“In 1987, I was on a bus in Toronto. Looking out the window, I saw a woman in a wheelchair with a black lab. My first reaction (which was not to be corrected for several years!) was … “Look at that poor woman. She’s in a wheelchair and blind … but at least she has a dog!” At that time, in my limited experience, Assistance Dogs were dogs for the blind only.
During that same year, clear across the country on the west coast, the seeds of an organization were just sprouting that would help me and others to realize a dream that dogs could assist in many other ways. That organization, of course, has grown to be Pacific Assistance Dogs Society.
It can be a daunting task to face the world with a disability. I was only six months old when I contracted polio and, for me, life with “assistive aids” has been the only way I have known. Braces, crutches, wheelchairs, and later, hand controls for my vehicle.
Those who have a disability struggle with independence at every turn. Stairs and ramps that are too steep, doors that are difficult to open, items that are dropped beyond reach … require that we invite someone else (friend or stranger) into our space in order to give us the assistance that we need. We depend on others to be there for us so that we can continue on with the things that need to be done. But we struggle with trying to do these things for ourselves in order to maintain a certain dignity.
When my first Service Dog (Barley) came into my life in 2002, it was a Red Letter Day! He was the tangible evidence of many months of training on his part … and waiting, hoping and praying on mine. Our bond was quick and lasting. I have always been fiercely independent but even I had to admit that I wasn’t as strong as I once was, and I just couldn’t be as independent as I would like to be every day.
Barley pulled my wheelchair (at lightning speeds!) and I was once again able to go where I wanted to go without having to depend on someone else to push my wheelchair. He also opened doors, retrieved dropped items and became my constant companion. I was able to continue my job with renewed energy. We were a great team and in good weather, he would pull me the 13 blocks home from work … in 10 minutes flat! I felt exhilarated as we passed joggers and their comments (as we blasted past) boosted my ego.
When I knew that I was going to be paired with an Assistance Dog, in my mind, it meant more independence, and that has been achieved in my daily life as well as some unexpected ways. We tackled Johnston Canyon in Banff National Park and spent five days at Disneyland. Without Barley, I would have been dependent on others to push me. With Barley, I could go where I wanted to go (sometimes alone) and it was a game and work all rolled into one for him.
Barley retired from active duty in 2008. It was a difficult decision to make, but the PADS’ trainers were very supportive and had another dog “waiting in the wings”. Enter Basil, another yellow lab with the energy of youth and a passion for life. I guess you could say I’m a satisfied customer with my second Service Dog and continue to be independent.
People have asked me why I chose to get an Assistance Dog rather than an electric wheelchair. For me the reasons are simple. An electric wheelchair can’t pick up my keys off the floor, bring me my shoes, open doors, bring me the phone, push automatic door buttons, empty the dryer or put itself into the car. Barley (and now Basil) can do all that and more and at the end of the day I have a warm body cuddled next to my feet while we both relax.
Many hands go into raising a dog for service: breeders, puppy cuddlers, sitters, raisers, volunteers, professional trainers and caretakers. Many people I talk to are amazed that the dogs are provided to the clients at no charge. This could not be possible without financial supporters as the cost of training a dog for service and support for the team throughout their working life is closer to $30,000.
What do Service Dogs mean to me? In a word … independence!
– Carol Ann Johnson and Basil