunting. She would find her favorite spot on top of me and sleep as long as I slept, or rush up to an inch from my nose and stare intently when a groan or complaint unintentionally escaped me. Even during trips to the emergency room, looking forward to seeing her made me see the light switch on at the end of the tunnel.
Unexpectedly, she started to throw teeny tiny tantrums. Although they didn’t last more than a few minutes, they occurred frequently and always in public. Thankfully, one her first occurred during a mental health appointment with a brilliant doctor who recognized exactly what was happening. I apologized profusely for her disruption as I tried to appease her. Unfazed by her whining or squirming, he asked “Why are you trying to make her be quiet? She’s only doing her job”. He went on to explain that having spent so much time close to one another had made her sensitive to my emotions. He said she sensed that I was becoming anxious and would exhibit this behavior until she successfully redirected my focus away from the stressor and onto her. I thought he was nuts, but gave it a shot anyway. After turning my attention to her, I felt myself relaxing and smiling at her antics. Before we knew it, she had curled up on my lap and fallen asleep.
Nearly two years have passed since my battle buddy and I crossed paths. Her baby wrap has become her safe place, not wearing it means I can expect her multiple attempts to climb into my shirt. Strangely enough, the baby wrap has somehow become my safety net as well. Spoiling her through the first heartbreaking days away from the home she knew was supposed to be just that… little did I know she had other plans. If we try to change anything, she stages adorable protests composed of funny faces, non-stop kisses, photo worthy hugs and her specialty is a move we call “Please”. She presses her head up against our chest while gazing up at us with literal “puppy dog eyes”. The longer we ignore her the harder she slams her head. You can bet it’s not long before she gets what she wants. Lola still experiences moments of distress that we believe linger from the abuse she suffered as a puppy and I still struggle with constant physical pain and panic attacks strike when triggers sneak up on me. Despite our challenges, there is a remarkable understanding between us that assures her I will always scoop her up when she’s frightened and she will undoubtedly gift me a smile.
We soon found out that my wife would also need a service dog. The impediments we encountered and our adventures with Lola, were motivation enough to search for an alternative answer. Our search brought us two viable options. The first came from a former service dog trainer who provided valuable information. She said that having an animal successfully trained to perform a specific task needed to assist a person who has a disability, a mental disorder, or a physical condition would officially make him or her a service animal. Although in most cases it is illegal for anyone to ask for documentation proving you have a service animal, she suggested that the veteran retain proof of diagnosis and a letter from that doctor verifying that a service animal is necessary. She specified that there is no single service dog registry and the ADA does not require professional certification. The second option came from TADSAW, Train A Dog Save A Warrior (tadsaw.org) . This organization assists veterans in a number of ways. Among them, the ability and willingness to evaluate (based on their capabilities), train and certify an existing pet who has already formed a bond with the veteran. If an existing pet is unable to become certified, they assist in obtaining a suitable dog. They also commit to training the veteran with the purpose of ensuring that they are able to evaluate and train any dog. They hope to prevent the veteran from losing the vital assistance due to the existing service animal’s age, illness / disability or death. We are now moving forward with training Lola as service animal.