Health and Fitness

Healing and Hope Through Canine Compassion

On the very day we as a country celebrate a man who fought for ethnic equality, I will be one step closer to reclaiming my own freedom. On Martin Luther King Jr. day, I will be bringing home a Shiloh Shepherd puppy. That puppy is to be trained as my service dog.

Photo courtesy of AZ Shilohs, with permission

Three years ago, I lost nearly everything… again. It wasn’t the first time I’d nearly lost my life, but it was the only time where the danger was imminent. As I lay, alone and cold, 30 feet below the road above and unable to move, I knew the chances of my being found in time to save me were remote. I was found, though, and I was saved… but at a cost.

The day my bicycle was tripped up by high winds and sent me flying off a mountain was the day I lost nearly everything. That one event resulted in my losing my home, my job, my independence, and very nearly my life. My spine was fractured in 9 places in my neck and upper back. My rib cage was shattered, both in the front and the back. My right scapula was shattered. Both lungs were punctured, and my kidney and spleen were mangled almost beyond the ability to heal. I wish I could awaken and it would all fade away like a bad dream… but I remember everything, and that’s not going away.

I have since had four spine surgeries. While I exhibited some symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder before the most recent surgery, off and on, multiple traumas seem to have a cumulative effect. Over time, the PTSD has gotten worse. When fourth surgery didn’t go well, the PTSD came to the forefront. I’ve not been the same since.

I don’t recognize the person I am anymore. Instead of the happy, outgoing, confident woman who knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life, I’ve become withdrawn, quiet, frightened and sullen… uncertain of everything. I don’t feel like me, and when I look in a mirror, I see a stranger staring back.

The anxiety and fear I feel only confuse me. I cry all of the time, for no reason. I don’t understand it. I often don’t even know what it is I’m afraid of. I could understand if it were acrophobia, a fear of heights, or even a fear of riding my bicycle… but this fear is so generalized and without direction that there is no sense to it at all. There are rare occasions when I can catch a glimpse of the me I recognize, but over time those glimpses came less frequently. I fear that any more trauma could cause me to lose myself completely.

In desperation, I began to think about the illness I had 15 years ago. That illness was expected to be terminal, yet I recovered. I began sorting through things, trying to come up with how I got through that relatively unscathed emotionally. Ultimately, I found an answer. It was Rigel, the dog I had back then, and the best dog I’ve ever known. Some days, I’d have him trot down the block, where someone would meet him at the store and put my groceries in his backpack before sending him home. But he did a lot more than help me in a physical way. When I was in the hospital, he was allowed to visit, and everyone always said I looked better after his visits. At home, he kept me from isolating myself, and helped me stay centered, emotionally. When things were at their worst, and my body wanted to quit, thinking of him gave me strength to keep fighting, for I found I couldn’t leave Rigel like that.

I found my source of strength from before, but Rigel died 6 years ago. That source is no longer present. I brought up what Rigel did for me with my doctor, hoping he might come to the same conclusion I already had come to. He did. That was all I needed to go on.

The typical wait for a service dog can be 2-3 years… an eternity to someone who’s hurting. Rather than wait, I latched onto another dream of mine from before my accident. I had dreamed of one day training a Shiloh Shepherd to scent cancer. Life has thrown some obstacles for me, though, so that dream needed adapting. I would now find a Shiloh Shepherd puppy to train as my service dog instead… with the hope that, once my own situation has improved, I will eventually be able to still pursue my original plan.

I found one of the best breeders there is, one who does everything for the good of the dogs. She even takes two months off of work when a litter is born, so that she can spend the time to give them the best start possible. She has impressed me as no animal breeder I’ve ever known ever has, and I’m not just talking dog breeders. Her small kennel is in Arizona… a bit of a trek from where I live in Colorado, but under the circumstances, well worth it.

Once I found my breeder, with a litter on the way, I knew I needed to find someone to help with training. I didn’t feel comfortable doing it all alone. I didn’t know HOW to do it all alone. So I began an extensive search… and got very, very lucky.

Guild Assistance Dog Partners, otherwise known as GAP service dogs, is local to me. They train not only the dogs they raise themselves, but dogs and puppies chosen by their clients as well… a rare thing. They have one of the highest success rates in the state, and where other organizations may charge thousands of dollars, they never charge more than their $25 application fee plus the cost of any equipment the dog needs for the client’s disabilities. They train service dogs for all disabilities, as well as emotional support dogs and therapy dogs. In many cases, the dogs are trained to deal with multiple disabilities. They are trained to help as guide dogs, to help with walking and balance, to pick things up and carry things for people, to open doors, help autistic children and adults, and can even be trained to detect seizures or blood sugar anomalies in diabetics. It is virtually limitless what a dog can do to help a disabled person. My puppy will be trained to help with my PTSD, as well as problems I have related to my spine injury.

The situation is ideal. I found the resources I needed to do this. My doctor was more than willing to write the prescription required to obtain the services of GAP, and I found an absolutely wonderful breeder.

You might ask why I’m so set on this one breed — especially since even a pet Shiloh runs $1500. While part of it is because of Rigel, I have other reasons as well. The International Shiloh Shepherd Registry (ISSR) may well have the strictest rules in the world with regard to breeding Shilohs within their registry. Physically, they must have sound skeletal structures. Even though this is a dog that can get up to 140 lbs, hip dysplasia has practically been eliminated. Likewise, behavior problems are rare, for no ISSR Shiloh may be bred if they are too shy, aggressive, or have other temperament instabilities. There are strict rules that some breeders have not been happy with, but those rules are in place for the well being of the dogs, not for money. The breeder I found takes it one step further, given that she devotes all of her time to the puppies during their first two months. Every penny she gets from the sale of a puppy goes straight back into the dogs. The puppies get the best prenatal care and the best postnatal care. They even get a little training. The entire litter of 8 puppies has been essentially housebroken before they were even 7 weeks old.

There is one more reason behind my desire for a Shiloh. They are also excellent scent dogs, excelling at services such as search and rescue. I’ve not forgotten that dream of training a Shiloh to scent cancer, helping lives beyond my own. The name I’ve chosen for my puppy? Galen, after an ancient physician. The modern meaning for the name is “healer.” Galen will be my healer, and hopefully healer to others as well, for a Shiloh Shepherd likes to have a purpose.

I don’t know which puppy I’ll end up with (there are 8)- that’s dependent on the temperament testing this weekend, which will help determine which puppy will suit my service dog needs best. However, no matter which pup it is, I know I will love them with all my heart. Already Galen is a source for healing, for knowing (s)he is coming has renewed my hope, not to simply keep surviving, but hope to truly live again.

GAP Service Dogs serves people with disabilities in Colorado and is a nonprofit operating in the greater Denver area

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