I have been training Service dogs for the past ten years. This has been a rewarding adventure, but is not one I would have identified for myself had it not been for an illness called Fibromyalgia, a blue eyed Australian Shepherd named Hadji, and a cerebral hemorrhage. Some of us, it seems need more than a road sign and a map to point us in the right direction when it comes to life choices.
March 18, 1993 is a day I will never forget. My whole life changed. The day before that I was a cross-country bicyler, an interpreter for the deaf, and a myriad of other titles that I have long since stopped listing …well, sometimes I still name them all out. On that morning I woke up unable to walk. Four months later we understood it was FMS at its worst state. I would go in and out of remission enough to make your head spin. Mine finally has. This past year I had a cerebral hemorrhage after nasal surgery.
Everyone reading this article probably already knows first-hand what FMS is. The clinical definition and the physical identification you feel when you try to move but your body doesn't want to. We know the definition of stigma when people look at us and don't believe there is anything wrong at all because "you look healthy".
I was an outgoing person who suddenly didn't go anywhere because I hated it when people stared at my wheelchair, or asked me if I had been drinking and driving. The worst was when they would say it was such a shame for a young person to be in a wheelchair. My thought was always that it isn't fun for anyone to be in one. I found myself losing my balance when I was able to walk. Stairs were a nightmare. Dropping things became a way of life. Let's face it, going out of the house was just too much work. But then I met my miracle. A life changing, turning point named Hadji. In Hindu the name means teacher and traveler, and for the next six years this little blue eyed Australian shepherd did an extensive amount of both. She motivated me like none of my doctors could. She gave me courage. Together we went to college, and I received a degree in Rehabilitation Counseling from Troy State University. We were even invited to give lectures in Australia to teenagers on self-esteem.
I thought I bought my dog to keep me company at home like all the dogs before her, but Hadji was unique. She had that drive to help that all service dogs have. I taught her to open doors for me, assist me in getting up from a seated position, assist in transferring from my wheelchair, pulling my chair, and carrying items in her saddlebags. Once again I found I had freedom. In public people were not looking at me, they were looking at my dog. When people talked to me they were not talking too loudly. Where before they had assumed that I was deaf, now they were just talking to me. Talking NORMALLY to me about my dog. So Hadji taught me a new definition for FMS or any disability for that matter. Labels are perceptions not reality.
Service dogs provide assistance and independence. They make doing activities of daily living easier. Things like getting dressed, picking up dropped items. They keep us from falling, they open doors, turn on lights, and much more.
If it is true that God uses events to shape our lives, then I have a few very big neon signs to share with you. FMS turned my world upside down. Hadji started me in a new direction. The next signpost to come my way was a big black lab Named Slater.
After Hadji retired I began searching for a dog to train to be my next service dog. The next dog in line had some mighty big shoes to fill. I sent out mass e-mails to kennels and service dog agencies, and received responses back from several kennels with astronomical price lists, and a few service dog agencies that had waiting lists long enough to discourage even the brightest optimist. And then it happened again, that thing we call Divine intervention. Two e-mails, one from a new service dog agency, and when I say new, four months old new, in Lincoln, Nebraska, and one from a Labrador breeder in Colorado. In my heart I knew I had to have that dog and it had to wear their logo. I don't know why, but I just knew. Together, the new Domesti-PUPS organization and I started a fund raising campaign to bring Slater home. Within four weeks I had secured the money to purchase Slater and to fly round trip to Lincoln, NE to get Slater home. Michelle Ashley, Executive Director of Domesti-PUPS had secured funding for lodging and meals for one week and for the ten hour drive to Colorado from Lincoln Nebraska to pick Slater up from the Breeder. Domesti-PUPS was officially off the ground running. Much sooner than anticipated.
Slater was incredible. He was a fabulous balance dog. He was always steady, and always seemed to be my built in therapist. He always knew when I was having a bad day. On my job, co - workers would come by my office and ask for Slater time as a form of occupational therapy. Sadly, 18 months after obtaining Slater he developed a brain tumor and I lost him. His life was tragically short, and I will forever miss him. As a result of Slater, Domesti-PUPS received recognition as an agency sooner than they might have without him. Because of Slater a connection was made between Domesti-PUPS in Nebraska and me. This was the next progression in my mission in life, but I still didn't know it.
By the summer of 2002 I had recreated my life around FMS. I had a new career in social service. I had met the person of my dreams, we "Brady-Bunched" our families together, and bought a house. Things were going great. Then on August 26, 2002 after having nasal surgery, I suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. The bleed left me with a seizure disorder and sensory overload dysfunction. My challenges multiplied. As a result of added complications with sensory input, and seizures, not being able to drive, and occasional bouts of stuttering I cannot hold a job now. I require at least two naps a day to maintain clear cognitive function.
Darcie is the last part of my story, or perhaps she is just the beginning. Darcie is a wonderful Blue Merle Collie that will be graduating from the Domesti-PUPS program in December. I have been working with her now for several months and she is a wonderful dog. Darcie does balance work, wheelchair assist, and seizure response work. She will also be the Southeast Domesti-PUPS Canine Representative. She will be replacing Slater and remaining as my dog when she graduates. You see as a result of my new disability Michelle Ashley and I decided I could take lots of naps, and train dogs. I have found my place, my calling. I am still a rehab counselor at heart and an advocate for disability rights. I know first hand the benefits of service dogs both physically and emotionally. I understand the process from both sides of the fence. I know how it feels to see a recipient receive their dog, and I know how it feels to give that leash over to that person, but I also know first hand the life altering changes that await each person that receives a Guardian Angel with four paws and a logo that says Domesti - PUPS on its back.
The best thing about Service dogs is they don't care how many naps you need, or how often you stutter. It doesn't matter if you wear your jammies all day long. It doesn't matter what you look like, how much you weigh, how often you need them to pick something up for you. Darcie has to wake me up about three nights a week because of nightmares, and she never complains. If I have a seizure in public Darcie helps me to the floor and waits quietly beside me, keeping me calm. It doesn't matter if anyone else thinks you need them or not, they know, and they love you just the way you are. Service dogs provide as much for us emotionally as they do physically, and that’s a good thing.
It still amazes me this journey my family and I are traveling on. I know I have found my life's calling. I can't imagine my life without a service dog to share it with, and I want to give that opportunity to as many other people as I possibly can in my lifetime. Our family currently shares our home with all of the Southeast pups in training, four Collies, and the breeder called last night to let us know we need to find puppy raisers because babies are on the way! Who knows, one of those pups might just be your future furry Guardian Angel.
Rebecca Williams is Training Coordinator for Domesti-PUPS Southeast Division. You can reach her at