Service Dogs for Adults with Mito: My Story — by Heidi Martin-Coleman

A version of this story was originally posted on the website www.mitoaction.org

“You’re getting a DOG?” This was the reaction that my family and friends had when I told them I had applied for a service dog. I’m not a “dog person.” I never had the urge to get a puppy, and when visiting friends who had dogs, I really wasn’t interested in petting them, being sniffed or licked, or sitting on a couch that had fur on it. Nope, give me cats any day, but as far as dogs go, I’ll pass.

Heidi meets a dog on the NEADS campus -- this dog helped the NEADS team decide what size dog would work well for Heidi.

Initially, I wasn’t looking for a service dog at all. I was looking for a portable alerting device that I could carry in the bag with my IV and feeding pumps to alert me when the alarms went off. An intense 3-month search for such a device was unsuccessful. One of my former co-workers used to train dogs for agility competitions, and she mentioned that dogs can be trained to alert to sounds, along with many other tasks. A dog? Really? I figured it wouldn’t hurt to do a little research. Googling “service dog” provided more than twelve million hits! Yeesh. My co-worker gave me the website for IAADP, which lists common service dog tasks: http://www.iaadp.org/tasks.html Wow, I was speechless! Between the hearing dog and traditional service dog task lists, I found more than two dozen tasks that would increase my independence and safety. Suddenly, dog hair on furniture lost its importance.

The next order of business was finding out where I could get a service dog. Assistance Dogs International is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting performance standards and ethics within the service dog community. http://www.assistancedogsinternational.org/membersstatecountr y.php) The service dog agencies listed here have met ADI’s stringent criteria for membership; including sound management practices, adherence to Minimum Standards and Ethics established by the ADI board, provided extensive letters of recommendation from clients, trainers, the organization’s community and established ADI members, and more. I contacted the three organizations closest to home, and after careful consideration I decided to apply to NEADS in Princeton, MA.

The application itself was extremely thorough! As I answered questions regarding my daily routine, favorite activities, members of my family, travel, vacations, employment, very specific questions about my physical abilities and needs, I started getting nervous. “What are they hoping to hear? Am I telling them the right things?” In fact, I had my husband call for me (I was a little nervous about using my TTY, thinking perhaps the fact that I am Deaf as well as physically disabled would hurt my chances in some way!) to ask if there were any situations that disqualify applicants from receiving dogs. (This was not an unusual question; I had received information from an organization that dealt exclusively with hearing dogs that did not accept applicants with any other pets, including cats, or children under age 14!) My husband was told that the questions were not intended to disqualify applicants at all. In fact, the detailed questionnaire, together with the interview, helped the trainers painstakingly match the temperaments and strengths of the dogs to the clients’ lifestyles, needs, and activities. This detailed matching process, honed over several decades, has resulted in an exceptionally high success rate for their service dog teams. I relaxed immediately. This wasn’t a “test,” it was an effort to ensure our success!

The interview was quite relaxed; I truly felt that the emphasis was “What is the best way for us to meet your needs” rather than “Are you good enough to entrust with one of our dogs,” which was actually the feeling I got from one of the first organizations I contacted (and quickly eliminated from my list of possibilities!) If you recall, my initial goal was to find a dog that could alert me to my feeding and IV pump alarms. I was able to create quite a diverse list of other tasks as well; retrieving dropped objects, fetching items from another room, opening and closing doors, operating light switches and other devices, as well as an unspoken goal: create a buffer between the general public and a person with visible disabilities, machines, tubes, and wires.    All in all it was a pretty tall order! The NEADS representative taught me about the service dogs’ selection and training process, how tasks are learned and even more importantly, how they are reinforced.

Heidi trains with her service dog, Mercury, on the NEADS campus.

Right off the bat, we faced a potential problem. I wanted a dog who could alert me to specific sounds, which required the dog to maintain a constant level of alertness, but also a dog that was laid back and comfortable waiting long stretches between commands, content to have me make the first move. After a long discussion, we decided that a service dog’s skills would be more beneficial to me than a hearing dog’s would. Yes, there are dogs that are cross-trained to meet multiple needs, but the wait is long and the training and selection process is much more difficult. In the interest of time and regaining independence as soon as possible, I went forward with the search for a regular service dog. The NEADS staff even measured my wheelchair and brought out a few dogs to see which height that would be best for me to reach while sitting in my wheelchair!

Service dogs are considered high-end Durable Medical Equipment, and the costs associated with their selection and training certainly reflect this. By the time I met Mercury, over $20,000 had been invested in his selection, training, and care. Service dogs are not “purchased” by the person with a disability; the potential partner contributes to the organization’s fundraising efforts. NEADS’ fundraising coordinator was extremely helpful, and offered lots of ideas to assist me in meeting my goal. My fundraising had barely started when I was matched with Mercury, but the all-important selection and matching process outweighed the financial aspects of obtaining a service dog, so fundraising was temporarily put on hold while we became a team. After we graduated from boot camp, Mercury and I visited local businesses, schools, the police and fire stations, and the media to raise awareness for service and hearing dogs. Donations to NEADS in Mercury’s name started pouring in, and our fundraising goal was met in no time at all.

The interview concluded with a quick tour of the campus, including beautiful grounds with paved paths, a fully accessible farmhouse with client dorm rooms, the puppy living/training area, and even a cat rescue operation. My husband and I were told that placing a service dog can take anywhere from a few months to over a year. In early July, I received a call that I had been matched with a service dog and the next training would be held in early August!

After the initial surprise and excitement wore off, I started to worry about the mandatory two-week intensive training session. Was I capable of attending and participating in such a rigorous program with Mito-related significant medical issues and disabilities? The short story is, “We did it!” It was NOT easy, but it wasn’t impossible either.

Service dog “boot camp” is challenging. Every morning, I worried if I would be able to keep up the pace and make it through the day, and every night I wept with exhaustion wondering if I’d be able to get out of bed the next morning. However, it was all worth it. Here is an excerpt from the journal I kept during training:

Heidi bonds with Mercury during training

The trainer approached with three dogs on leads, two black labs and a smooth-coated collie, excited yet self-restrained. A handful of kibble helped ease the transition. “Hi…dog…” he traded kibble for a hand-washing. “Hello Merc…” Oh gosh, his name is a command, what do I call him? Mercury glanced at the trainer…now what? Good question! I followed Mercury’s lead and looked at the trainer too!

The clock ticked down the next three hours, taking my confidence with it. Mercury was so smart! But, my commands were all wrong. Too quiet, the pitch too low, too high, missing sounds…when a Deaf person practices speech it’s a bit like a blind person practicing penmanship.    I was exhausted and near tears as I made my way back to my room, with Mercury obediently walking beside my chair.

I was too tired to join the others for supper, so Mercury and I went to my room. I opened my backpack and clothes tumbled to the floor. That’s it, I had reached my breaking point. I can’t do this, who am I kidding? All my emotions poured out with my tears; frustration, anger, sadness, grief, fear, loneliness…suddenly, I felt like I wasn’t alone. I opened my eyes, still blurred with tears, and found Mercury sitting next to me, a pair of socks in his mouth. He put his head on my knee, and our eyes met; “Aren’t we going to clean this up?” Wow. Yes, we can clean this up. Maybe we can do this. Mercury, I think we can do this!    I noticed the change in the pronouns I was using; “us” instead of me, “ours” instead of mine. We were on our way to becoming a team!

I would be more than happy to talk to you about my experiences with NEADS and with Mercury. Feel free to contact me at redtape@mitoaction.org.
For more information, visit www.mitoaction.org
To read more by Heidi, visit her question/answer blog Cut the Red Tape

COPYRIGHT 2011 Heidi Coleman & MitoAction.org. Permission required to reproduce.

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