When Sarah Foster applied for a service dog to help with her Huntington’s disease, she wasn’t sure if she’d be successful.
It was a long road, but after a year of interviews, admin, and an intensive two-week training course, she brought Rupee into her home. Rupee is a yellow Labrador Retriever who can help open doors, set exercise routines, and alert others in a medical emergency.
But, as Sarah attests, the best thing about him is how much joy he brings into the household.
It was late summer when I went to the Eyes Ears Nose and Paws (EENP) two-week training program. EENP headquarters was five hours from my home. But luckily, it was located near my longtime friend’s – Josie’s - house who let me stay for the duration of the training.
Josie has been so supportive in helping Randy and me cope with my Huntington's disease, and she has been exceptionally accommodating and insightful on this service dog journey. I was grateful to be her house guest and to spend time with her after class.
The first two mornings, I was late for the training. I needed help remembering where the office was, so I kept looking it up on the internet. But I couldn't retain which floor it was long enough to make it to the elevator keypad. A Client Services Specialist, Hanna Baum, was kind enough to collect me whenever I got lost.
I met the other human clients as well as the class of EENP graduate dogs. Samantha, Cooper, and Pickles were Labrador retriever littermates, and Finn was a golden retriever.
All the dogs were purpose-bred and chosen as puppies to train as service dogs. They shared the necessary traits: agreeable temperament, great sense of smell, attentiveness, and the ability to recognize a medical emergency and alert those who could help.
During those first days, Deb Cunningham - the Founder and Program Director of EENP - taught the basics of dog ownership. She also taught us ways to frame our attitudes toward success and get the most out of the next two weeks.
We also started learning the cues. I had begun trying to memorize these cues before training, but it was still tricky. Fortunately, each new signal was put on the wall where I could refer to it.
For training exercises, all human and canine combinations were tried and studied by the staff. On the third day, EENP matched each of us with the best dog for our needs.
I got matched with Pickles, a dog that I truly clicked with during training. Working with him was easy, like a Sunday morning. He could read the room, figure out the end goal of a training game, and skip all the steps in between. Best of all, he loved belly rubs!
However, as a word, "Pickles" doesn't roll off my tongue the way a dog's name should. So, with permission, I renamed him Rupee after a college mentor's loyal, 15-year-old dog. I want a similar relationship with my service dog.
After the staff realized that my memory needed refreshing, they pulled me aside and prepared me for each ensuing activity. Because of my memory deficits, they broke large tasks into steps, much like how the dogs were instructed. Before advancing to the next step, I demonstrated that I knew what came before it. If I forgot, they reminded me with a smile.
Rupee and I learned to ride buses together. We learned how to safely get in and out of cars and ride escalators and elevators. We took each other to our respective bathrooms. We walked through stores and malls, and parking lots. And there was rain. Lots of rain. I learned that I wouldn't melt.
But each day of training was leaving me progressively tired. Sleep wasn't recharging my batteries as it should; it rarely does these days. The heat, my lack of conditioning, and the nagging back pain that turned out to be a cracked tailbone were all taking their toll. I took many breaks during our field trips, embarrassed at holding people up, although everyone was very accommodating.
My HD perseveration superpower had shifted from staying power to concern about being hot and sweaty. Summers are often that way in the North Carolina Piedmont. We call it “the dog breath of summer," coincidentally.
One day, Deb pulled me aside and asked me in a friendly way if I remembered the activity log I submitted over a year ago. She reminded me that it had been a demonstration of what to expect here.
I needed to be reminded about that. I had done it then. Therefore, I can do it now. I will do it now. I will push everything else out of the way. My mantra for every day that followed was "stamina."
And Rupee and I did it. We slept well at night and worked hard during the day.
Randy joined us near the end of the second week, engaging in some training with us. He and Josie attended the graduation ceremony. The moment the ceremony ended, everything caught up with me.
The borrowed energy and motivation receded, leaving me exhausted. That night we ate dinner in the air-conditioned comfort of our car.
Having Rupee has been worth every effort, every chance I took, the months I waited… and even the cracked tailbone! He is so remarkable that he distracts me from my darker thoughts.
And, very helpfully, his presence tells others: "There's something physical going on with this woman, but she isn't drunk."
Rupee has soulful, expressive eyes. He is photogenic, loves toys that make noise, and attempts to play with large stuffed animals as if they were fellow dogs. He came into our relationship knowing over 40 commands. And I learned how to use them.
I also learned softer skills, like how to get his tail wagging before issuing a command. How to not needle him or be negative. His greatest joy is to do what's asked of him. If kibble is involved, that's even better.
He aids with my walking by using a small amount of forward pressure. It removes the opportunity for me to stagger, at least for now, and I consider that a huge win because I can walk with more confidence. Even though I live in the mountains now, a flat park with a walking loop is nearby. It's my favorite place to walk, and now Rupee and I can walk there together.
If my hands are full, he opens doors for me (the ones equipped with a button for those with disabilities).
Actually... even if my hands are free, he pushes the button for me. Doing so delights him.
He waits for me patiently and crawls under chairs and tables when we go out. He can get my phone, keys, and fabric medicine bag. He can open doors and get help if I need it. I just learned about a handheld anti-choking aid. We plan to have one near me and teach him how to retrieve it if I have an aspiration (inhale food or drink into my airway).
Rupee and I enjoy taking care of each other. Let me count the ways:
And there’s much more, of course.
Rupee will help me be more active than before he came and, more importantly, stay active for as long as possible. He celebrates each new day in a way that shows every ounce of his zest for life.
How can I not agree with him that today is the best day ever? How can I refuse to wag my figurative tail along with his?
The information presented is solely for educational purposes, not as specific advice for the evaluation, management, or treatment of any condition.