Service dogs transform lives; for me, I have been fortunate to experience firsthand three times, the power these creatures have in enhancing independence in the lives of individuals with disabilities. These empowering dogs deserve to be honored and recognized for the life-changing gifts they provide. Whether they serve as a person’s eyes, ears, hands, safety alarm, personal organizer, or communicator, service dogs make a difference between an individual with a disability being an observer of daily life activities, or being an active participant. August 7, 2016 to August 13, 2016 is International Assistance Dog Week (IADW). This is a time to celebrate the dedicated service dogs, organizations that train service dogs like PAALS, Fidos for Freedom, Inc., or Guiding Eyes for the Blind, trainers, puppy raisers, fosters, prison programs, sponsors, and donators that contribute to the growth and development of service dogs.
International Assistance Dog Week was created because of Marcie Davis, a woman with paraplegia who is the CEO of Davis Innovations, a consulting firm based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is the author of Working Like Dogs: The Service Dog Guidebook, a resource book that captures personal stories, checklists and practical tips to provide the reader with an A-Z guide about service dogs. In addition, Marcie is the host of the Internet radio program, Working Like Dogs, at petliferadio.com. Ms. Davis is a part of a service dog team, and she established Working Like Dogs to honor assistance dogs around the world and is sponsoring International Assistance Dog Week.
Those of us with assistance dogs know personally just how vital these dogs are to living an everyday life, accomplishing the same tasks our peers do. When I got my first service dog, Sullivan, a.k.a. Sully, I was just embarking on my teaching career and had just become a newlywed. I didn’t want to have to rely on my students or my new husband, Bryan, to pick up pencils, pass out papers, or do laundry at home. I wanted to continue being the vibrant, independent twenty-something I had always been. Sully was one of the first service dogs ever to work in a public school setting. It took a great deal of hard work and education of not only the school system, but the community as well to bring it to fruition. It would not have been possible without the commitment of so many people, Fidos for Freedom, Inc., Trainers: Debbie, Pat, Annette, Ann, and the Board of Directors of FFF. YOU and Sully changed my life; thank you!!!
Unexpectedly, Sully had to retire for medical reasons, and because he had altered my life in so many positive ways, I knew it was imperative to apply for a successor service dog with FFF. Into my life sprang, My Spark of Hope, a.k.a. Sparky; this white standard poodle added exuberance and poise to my life. His skills allowed me to continue my teaching career, acquire my Master’s Degree from John’s Hopkins, and volunteer overseeing many school clubs for my students, and community leadership activities to enrich the lives of people, locally. YOU and Sparky changed my life; thank you Fidos for Freedom, Trainers: Julie, Pat, Ann, Donna, Kam, and the Board of Directors of FFF.
In 2006, I moved to South Carolina, and I began looking into service dog organizations in the area, and I happened upon Palmetto Animal Assisted Life Services, PAALS. Little did I know at the time how this meeting would make over the course of my life. Sparky, Bryan, and I began volunteering at events, and eventually, I acquired my third service dog, Casper, from them. Through my partnership with Casper, I have evolved. I redirected my career and chose to utilize my skills, experiences, and background to go from teaching students to energizing young adults and adults with disabilities to self-direct their own lives by learning independent living skills as well as self-advocacy. Through my job, I began involving the community by training federal, state, local government agencies, businesses, community organizations, service providers, and families by promoting inclusion, self-determination, empowerment, and disability awareness. Casper and I have travelled to our nation’s as well as state capitals to talk to legislators and change the dialogue from dependence to independence. He has been instrumental in people going from seeing service dogs as pets to personal assistants who make working, transportation, and community living, not just fantasies, but choices and equal opportunities for people with disabilities. Casper, and PAALS, YOU changed my life; thank you PAALS, Trainers: Jen, Sheri, Maureen, Nick, Guiding Eyes for the Blind, Reba, and the Board of Directors of PAALS, because of you, not only has my life been forever impacted, but many people’s perceptions have been transformed because of Casper!
Twenty years ago, I was matched with my first service dog, and as I am preparing to be matched with my fourth service dog, I realize it takes a village to make having a service dog possible for individuals with disabilities like myself. I want to personally thank Sponsors and Donors, Puppy raisers, Fosters, Prison Programs, and Trainers of FFF and PAALS. Thank you to clients of both organizations- JoAnn, Trish, Diane, John, Jay, and Sherry, Rebecca, Will, Jory, Meredith, Bo, Gary, Mary, and Caigla, – Each of YOU changed my life! Thank you for supporting me, and letting me be a part of your lives and partnerships!!
And, thank you to FFF and PAALS Supporters, my colleagues at Able SC, and my friends as well as family who changed my life for the better!! Because of you, and IAADP (International Association of Assistance Dog Partners), any dream is possible not only for me, but for so many others seeking service dogs.