Verse of the Day

Monday, January 23, 2017

SERVICE DOGS, my personal story...

Service Dogs make quite a difference in the lives of their owners/handlers. They’re not considered companionship dogs, although they definitely provide that by nature of their proximity. They’re specifically trained to do things to assist their owners with their disabilities, whether those disabilities are obvious or hidden. And by law, they’re allowed everywhere in public that their owner is allowed. Service Dogs can be large, medium or small, can be a variety of breeds and are trained for a multitude of tasks—which ones depending on their owner’s needs. When you come across a service dog in public, do not approach the dog because they’re probably working. However, you can ask the owner if it’s okay. Sometimes it is, but most of the time it won’t be. Please don’t feel bad if the owner says no—it’s not personal, it’s because the dog needs to stay focused on his/her job. The following is the story about my health situation and service dog, Keiko Dakota.
I was disabled in late 2006 with severe natural rubber latex allergy, aka NRLA (anaphylaxis) and severe multiple chemical sensitivities (aka MCS), complicated by chronic lyme disease in 2007 and becoming mostly home-bound by 2008 (including no longer being able to go to church). My life took a drastic turn for the worse in early 2009 (when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did, drastically so). In the space of one week, I almost died twice. My life became one of severe isolation, made even harder to bear when some loved ones (family & friends) just didn’t “get it”. I have to avoid latex, doing thorough homework on anything we bring into the house - from food, medications/supplements to everyday household products. Fragrances are taboo, as are most chemicals (ie cleaning products, personal care products, many craft supplies, etc, etc, ETC!). My worst ‘enemies’ are latex, petroleum, exhaust, wood smoke and fabric softeners (and fresh cut grass, a latex-cross-reactive). But that doesn’t minimize the need to avoid them all. For NRLA, the ONLY treatment is avoidance (it’s an allergy that anyone can develop at anytime and gets worse with each exposure). For MCS, the 1st treatment is avoidance. In addition to NRLA & MCS, I’m also hearing impaired. The chronic lyme was eradicated in 2010 (or remission that has not resurfaced, as there is no test that can prove you no longer have it). Most notably, the severity of my reactions and recovery time has improved since working on building my immune system (repairing the gut) and focusing on supporting the liver’s functions in detoxification though the use of homeopathic remedies & nutritional therapy.
In 2011, after two years of thinking how helpful it would be to have a service dog, the opportunity came that we were able to purchase our schipperke, Keiko Dakota. Schipperke’s are considered the hardiest of small breeds and are extremely intelligent! They originated in Belgium and were used on barges as guard dogs and rodent hunter-terminators. We had a Schipperke when our boys were growing up who died when she was only 9yrs old. Fifteen years later, when I was able to get a dog to train to be my service dog, the Schipperke was the only breed I considered and my plan was to train her myself.
Before we picked her up (had to drive out-of-state), we spent a lot of time on naming her and ended up with “Keiko” (Japanese for blessing) “Dakota” (Native American for friend)... at that time we lived in Dakota County, with many Indian populations—including the Dakota tribe). She promptly wove herself into our hearts. We went through a pretty rough spell during her 1st week with us—she came to us sick from the breeder and we almost lost her on the 2nd night (found out she was the ‘runt’ of the liter after we drove almost 3 hrs to get her). After she almost died and subsequent vet visits, the breeder offered to take her back for a refund, but there was absolutely no way we were going to put her back in that environment (turns out the breeder was operating a nasty puppy mill). Thankfully, Keiko survived and is thriving through TONS of love and a healthy diet of homemade food (she was also allergic to the food the breeder had abruptly weaned her to, and the safe food we found and had her on for 2-3 yrs changed ownership and became quite inconsistent in quality (made her sick, or she’d refuse to eat it), so we went the homemade route). There are times when I’ve said she eats better than me—and she does!
I was, and still am, Keiko’s trainer. From the time she came to us at 7 1/2 weeks old, I began with ‘basic’ training (the usual potty-training, sit-stay-come-heel and ‘to your mat’) using mostly the clicker method. Then, as soon as she had a good concept of the basics, I began her training as my service dog. After only a couple of training sessions for bringing me my emergency meds pouch (had 1 on every level of the house, 2 on the main floor), she recognized one day that I was in trouble (bad reaction that was steadily going downhill - progressing from systemic to anaphylaxis) and brought me my pouch. I could hardly move from the reactions taking place in my body and my thinking process was kaput, but scolded her because I thought she was playing & just wanted treats. She persisted and kept getting it and bringing it to me, several times. Later that day, it finally dawned on me that she might know something I didn’t, so I accepted it, thanked her and used my Epi-Pen -- WOW!! she was right - I needed to use my epi-pen but hadn’t realized it (a frequent/common occurrence with anaphylaxis when it’s not affecting the airway). She was about 3 months old at the time. There was one time she stopped me from going into a store... turned out there were latex balloons present, but she’s never been specifically trained to recognize latex (too dangerous)!! Over the years (she’s now 5 1/2 yrs old), she’s come to my rescue countless times—including some very serious events: I’m literally STILL ALIVE today because of my service dog’s actions!!
She is not just “a” dog—she’s my “service” dog, my LIFELINE at home and in the world around me. If someone threatens or attacks her, they’re doing it to me personally, and I will respond defensively on her behalf (like a tigress for her cubs, just like I did for my children when they were growing up, just like I will for my grand-kids or any small children who are in harms way). If Keiko were to be injured, permanently maimed or even killed, I would no longer have a functioning service dog and my life would drastically go backwards. It would also be heartbreaking, as any loving dog owner (service dog or not) who has lost one would agree. I use every available opportunity to help educate children on how to be kind & gentle to animals—adults should already know, but some don’t. Even if she wasn’t a service dog, you can’t treat a small dog the way you would a big dog (think 11 pound dog versus 60+ pounds). For example, rough-house-like shoving or pulling a dog -- huge difference between doing that with a german shepherd or great dane versus a mini-poodle, chihuahua or small schipperke. The shove you’d do with a large dog could seriously injure a small one—common sense for most people.
Like all service dogs are trained for their handlers, Keiko has been trained to be with me at all times (exception in following paragraph) with her primary task being to bring me my rescue meds when I’m having a bad reaction (with or without prompting). She’s also trained to alert me when people come to the door or something’s not right outside (I do let her bark at squirrels too (it’s a dog thing, but even more so for her breed). She can “tree” them, but she’s not allowed to leave the property to chase them). Schipperke’s are great guard dogs & barkers, so it was easy to encourage her natural trait—the training is ongoing for her to understand if it’s okay with me, it’s okay for her. If someone comes in the house, unannounced, she’ll be in guard mode; and with those she knows, it can sometimes take her a bit to warm up to them (with the exception of my parents & youngest son, who she greets immediately just like she does my husband—they’ve been here more frequently than anyone else—plus we lived with my folks for 3 weeks when we 1st moved back here). We’ve had several new neighbors arrive since moving to our current home, so she’s currently “in training” for recognizing those who ‘belong’ (that’s okay Keiko, that’s their house, they belong, it’s okay). But, if you truly do not belong, beware! Schipperke on Duty!! She will fetch things for me and put them “in my hands” when needed (sometimes my hips pop out and affect my mobility, residual nerve issues from a serious injury in 2014, or other times there can be inflammation from a bad reaction that affects my joints that affect my mobility). The schipperke breed are fantastic “pullers”, which has been a challenge in training her to ‘walk with’, but a tremendous asset when I’m in a situation where there’s been a bad exposure and I need to escape... fast! If I’m shopping and turn to get something and move even a couple feet away, she will pull the cart trying to get back next to me (currently “in-training” at Meijer’s where I’ve been able to shop by myself a few times since mid-2016—the egg frig has been a challenge... having to place the cart far enough away to get the door open and stay away long enough to check the eggs for damage—this puts her too close to the wheels (AND the cart between her & me) which stresses her out—haven’t done it enough to figure out what will work best in that situation yet). She will also “fetch” Daddy, when he’s home and I’m in another part of the house and need help. If we go someplace together and we get separated, Keiko helps me “find” Daddy :-)
She’s my constant companion, only now with ‘play-breaks’ when the grand-kids come over—not only for the extra needed exercise, but also as part of her training. When we got her, we lived far from family. So, due to the forced isolation that NRLA & MCS naturally brings, she had not been socialized around kids when she was a puppy and young dog, with the exception of brief occasional exposure to our neighbor’s young grand-kids. Since we moved closer to family almost 2 1/2 years ago, she’s been getting that much needed socialization with young kids which makes for a friendlier & safer experience when I leave the the house (less stressful for both of us)—whether accompanied by my husband or by myself (2016 was very memorable as it included three very big milestones for me... all for the 1st time in 8 years—driving, going out by myself, and going grocery shopping all by myself). However, most ‘rough housing’ is not allowed because it goes against her training and forces us to have to go through ‘re-training’ sessions. Hands rough-housing around her face is 100% taboo. She’s been trained “no teeth” for the sake of babies & small children, and if a finger makes its way into her mouth she’ll turn her head away. But, dogs have natural instincts and if you get too rough with them, teeth can connect accidentally, and sometimes on purpose (dog’s natural defense mechanism). When using her toys to play with her, caution needs to be maintained to keep hands clear. Balls are not always a good idea, because in going for a ball that’s in motion, she may not be able to reverse direction quickly enough if fingers get in the way. Keiko has nipped a few times (when fingers got too close in rough or ball play, or someone kicks at a ball she’s going after), but no broken skin. However, she did “bite” our neighbor one time, very understandably in defense & fright—the day the EMS came and took me away by ambulance and our neighbor came to let her outside to do her business—but found her hiding behind the toilet and tried to pull her out. To this day, she does NOT like uniforms of ANY kind! (so she’s quite noisy when delivery people come).
It’s truly a wonder, the difference a service dog can make in the lives of those who are disabled—regardless of the type of disability. Please don’t judge a book by its cover... service dogs come in all shapes & sizes, and a person’s disabilities may be visible or hidden (mine are only ‘visible’ if I’m having a bad reaction). I truly hope my story helps to give others a better understanding of living with disabilities and about service dogs (noting that many service dogs have more strict regimes, ie police, fire & military dogs!). 

Isaiah 40:31

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