Assistance Dogs transform the lives of their human partners with disabilities by serving as their companion, helper, aide, best friend, and close member of their family. The goals of the upcoming International Assistance Dog Week, August 6-12, 2017 are to recognize and honor the hardworking assistance dogs; raise awareness and educate the public about how these specially trained animals are aiding so many people in our communities; honor the puppy raisers and trainers of assistance dogs; and recognize deeds performed by assistance dogs in our communities. At a time when the world is faced with so much adversity, I wanted to show my gratitude to PAALS, my friends, family, co-workers, the community, and all of you, PAALS supporters, by celebrating one special addition to my life. Over a year ago, I met one of the greatest loves of my life, a bubbly, energetic, Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever mix canine. He shined with an aura of helpful vivacity that emanated from the depths of his eyes to the core of his soul. This amazing creature ran up to my wheelchair, stepped on my footrests, and licked my cheek the first time I met him. For me, it was a confusing combination of feelings; being smitten, yet deeply sad because I was embarking on retiring one of the most remarkable PAALS canine partners of my life, Casper!
The journey started last October when I was matched with the dynamic, Shack. Our steps to growing as a team were not always easy. We had to face many challenges to become a cohesive unit. The key to our lasting partnership was developing a strong bond that could get us through the good times as well as the more difficult ones. While Shack loved me, he made me work hard to develop his trust and strength as a leader, and more importantly, as his human partner. Service dogs have never been robots, and they won’t automatically work for an individual, no matter how superior the training. They may have outstanding skills, but they need to be invested in the person with a disability to want to work for them. Equally essential, the human in the partnership must take the time to get to know their service dog; their needs, desire to play, how much rest as well as practice they require, and what motivates their canine partner. In my case, Shack loved ball time, soft toys, being praised, cuddling, running outside, positive encouragement, down-time, and treats for a job well done. True service dogs are selfless, and work to better their human partner’s life, so that human must recognize the gift their canine partner offers.
Shack doesn’t have an easy job, he works for me, a woman with an incredibly busy life!! His day starts at 6 am and usually ends around 10 pm. That kind of schedule necessitates a balance of work and play on my part. When I look back at where we started, Shack and I had to grow together to find our equilibrium. If you’ve never met Shack, he has the kind of exuberance that goes on for days. While that has its advantages, we had to figure out ways to temper that during my professional work day. Shack could sit or lie still for me for an hour without a break when we first began. Now, he can go three to four hours at a time. In eight months, this was a feat for me and my canine fireball. Sometimes, lots of energy can be an obstacle, but that’s Shack’s and my wheelhouse: Breaking Down Barriers!!!
Discovering the in’s and out’s was the name of the game! For those who also don’t know me, my husband, Bryan, jokes “Shack is you in canine form, you both have a vitality that is unstoppable, and wills that are strong and steadfast.” This is probably true, and perhaps, part of why we were matched together; neither of us gives up! Imagine waking up, and not being able to sit up, or your skirt slipping down where you cannot reach it. While I don’t usually focus on the difficulties, the reality is without Shack, I would be dependent on others for everyday tasks. We have learned how to break down physical barriers. Teaching Shack how to take off my coat/ shoes/clothes, help me get dressed, open and close doors, and even, simply, retrieving objects had to be tailored for the environment. Whether I am at home, work, or in the community, I never know how my body is going to perform each day. Some days, I can do it exactly the way we were taught by PAALS, and other days, Shack has ascertained how to adjust to my hands not gripping so well, or me not being able to bend to reach him. That took lots of practice and much patience on each of our parts.
Our greatest physical barrier removal was Shack helping me to engage in exercise again. He happily plays ball with me even though I can’t throw far or have trouble catching the ball in my lap. Shack’s playfulness encouraged me to go back to PT, and even walk without my crutches at home. For a guy with so much energy, he walks slowly beside me, matching my pace. I tend to post many pictures of Shack on Facebook, it’s not because I’m being showy, but rather Shack makes me so proud of how much he has accomplished. Even then, he’s helped me to break down barriers! My hands have trouble holding my phone and, despite my blurry, or not fully lined up frame, I want to show Shack and PAALS, friends, family, and you, their supporters, how much he’s loved and appreciated by me!!!!
The barriers Shack has aided me in breaking down include attitudinal ones. Shack has gone to the State House, Federal Government agencies, State Government agencies, local businesses, community groups, and to service providers, as part of my job as the Community Outreach and Consumer Rights Coordinator for Able South Carolina. At each stop along the way, his charismatic personality impacts opinions about the way people with disabilities are viewed. He takes the focus away from disability and puts it back on the person, me. Shack showcases my talents and abilities, and allows the community to see what is achievable; anything you set your mind to accomplishing! He demonstrates that not everyone does tasks the traditional way, but rather in their own way!! What always surprises me is the lives he has touched. Whether it is a legislator, an individual with a disability, or law enforcement, Shack paves the way for change!! As one man with a disability recently told me, “Shack shows me and the world any dream is possible!” Service dogs have always been the great equalizer, and Shack is a positive example of that.
International Assistance Dog Week is August 6-12, 2017, and was created to recognize all of the devoted, hardworking assistance dogs helping individuals with disabilities. International Assistance Dog Week was established due to the efforts of Marcie Davis, a woman with paraplegia for over 35 years and CEO of Davis Innovations, a consulting firm based in Santa Fe, NM. Davis is the author of “Working Like Dogs: The Service Dog Guidebook,” and she is the host of the Internet radio program, “Working Like Dogs,” at www.petliferadio.com. International Assistance Dog Week is facilitated as a program of Soulful Presence, a nonprofit Davis established to empower underserved populations.
Please help me honor the outstanding work Jennifer Rogers and PAALS does for Shack, me, and so many others by recognizing not only her hard work, but that of the PAALS staff as well as every single puppy-raiser, foster, liaison, board member, volunteer, veterinarian, and sponsor who contributes to wonderful partnerships and service dogs like Shack. You empower people like me and many other clients like Jory, Sherry, Will, Mary, Bethany, Maya, Dennis, Rebecca A., Susan, Gary, Skeeter, Windy, Rebecca C., to achieve their dreams of independence and provide a valuable service to the community!
Join PAALS during the upcoming week and show your support: On Monday, August 7, 2017, the Columbia Fireflies in conjunction with Carolina Community Foundation are hosting Pack the Park for nonprofits who participated in Midlands Gives at Fireflies Stadium. Game time is 7:05 PM. The Fireflies will be playing the Charleston River Dogs. Kids can stick around after the game is over to run the same bases as the Fireflies. Tickets are $10 each with $5 going to PAALS. The top three selling non-profits will also receive an additional cash donation. So let’s make sure PAALS is one of the top three!
Tickets will be available for sale through midnight on Sunday, July 30th. You can pick up your tickets at the Columbia Fireflies Box Office on Thursday (8/4) and Friday (8/5) from 9AM to 5PM. Tickets not picked up on those two days will be available at the Will Call Window on game day.
In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “Consciously or unconsciously, everyone of us does render some service or another. If we cultivate the habit of doing this service deliberately, our desire for service will steadily grow stronger, and it will make not only for our own happiness, but that of the world at large.”