What is it like to have a service dog?

My twin sister (Fern) suffers from CRPS.  This is a neurological disease that causes severe pain and restricts movement and use of her limbs.  She recently wrote an article on the impact of having a service dog.  I believe it is an incredibly well written and informative article and worthy of sharing here with all of you who might be curious.

This article was first published in PARC newsletter March 2015  (http://www.rsdcanada.org . please credit Fern Kwantes for her lovely article in their charity newsletter.

bella-needs-protection-from-the-freezing-windMeet Bellatrix (Bella)

From the moment that I entered into the classroom in Burnaby, BC and laid eyes on Bellatrix for the first time, we have been inseparable! She does many things to help me conserve my energy. She is a motivator as well as supporter.

DOG 911
There is no replacement for the immediate gratification that I get by having her lay at my feet and jump up gladly to do my bidding! For Bellatrix it is all play. For me, it is independence! As an empty- nester, I worried about what would happen if I fell and couldn’t get up. Bellatrix has been trained to go get the phone!

Worry gone.

She makes me laugh and as a person in pain, we can never get enough laughs.

An example: I am a morning coffee drinker. Bellatrix hears the coffee perking and parks herself in front of the fridge (I put cream in my coffee) so that I don’t forget that it is her job! She opens the fridge on command but the second opening she figured out all on her own!

Putting cream in my coffee takes two fridge open stages. Once to retrieve the cream and once to put it back. She has gotten very adept at knowing the precise moment that I would have asked her to open it and beats me to it! Her tail and butt wagging furiously!

Well done Bellatrix!

Having lived on Vancouver Island I never really appreciated how much energy it takes to venture out through the winter. A great deal of my energy is used up just trying to accomplish a small task. I know there have been times when I just know that my tank is empty. If not for Bellatrix, this would be how I spend the winter. However, I am motivated to do the work if only to give her some fresh air and prancing in the snow! To watch her so eagerly bouncing through the snowbanks (or swimming in the summer) brings a smile to my face!

She dutifully gathers all my clothing bits and brings them to me for assembly. When we get home she peels the layers off of me one by one, maybe a tease or two like playfully shaking my sock or boot or running off with an errant mitten.

The more time I spend with Bellatrix, the more she gets to know me. She quietly gives me signals when it is time to go home from a visit with a friend. Sometimes, I need to go to bed despite the guests in our house! She is always right. A few times I made the mistake of ignoring her signals and when I finally realized I was depleted, it was too late!

My allodynia has improved over the years, however I still tend to panic when people come near me because their bumping would hurt me. Going to the store can be unbearable! Too many people, lights and sounds. I often feel like I can relate to those who suffer PTSD as I have similar panic attacks when I am in a crowded place. For these reasons I thought that getting an Assistance Dog would not work well for me but I was wrong!

People notice the dog and so give me a wider berth. I have not had anyone bump me by accident since she has become my constant companion! I have had some awesome conversations with people instead. The added benefit is that now I am a person again! When I am out in my wheelchair people treat me differently, avoidance or blatant questions as to what is wrong with me no longer exist. Now, they talk to me about my dog and maybe their dog and then they realize they actually enjoy talking to me.

These service animals are very calm. They are bred that way. Her calmness has kept my agitation level much lower than it has been and I am able to go out in public for longer periods of time. I have been able to go to a movie, museum, shopping and restaurants. All things I avoided before.

At home, she helps me with laundry, turning lights off and on; opening and closing doors, recycling, or getting things I need. (If you ever phone here do not be surprised by the heavy breathing you may encounter. She sometimes answers the phone when retrieving it for me!). When I am sad she cuddles in.

When my muscles are jerking she lays on them and her weight and warmth help a lot.

Having an Assistance animal is not for everyone. There is a fine line between being ill enough to need one and not too ill that you cannot look after one. They need care and they shed a lot! In my home fur is a condiment! As for me, she has saved me. I have found that I need to take much less breakthrough medication for pain. A huge bonus! I feel like I have joined society again and can look forward to vacations again.

Flying used to be brutal. Now with Bellatrix beside me we have navigated many different airports. Lying at my feet through the flight, she helps keep me calm and comfortable. We even  managed to go on a cruise together in 2013, something my husband and I would never have guessed we could do. I have been slowly learning about the areas in our new home here in Ottawa.

We have looked through different grocery stores where she helps gather the things I need off the shelves and helps me pay for them. I have had enough extra energy and confidence to explore new places.

I feel like I am more normal now!

Do your research! If you want to apply for an Assistance Animal be sure to check out and find a reputable organization. One who will continue to offer after care as there are always things that creep up over time. Having them in the background as your support will give you the confidence you need to go forth.

Be patient!

These dogs begin their training at 8 weeks of age and are not ready to be  placed until they are at least 2 years old. By then the trainers get an idea for the temperament of the dog and begin to consider who would be best placed with each dog.

Help to get the word out and consider supporting these dog schools. With more funding they can hire more trainers and train more animals for the benefit of people like me. The dog school where I got Bellatrix is called Pacific Assistance Dogs Society (PADS). Look them up at www.pads.ca.There is no charge for the dogs, but a huge expectation for care! In my opinion, that was the easy part.

Fern Kwantes

Editor’s Note: Thank you Fern for your well written, positive perspective on the benefits of service animals.

fundraising-book-coverIf you would like to learn more about Fern’s story, grab a copy of Fundraising on a Shoestring – a book written about the efforts Faith made to help her sister receive out of the country medical treatment for this rare disorder.

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