In November 2002, Ebenezer, our sweet almost-17-year-old mixed terrier, became suddenly and seriously ill. The next day, Ron and I had to call our vet, Dr. Karen Kowalski, to come and help him on his final journey.
Something in both of us wanted to run right out and get another dog; we hadn?t been without at least one dog for more than thirty years. But I wasn?t able to run anywhere at that time. A couple of days earlier, I had gone into an attack of multiple sclerosis that paralyzed me from the waist down. I knew I wasn?t capable of adequately caring for a new pup, so Ron and I agreed that we?d wait until I was at least able to walk short distances on my crutches again before we thought about getting another dog.
Four months later. I?d recovered enough to want (need!), a pet to care for. Before Ron and I started our search, I asked God to lead us to the one dog with whom we would share a mutual (albeit nameless) need and a mutual ability to fulfill the other?s need. Then I went to Petfinder.com to look for another small, blonde terrier mix like Eb.
But a young black lab mix caught my attention. And he held it, even as I tried to ignore him and continue my search for a terrier mutt. Finally, I gave in to the insistent voice in my heart. I went back and followed the link to Roncy?s website. There I read about Jacob. Immediately and with absolute certainty, I knew that he was destined to be part of our family. I filled out an application to adopt him. Then I printed out his picture and showed it to Ron with the announcement that "this is our dog!"
A few days later, after many e-mails to and from Roncy, Ron and I went to Eastgate Animal Hospital to meet Jacob. I can describe the minute I saw him most honestly by saying that a light went on in my soul. I put my crutches on the floor of Chaos Park, knelt down, and called across the room to him. He came running to me and kissed my face. Jill told us that Jacob never reacted like that to new people. She and Roncy described Jacob?s history, his rescue as a flea-infested baby from an abandoned barn, followed by several foster experiences, and two adoptions that ultimately didn?t work out. Jill said that they had asked God to send the one family who?d be able to give Jacob a forever home, Seeing Jacob with us, she said, she believed God had answered their prayer. Ron and I believed that he?d simultaneously answered ours. We took Jacob home that day.
A few days later, Dr. Karen came to our house to meet Jacob. Toward the end of her visit, she asked if I?d considered training him as my service dog. I hadn?t; I didn?t know much about what that meant or involved. Doctor Karen explained that a dog like Jacob could learn to assist me in ways that would lessen the disabling effects of MS in my daily life.
I don?t know how she recognized in Jacob the qualities that a service dog would need, but I?m forever grateful that she brought up the subject. Karen offered to contact a friend of hers, an experienced trainer who could guide us through the preparations for what would be Jacob?s new career. Diane (Carr) came to our house once a month for most of the next year, effectively training me to train Jacob in the skills needed for service work.
Diane told us several times during those months that Jacob was a ?trainer?s dream.? He came to us already housetrained, crate trained, and fluent in several simple behaviors. Thanks to the comprehensive care he?d received from Roncy and her volunteers during his puppyhood, we had a solid foundation on which to build his skills. He was (and still is!) an eager student. He loved (and still loves!) the operant conditioning clicker training on which Diane?s program was based.
He quickly learned many ?tricks? to help me in my daily activities. He carries dirty laundry from the hamper to the washer and clean laundry (in his own bucket) from the dryer to the bedroom. He retrieves anything that I drop (I?m teaching him to ?ask permission? first, as sometimes the dropped item would be dangerous in his mouth). He can find by name several objects that I need often: my purse, his leash, a telephone. He puts paper in the wastebasket and his toys in the toy crate. He braces his shoulders to give me sturdy support when I need help to get up from the floor; then he brings me a crutch so I can walk. He opens and closes doors, cabinets, and the dishwasher; he turns lights off and on. He helps me undress (I take over once he gets my shirt and shoes off).
As with anything that?s worth having or doing, there have been challenges, especially as we trained Jacob for public access. He let us know, by firmly planting all four feet and refusing to budge, that he doesn?t like to shop in big discount department stores. The sensory overload that accompanies crowds of people, jammed aisles, buzzing fluorescent lights, screeching PA systems, and whooshing automatic doors makes him nervous. Yet he happily trots through similarly crowded and noisy church festivals and flea markets. He still hasn?t learned to ignore distractions, such as kids who want to pet him or friends we see when we?re out. He still barks furiously at the mailman. I try to avoid confrontations with him on our walks, but I don?t blame Jacob for barking. We have one mailman in particular at whom I?d love to bark right along with Jacob. But Jacob can accompany us to any restaurant, where he?ll go under our table and lie quietly through the whole meal. I guess the minuscule possibility that we might slip him a sliver of chicken is still a powerful incentive for him to behave. I only hope the mailman doesn?t stop in at the same restaurant while we?re eating.
Jacob is happiest when he has a real job to do, something that?s constructive even from a human point of view. He takes his work seriously. But his work ethic doesn?t interfere with his ability to act like a canine clown or make up doggy games to entertain us.
Jacob has inspired me to get up out of my wheelchair much more often than I used to. We?ve learned some canine freestyle steps, with me in my power wheelchair or on my crutches, and Jacob moving around me. We both love the freedom and informality of our daily ?dance sessions,? and the need to focus closely on each other while we practice has effected an even stronger bond between us.
Jacob?s presence as my service dog has been a priceless aid in my fight to overcome the disabling effects of multiple sclerosis. The emotional and spiritual improvements he has brought to our lives are even more significant. Ron and I share an unabashed love for him, and we revel in the unconditional love he shows us.
Looking back over the past two years, I have to thank God that he engineered the events of that time as he did. If the MS hadn?t hit me so hard at the same time that Eb died, Ron and I would surely have looked for another dog right away. We would have found one quickly enough. We might even have found one that would bond powerfully with both of us, and that would be willing and able to learn and carry out the tasks that are so helpful to me.
But any other dog wouldn?t be Jacob. Any other dog wouldn?t be right for us now or, we pray, for many years to come.