Thursday, August 12, 2010

Celebrate Service Dogs: SSD Jack and his Partner

Tonight is our meetup to celebrate National Assistance Dog Week! Join us at Doc's Saloon and Grill (formerly Doc Holliday's) in New Cumberland from 5:30-7:00 p.m. If the weather clears up, we'll be on the deck, but if it looks like it's going to rain, we'll be inside. Just ask the hostess for Susquehanna Service Dogs! Service dogs and service dogs-in-training are welcome! (Of course! They're the guests of honor!)

Even more than celebrating service dogs, we're celebrating the way they change lives. We would like to share the story of SSD Jack and his partner with you.

Service Dog, SSD Jack, Gives New Life

This is not the most endearing story or a story of miraculous rescue. It is not funny or dramatic, and it is not short. But it is the story of a service dog that permanently changed my life over the months and years of our relationship and is still changing it today. I hope that someone will read it and gain new knowledge and understanding of the gift of hope that all service dogs give to their disabled partners.

My name is Sharon and I suffer from a psychiatric disability. About six years ago I was spending a lot of time in the hospital due to the severity of my symptoms. Then a friend called me and told me about a show she'd seen on dogs that help persons with psychiatric disabilities. She told me that I needed a dog to help me since I was too hard headed to accept help from my friends. I thought, "Oh, funny, ha ha," and it seemed like a pretty silly idea to me. Then darned if I didn't see a different show covering the same topic within the week. I was hooked and began investigating immediately.

Not many service dog programs train dogs for this type of work but, fortunately for me, Susquehanna Service Dogs (SSD) was within an hour of my home and was willing to either provide a service dog for me or help me train a service dog for myself. I wanted to adopt a "rescued" dog and do the training myself so I began checking the local shelters. I looked for weeks but was not having any luck. I was visiting a Humane Society shelter once again but didn't meet a dog that might be the "right" one. I decided to go back into the kennel area one more time to visit with a dog that I had considered. To my surprise, there was a beautiful puppy in the first kennel inside the door that I had not yet met. I immediately asked to take him into the visitation room and knew within minutes that I had found *my* dog. He was curious but not destructive, lively but not hyperactive, and very friendly but not passive so I knew he would grow up to be a wonderful dog. He also just seemed so happy to meet me! I believe my urge to go back into the kennel one more time and find this dog came from a higher power. I took him home the same day!

I want to make it very clear to anyone who may consider training their own service dog that this is not a process to be undertaken lightly. I reached an understanding with SSD that if the dog I adopted did not successfully complete the training program, and almost half of even those dogs specially selected for service dog training do not, I would keep it as an emotional support animal or companion. Making arrangements, in advance, for re-homing would also have been an option but I knew I would keep this dog forever.

Happily, after over a year of attending SSD puppy class twice a week and receiving private lessons from SSD trainers, my wonderful dog Jack and I completed our certification class and graduated as a working service dog team. My service dog, now "SSD Jack," began accompanying me 24/7 wearing his new green vest.

Now here is the crux of this story. During training it became apparent that Jack did not like it when my level of functioning was impaired. I expected a dog that would "comfort" me when I was depressed and "protect" me when I was anxious. Jack is trained to pay attention to me at all times and in response to certain symptoms perform one of the tasks he is trained to do, either in response to my body language or on cue. He did his job well but it was apparent that he also became concerned and appeared somewhat upset. Every time I became anxious he seemed worried too. It was obvious that he could detect subtle changes in my mood and behavior but instead of wanting to "help" me he seemed to want to steer clear of me. I felt like I wasn't taking care of him well enough and I wondered if I had picked the "wrong" dog after all.

To my surprise, I soon realized that my service dog was actually increasing my ability to monitor myself and quickly manage negative symptoms. I am able to observe Jack's reactions to what I say and do and to recognize much earlier than I ever had before when I need to change my environment, allow him to calm or support me as he is trained to do, or take prescribed medication that Jack carries for me. I was soon able to leave my house with confidence that I would not "break down" in public and am now able to independently care for myself and my service dog. Jack is now almost five years old and we are a great team.

Nowadays Jack rarely needs to remind me that he is my first concern. If I become too distracted, anxious or disorganized he stops cold and waits for me to "get it together." He now appears confident that I will get organized and take care of both him and myself and I almost always do! These days I am rarely hospitalized and am able to participate in many activities that had been unavailable to me before I had Jack as my partner.

Having an "invisible" disability is often not easy. People wonder why someone who "looks" fine would need a service dog and I am occasionally treated rudely. However, I don't need anyone else to tell me how my life has changed since I found SSD Jack. Because I have a service dog with me I am confident and able. In fact I often look fine because I am fine as long as Jack is with me! I will be forever grateful to Susquehanna Service Dogs for helping me train this wonderful dog but most of all I am grateful to my service dog, Jack, for enabling me to live a normal life.

1 comment:

  1. great story. thanks for posting. It reminds us all that we are partners with our dogs, first and foremost.