Through my frequent stories starring my favorite furry friend, many are already acquainted with my Alice Eloise. But today we have some very exciting news to share. After two years of dedicated work, on July 27th, Alice Eloise and I took our public access test, and we are now a certified service dog team!
My anticipation leading up to our test was so encompassing that I was awake all night on the eve of our test just thinking about it. Meanwhile Alice Eloise was sleeping as soundly as she always does, completely oblivious to the fact that she would awaken to a most momentous morning in which her potential career as a service dog would be either secured or, at the very least, temporarily dismissed.
I should have taken a cue from Alice Eloise on this sleepless night. She knew there was no need to fret! She demonstrated her skills as a service dog beautifully for her evaluation. She proved that she does not become skittish when exposed to shopping carts and startling noises and showed that she can be reliably obedient and proceed calmly through varying unfamiliar situations without incident. And of course strangers shouldn’t interrupt a service dog’s work, but in case such an occurrence should at some point arise, Alice Eloise needed to display an appropriate response when an adult and a child approached and petted her. And honestly, how could I find fault with the occasional admirer who simply cannot deny Alice’s charm? Alice Eloise also exhibited that she is capable of lying quietly under a table at a restaurant, and that she can resist the temptation to swipe any food that falls to the floor. These are just a few examples from the whole list of tasks Alice was required to complete, but she gave a first-class performance, allowing us to ace our test with ease. Our friend Gail, a local trainer, has helped us quite a lot throughout our training process, and she generously set aside a part of her weekend to administer the test. I am very appreciative for her assistance and kindness!
As a way of celebration, Alice Eloise and I took advantage of the weekend of glorious weather, spending the better part of two days outside, intermittently reveling in an enthralling book and playing several enthusiastic games of fetch! And since I am always one to extend the festivities as long as possible, the hoopla continues. My sister Krista spent last week with us, and was sure to give Alice Eloise plenty of congratulatory hugs! And, naturally, I have every intention of throwing a tea party in Alice’s honor!
But of course every working girl should have a trench coat, one that even Mary Tyler Moore herself would be proud to wear. So as Alice Eloise’s greatest supporter, I took the liberty of whipping up this charming little number for my adorable service dog! Because wouldn’t it be a shame for inclement weather to muss up her stunning coiffure?
And guess what! August 4-10, 2013, is International Assistance Dog Week! So Alice Eloise and I would like to tell you a bit about the life of a service dog.
Firstly, what exactly is a service dog? There is often a misconception about what a service dog is. Often times they are confused with therapy dogs and emotional support dogs. All of these animals serve very honorable purposes, but there is a difference in what they are required to do.
A therapy dog is trained to be calm, loving, and generally obedient. These dogs visit Ronald McDonald Houses, hospitals, nursing homes, disaster areas and other similar situations to give some much-needed comfort and affection to the people they meet there… I have visited with many wonderful therapy dogs, and I can vouch for the therapeutic benefits they provide! An emotional support dog (or, really, any type of pet, be it dog, cat, pony, or hedgehog) is a well-behaved pet that provides love and companionship as a means of therapy for an owner who needs a cheerful boost to help them through the day.
So what does being a service dog entail? Obviously this varies from team to team. You are probably familiar with seeing-eye dogs, for instance, that aid their blind handlers, keeping them safe as they go about their daily activities. Or there are diabetes alert dogs that can sense when there is a change in a person’s insulin levels and proceed to notify their handler so that they can take appropriate action to avoid a dangerous situation. What really distinguishes a service dog is that they are trained to perform specific tasks for their individual handler’s unique circumstances. The wide spectrum of manners in which a service dog can help a disabled person gain freedom and function is truly incredible.
In my case, Alice Eloise sticks closely to my right side, guarding my painful arm from harm in the bustle of crowds when we are out in public. Among other tasks, she is gaining a knowledge of retrieval-based skills so that she can fetch and carry objects for me, as I am limited in this regard since my right arm is not functional.
Since a service dog plays such a vital role in their handler’s life, they are granted public access and can escort their handler anywhere that the general public is allowed. This means that Alice Eloise can accompany me to all of my doctor visits, to stores, to restaurants, and, if I ever actually make it there, she will be my study buddy at veterinary school. Alice is allowed to be in the cabin of an airplane with me when we travel by flight to see doctors. And when I am admitted to the hospital, I will no longer need to whip out a photo of Alice Eloise to display to each and every hospital personnel who meanders into my room, as I notoriously have been known to do, because my little Double Doodle will be right there with me!
We will certainly continue Alice’s training as we fine tune tasks specifically designated to mitigate the limitations I have due to disability. But right now we are just so psyched to be reaching our goals! I have been known to take on an ambitious project from time to time. My mom is fully aware that I am a very determined young lady, but at times she finds it difficult to consider my seemingly extravagant aspirations to be attainable. But she is learning to not be too abrupt in disregarding my intentions. So now that Alice and I are officially a service dog team, she has admitted that she never really believed I would successfully self-train a service dog. So if you would allow me a moment to bask in the realization of this major ambition of mine, I would like to declare for all to hear, “WE DID IT!!!”
But have I ever told you of how this newly instated service dog team came to be? Well, one February day in 2011 I made a fateful decision that many would have quite frankly considered to be kooky. I was inpatient at Shands hospital in Gainesville, Florida, at the time. I was experiencing a baffling episode of prolonged high fevers and plummeting blood counts that we later discovered were attributed to Hemophagocytic Lymphohistiocytosis (HLH). That year my parents and I had bounced from Chicago, to Kansas City, to New Haven, to Orlando, to Miami, to Tampa, to Gainesville in search of treatment, spending only a handful of days at home throughout that period of time. Oh, and we were in the process of helping my sister plan a wedding in North Carolina to take place a few short months later.
And in the midst of this chaos, I made the enlightened announcement that it was time for me to make preparations for training my very own service dog. Oh, my poor mother… I imagine she was working hard to convince herself that this nonsensical puppy talk was merely some form of delirium that would pass just as soon as the fever broke.
My sense of timing may have seemed a bit skewed, but I assure you my cognition was in no way hindered at that inspired moment. My thought process was perfectly sound, thank you very much.
Now I had been fantasizing about self-training a service dog for quite a while. I spent many an evening contemplating eligible names for my future little darling, as I have always felt that the responsibility of naming a baby, be they human or canine, is highly important and not to be taken lightly. And after much pondering, I finally selected the beautiful name Alice, after one of my favorite characters in all of literature, the adventuress of “Alice in Wonderland”.
Still, I fully concede that my plans had been rather abstract. But just as soon as I was discharged from the hospital, I found myself filling out an application for a Labradoodle puppy.
It seemed as though my masterfully-laid plans were falling into place as I arrived home in time to bring my Alice to her new house in May of that year, but sadly after a few days we discovered that this pup had rare neurological issues, a horribly ironic twist. Although it broke my heart to see Alice go, the dog breeder did a wonderful job of finding a new home for her in Arizona with an excellent family who could provide all of the special care she required and deserved.
I know that this was the best way to ensure a full and happy life for my itty bitty Alice, but saying goodbye to her was incredibly difficult for me to do. I can’t even come up with the right words to convey how upset I was to lose my beloved puppy. I swore I would never have it in me to get another dog.
But God quickly intervened, knowing that this lifelong dog-lover needed a pup of her own. In fact, I needed a pup to fill the sad little place in my heart right away.
Only one week later I saw this picture of a brand new litter of adorably wiggly Double Doodle puppies, and although I had told the breeder that I didn’t feel ready to have another pup, it just so happened that she had reserved the first pick of the litter for me, just in case a capricious moment renewed my puppy mania. And, to my surprise, a certain little redhead instantly began to wrap me around her tiny paw.
And on the magical day when I met that bashful puppy with the soulful eyes, I was done for, entirely smitten. There was no question… She was meant to be mine.
She was to be named Alice. Original? Well, no, but why give the sweet baby an inferior name? And it seemed like a perfectly fitting choice as a way to honor my first cherished Doodle-pup. But for some additional flare, I decided to call her Alice Eloise.
What is a Double Doodle, you ask? Here’s a piece of complex mathematics to get your brain ticking:
Golden Retriever X Labrador Retriever X Poodle = ???
The answer to this mind bender is the most sensational dog breed in history, the Double Doodle, of course! Alice Eloise’s doggy mom is a Labradoodle, and her doggy dad is a Goldendoodle. Double Doodles, also called North American Retrievers, are one of the few types of dogs that were initially bred to be trained as service dogs. With an ancestry of three exceptionally intelligent breeds, it comes as no surprise that Double Doodles were intended to serve such a noble mission.
It’s interesting to see the oftentimes remarkable variances between pups in the same Doodle litter. Alice’s litter consisted of caramel and cream colored puppies, with Alice being the only one with a red coat. Some pups have hair in spiral curls like a Poodle, while others more closely resemble a Labrador. Even their size can be drastically different. My Alice Eloise has a rather petite frame, but her sister outweighs her by about 20 pounds! There is no predicting what a Doodle will look like, but it’s guaranteed they will be undeniably precious.
Most of the time people receive a service dog from an organization that specializes in training dogs specifically for this purpose. However, the dog is usually around two years old before being matched with a handler, and I really wanted the special bonding time that comes with raising a dog from puppyhood!
And my Alice Eloise was a natural service dog from the moment she came home. The very day she arrived, I had been released from the hospital following an exhausting two-week HLH flare. I was very weak and in unbearable pain, but my new puppy was content to simply cuddle!
And Alice Eloise quickly adjusted to my unique routine. Each day I am connected to my bag of total parenteral nutrition (TPN) for 15 hours. She has never once bothered my IV equipment, and has always simply complied that when the lights go out, it’s time to snooze. But to ensure that my mom wouldn’t lie awake wondering if this setup was indeed safe, we hosted a month-long slumber party in my bedroom, with not even the slightest hint of fiasco, before Mom could return to her own room and rest assured that all was well. I truly feel it was very much in our favor that my pup was exposed to these unusual circumstances from such a young age… In fact, if you asked her, she’d tell you that there is nothing unusual about them! Having grown up with these oddities, they are all a part of her “normal”.
As she grew, Alice’s timidity quickly melted away as she blossomed to develop a personality much like my own! She is a quirky, spunky little thing. But she is a loving and gentle dog, always eager to please. These traits have made our many training sessions such a lot of fun!
But as is typically the case when chasing goals, we did face some hurdles. Alice went through a rather extensive phase in which she would wholly lose her brain and zoom around the room at full speed, a phenomenon formally recognized as a “frenetic rapid activity period ,” but is much more satisfying to say if you turn that title into the verb “FRAP”. So in my mind’s eye, I occasionally had horrific visions of my “service dog” wildly FRAP-ing around a Ronald McDonald House! Certainly that wouldn’t meet regulations, would it? And her counter-surfing habit… Oh no, that would most definitely violate health code.
But our ultimate challenge was her nausea and anxiety associated with car rides. Whenever we merely stood next to our car Alice would begin drooling profusely in anticipation of the misery that she was certain must be forthcoming. Since I was so sick when Alice first came home, my sister, Krista, and her husband, Tim, went to pick my puppy up from the breeder. And when Alice was a slobbery mess the entire way home, Krista feared that I had chosen yet another sick puppy!
But I wasn’t about to give up on my beautiful Alice Eloise. I knew she could be the perfect service dog! We used to sit in the car, remaining in a stationary position, never leaving the driveway as we took “Magic School Bus” style make-believe adventures with very real refreshments, including platefuls of bologna, cheese, and jelly beans. These efforts weren’t in vain, as she made quite a bit of progress, but she was still obviously distressed if we left the comfort of her own driveway.
Mom and I even took Alice Eloise to an animal behaviorist! This doctor had a very eccentric demeanor, almost as if by spending so much time talking to animals she relinquished her people skills. We joke that this doctor tried to train us, the humans, rather than the slobber-sodden pooch who walked through the door.
Her ingenious solution? Either leave Alice at home all the time, or buy a new car.
Ha! Right. Now I was willing to do just about anything to help Alice Eloise overcome her fears. But buying her a car? Sheesh. I have no income. I can’t even afford my own lip gloss.
But recently when our family car was about to conk out, we traded it in for a new SUV. And guess what! Now that she has plenty of room to stretch out and relax, Alice Eloise travels completely at ease. I am so thrilled about this, I could write a song! Because how could my trusty service dog tag along for cross-country doctor visits if she is terrified of car rides?
And as for Alice’s other minor behavioral stumbling blocks? Just devoting plenty of attention to training rectified her counter-surfing blunders. And honestly, I would feel guilty if I completely deprived her of FRAP-ing opportunities. Alice Eloise and I are a couple of playful spirits, so after a long day, the two of us enjoy letting loose with a therapeutic FRAP every now and then, but only if we are in a controlled environment at the appropriate time, of course!
I have always been positively wild about canine companions, but even I never could have fancied having such a true, meaningful friendship with a dog. The special harmony Alice Eloise and I have reached through our hours upon hours of playtime and training goes far beyond even the greatest connection I could imagine having with a pet. It makes my heart happy that she follows me everywhere I go simply because she knows that wherever I am, she belongs, too. And for me, whenever everything hurts and my chipper disposition seems to lose a hint of its sparkle, a hug from Alice Eloise makes everything feel better, and smiles seem to effortlessly materialize somehow.
As crazy as the timing for me to take on the challenges of training a service dog might have seemed, it appears that God felt otherwise. Isn’t it amazing how He can take what seems like a plan destined for failure and miraculously transform it into something magnificent? And while I am elated that Alice Eloise and I are attaining the dreams we have so diligently worked for, I am humbly aware that our success is in no way a result of my own efforts, but rather a wonderful gift from the Lord!
“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”
Living with chronic illness has so often made me feel lonely as I watched others around me reaching important milestones that I would have hoped to achieve, too… But God always knows precisely what we need, and exactly when we need it. So He lit up my world with a lovely beam of sunshine when He blessed me with the ultimate best friend, my dazzlingly beautiful, feisty and joyful, faithful and loving, spectacular service dog Alice Eloise!
And I am sure there are many of you who are equally cuckoo about your own special pooch! Aren’t you so delighted that God made a dog?
Sarah Kathryn Frey