By guest blogger, Joey Ramp
People ask me, “What does he do for you?” I think back to one day not too long ago, this is what I wrote in my journal……..
“Theo appears to be resting as he lay beside me. The doctor’s office was exceptionally busy today, people moving around, talking loudly and bustling behind me, which is never a good thing. I look at the clock and then look down and I stare at Theo, memorizing the way every hair lay across his back and the way his whiskers move slightly as he breathes. My heart is racing, my breathing is shallow, my vision becomes dark and blurry and the headache starts to set in. Suddenly Theo’s head comes up, his ears perked and he stares at me fully alert, his eyes scan my face and I look at the concern in his eyes, first he licks my hand once and then places his head on my leg. Somewhere in the distance, I hear a tiny voice say, “Isn’t he cute…” Like a train entering a tunnel at full speed, real-time rushes in……people, light, images and noise flash into my brain.
I look at the clock again and 10 minutes have gone by, I realize that my mind had gone to that dimension somewhere between the past and the present; Theo brought me back before I got lost. His movement is subtle and endearing to those around, yet life-saving to me. I hear that voice again, directly beside me, “He is so smart; I wish my dog were that well-trained,” and I think, you have no idea. My gaze never leaves Theo’s face, my hand reaches down and I play with his ears, flipping them over and over in my fingers, they feel like velvet and he watches, he is always watching.”
What appeared to be a dog sleeping at his owner’s feet and oblivious to his surroundings, who then rises to show affection by a lick and is, by appearance, seeking attention, is actually a service dog completing a trained task. Theo watches me not only with his eyes, but with every sense and instinct he possesses. He hears my heart rate and knows when it becomes high or abnormal. He smells the change of chemicals in my body, he senses tension or panic. This subtle movement is his way of bringing me into the moment, he gives me a familiar and safe focal point and he makes me smile, sometimes that smile is only on the inside. The task he is trained to perform will begin subtle and escalate by degree. As a first indicator, he will lick my hand or place his head on my lap. If I don’t respond, he will put his paw in my lap. Next he will stand and put his chest on my legs and continuously nudge me and then, if I have still not responded to his alert, he will place both paws on my lap, stand up and push his body against mine. Gradually increasing his “alert” until I respond, giving him acknowledgement or removing myself from the physical place I am in. I have come to recognize even a slight movement of his brow or paw on my foot to know when he is beginning an alert, which helps keep me from getting to deep into a no-win situation.
There are a multitude of “things” a service dog can do.
To list them all would take pages-upon-pages. There are websites easily found through a search on the internet that list specific tasks trained. A service dog is trained to mitigate a disability and is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allowing them access to all areas the public are allowed to go. An emotional support dog or a therapy dog is not covered for public access under the ADA. Service dogs are now being trained to support a multitude of disabilities. Hearing dogs are trained to alert their handler to common sounds like a doorbell, tea kettle or alarms. Dogs are trained to accompany adults and children with Autism to assist them in life skills, social situations and communication. Dogs are being trained for many medical specifications like diabetic alert dogs, seizure alert dogs and dogs trained to mitigate PTSD symptoms. These dogs can smell changes like a drop in blood sugar and detect early warning signs of a seizure or debilitating panic. Mobility dogs are trained to stabilize individuals with balance issues, “brace” to assist someone in standing if they fall or stand from sitting, help with ascending and descending stairs or curbs, these dogs can pull lightweight wheelchairs as well. The guide dog is trained to assist the visually impaired by halting at curbs, redirecting their partner in a hazardous situation, and to find items and locations. A service dog’s ultimate goal is to assist each individual, with specialized tasks to mitigate individual disabilities, many times mitigate several disabilities so their human can lead a potentially happier, healthier and more independent life.
Not all dogs are good candidates for the life of a service dog, that can be determined early as a puppy, or not determined until well into training. A service dog candidate is temperament tested and then begins training, training can take up to 2 years or more, and training is never complete. A service dog continues to learn new tasks and practices current tasks. In addition to the basic commands like sit, stay and down a service dog learns a battery of about 40 standard tasks like down-stay, sit-stay, hold (hold an item in their mouth), retrieve and identify items such as medicines, telephones or canes. I have heard of dogs learning up to 170 commands. Theo, on command, picks up anything I drop from a crutch to a quarter, a piece of paper or my purse.
Theo is trained to mitigate my PTSD symptoms as well as mobility issues due to nerve damage in my left leg and back. Below is a partial list of tasks, beyond the basics, and those previously discussed that he is trained to perform:
These are just a few of the “things” Theo does for me. People also ask, “When does he get to be a dog?” It is a misconception that service dogs work, work, work!! Theo is technically off-duty at home, he knows when he is vested that he is working, when we come home he waits to get “undressed” (unvested) and I tell him, “Ok, you’re free!” Others may keep their dog in gear at home to aid in their disability. But, Theo knows the difference between work and free time. When he is in public and working he should be left alone, not distracted, and basically ignored by the public so he can do his job effectively. Only my closest friends and my family get to see the “free” Theo and I think they would all agree, he definitely has down- time and can be a dog. This is not to say he doesn’t choose to continue to do his job at home, he sincerely enjoys his job and takes it seriously. But, he loves to play fetch, he has a stuffed toy we named Woobie that he carries around, he gets silly and likes for us both to military crawl across the floor, he thinks that is way too much fun. He has a dog friend that he loves to play with. He naps and even snores sometimes and hangs upside down off the couch. He likes to lounge across my lap when I watch TV and sleep. He likes to dance around with me and wag his tail, putting his ears back all puppy-like and he smiles, yes, he smiles. But, if the time comes at home that I need him, vested or not, he jumps into action without being asked, because he loves his job and he loves me. He has my back. We are partners.
A service dog is a great deal of responsibility, for me my life changed for the better with him by my side. For me it is worth every bit of effort and the best decision I could have made. He has changed my life, he altered my course and I am now going in a positive direction. He has given me the confidence to enter society again on my own terms, go back to college and seek out my dreams; he has helped me achieve my successes. He has been there during the good days, and he is there during the bad days. We have been side-by-side, every minute of every day. He has kept me going forward. He continues to give me hope. He is my partner and he is my friend. I can easily say he has saved my life.
In my next guest blog I will write about what it is like to attend college with a service dog.
Positive light always,
Joey and Theo
Joey Ramp and her service dog Theo are currently attending college with the hope of completing a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience; to provide a wide range of first-hand knowledge and life experience to the study of PTSD. With a degree in secondary education, they are finishing Chemistry pre-requisites at Parkland College before transferring to the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Illinois. Joey and Theo work diligently advocating and providing support for others suffering from PTSD, by speaking on panels and at seminars, giving voice to those who have not found theirs yet. Joey struggles with Chronic Complex PTSD, and struggles with significant pain and physical limitations. Joey and Theo work together to make a difference in removing the stigma, helping individuals who are struggling and providing a positive example of what recovery and moving forward can look like.
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