There are 4.8 million people in the United States who have a disability, according to the 2010 census. These individuals – just as unique, important and capable as those without disability – come from all backgrounds, with their own skillsets and challenges. For years, I was virtually invisible to the world around me, and I didn’t realise how much I was missing out on life due to my disability. I couldn’t get around easily in my manual chair, so I stopped trying. My experience and perception changed drastically when I was partnered with my first Canine Companions® service dog, Caspin. Caspin got me through attending college, starting my career at Canine Companions, getting married and spending months in hospitals. He changed how I lived in the community – I could go shopping knowing he’d carry a bag, he’d turn on the light when my muscles were in spasm, he would pull my wheelchair and give me more life! Caspin was the first of three Canine Companions service dogs that I have been partnered with. In the months between service dogs, I realised how much each dog had allowed me to be approachable and visible, made me safe and let me independently navigate a world not well designed for me or anyone with a disability.
My current service dog, Renata, is noticed everywhere we go. Often, at the pharmacy or a restaurant, I will drop my car keys or credit card. Something magical happens when a person with a disability drops something– every person in the vicinity comes running to pick up whatever fell. That’s helpful, but I don’t need it now. Renata is there by my side with the keys in her mouth before bystanders even have a chance to offer help. There are few things that bring me more pride than seeing someone stop in their tracks and watch as my service dog retrieves a dime or a box of crackers. They make eye contact and smile, and so do I. The best part is, I’m not alone. Canine Companions is the first and largest provider of service dogs for people with disabilities.
Since 1975, we have placed over 6,700 expertly trained service dogs, entirely free of charge for clients. There are currently over 2,500 Canine Companions service dogs actively helping to change the lives of the people they are matched with – picking up dropped items, alerting to important sounds, interrupting a veteran’s flashbacks from combat and helping a child get through a physical therapy session. Canine Companions service dogs help enhance the skills and talents of their handlers. Sometimes it’s by helping to conserve energy during routine activities, and sometimes service dogs help make those skills possible. I could list dozens of names of Canine Companions graduate teams who have gone on to do things beyond most of our wildest dreams – climbing Mt. Everest, winning gold at the Paralympics, returning to the battlefield. But more often, it’s the day-to-day tasks in which a service dog makes all the difference.
India Harville has lived with health issues for her whole life. She has been active in teaching mixed-ability dance and has earned a master’s degree – all before receiving her Canine Companions service dog, Nico. Still, having Nico by her side to assist has made a huge impact. “Nico has totally changed my life. His professional training allows me to do things that were previously unsafe because of my disability,” says India. “Nico’s support allows me to grocery shop, to clean the house and to be successful at work. I was surprised to discover that having Nico also helped me connect with people, get more exercise, and improved my health and quality of life.”
One great benefit of a service dog is something I never expected. People notice me out in the world and ask about my life, hobbies and career. Service dogs change the narrative on what’s possible for people with disabilities. They also call attention towards disability in a more positive, inclusive way. Dr Cara Miller teaches clinical psychology at Gallaudet University. Cara is Deaf. She is familiar with the awareness her Canine Companions hearing dog, Turf, has brought to her life. Without the presence of a hearing dog, most people outside of the Deaf community wouldn’t know why Cara wasn’t responding. Turf’s presence alone is a game-changer. But even more importantly, Turf is a bridge to the sounds happening all around Cara. “Whether crossing campus or in my office, Turf alerts me to sirens in the vicinity, or my videophone ringing,” says Cara. “He lets me know if I’ve dropped something and alerts me when people call my name to let me know they want my attention.” Cara also sets a timer to beep at the end of class, and Turf lets her know with a nudge when it’s time to wrap up the lecture, a gesture appreciated by her students. Turf makes life more seamless for Cara. “He alerts to my alarm, so this professor has no excuse for being late to class!” Service dogs can even assist with unseen wounds that make everyday life feel unbearable – even when doing things you love. Francisco Recinto has post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in the Air Force. Before he received Service Dog Vitani, enjoying his son’s piano recitals, watching fireworks and attending family outings felt impossible. Now, with Vitani by his side, Francisco can do more with his family and be more present in their lives. “Vitani has helped me rediscover the missing joy and unrivalled enthusiasm I lost. I often use the anxiety interruption command with her, helping to ease me back to the present moment, helping avoid further deeply-rooted mental conflict. She’s given me the extra needed confidence, knowing my trusty companion is ‘watching my six’.” While every person with a disability has a different story to tell, our service dogs have a similar effect of opening the world to us. Whether retrieving a painter’s dropped brush, opening a door to a college class or tugging off a jacket that used to require the help of an aide, service dogs like Caspin, Renata, Nico, Turf and Vitani help make the impossible possible.