We interrupt the Roadtrip series to bring you a special post.
Dan was contacted recently by the wonderful Earlene and asked to write about how Casper has changed his life. He was stumped but today a story came flowing out. It is too much for what Earlene is looking for, but I (Lauri) had to share this with all of our loving and supportive readers. It brought tears to my eyes. Part of this post will be tweaked and submitted to Earlene soon, presumably for the website. I hope to share my own story at some point as well because he has touched us all in amazing ways.
How a service dog is changing my life
I’ve been asked to write about how a service dog changed my life. On the surface this seems like there should be a simple and quick answer; it’s not for me. I’ve been considering this for several days. I think it may be a more accurate to ask how my life changed to allow a service dog into my life. From this I hope to find the answer to the question.
First, let’s answer the question; what qualifies me to have a service dog in my life at all? The short answer is Cerebral Palsy. For those that need a quick definition, Cerebral Palsy (CP) is an umbrella term for a group of non-progressive, non-contagious motor conditions that cause physical disability in human development; it is a group of disorders that can involve brain and nervous system functions, such as movement, learning, hearing, seeing, and thinking. There are several different types of cerebral palsy, including spastic, which is where my physical existence falls in the spectrum.
I was born with CP. I was not born with a service dog. I have found, oddly, that these statements need to be made. I have now come across more than one person in my daily interactions that have seen me both with and without a dog. These people seem shocked that I’d have a dog, but maybe they were shocked that I had a cane and did a better job of keeping fascination and comments to themselves? I haven’t been so bold as to ask. I don’t really need to know in order to move forward.
It seems fair to give you a glimpse back at my life before a service dog; back to what conditions molded me as a person. I was lucky enough to be born to very strong parents. An important point is that my father has a medical background. He is a retired career firefighter/paramedic /EMT who also served our country in the military. My mother grew up, and worked, the family farm. How does that shape me? It gave me parents who are not afraid of hard work and long hours. I’d say my childhood could be defined as tough, unconditional love. This was hard to see at the time but now I know it is a defining quality. I don’t take no for an answer because neither did they. When doctors have to tell you that your child will not walk, could be affected mentally, and motor skill deficient there are several ways this news could be processed. My parents’ response was to acknowledge this and move forward with the fact that I could also not be all those things. If I was, fine. If they needed to put in the work to see a different result then that was the only path forward for them and for me. This meant for my father, countless hours of overtime, multiple concurrent jobs and tireless work to pay medical bills. For my mother it meant she stayed home with my sister and me to make sure I made it to therapy appointments among countless other daily jobs, not the least of which was when she took the roll of therapist herself. I grew up with the knowledge that I did not have a disability, at least not one that excused or excluded me from anything. I simply had to find a different way to accomplish goals. Life gives you challenges, not impossibilities. This all made me stubbornly independent.
As an adult I became accustomed to easing people’s concerns over my disability. One of my favorite comments to the uninitiated in my world is, “I’m going to trip and fall. I’ll be fine, just give it awhile and you won’t notice the disability.” I have had more than a few people tell me that they forget I have anything wrong with me. I assume they mean other than my stupid sense of humor. This ‘Nothing stops me!’ attitude does backfire from time to time, particularly when I could use help carrying beverages and would like it to stay in the glass rather than on the floor and I do not feel like making several trips to complete the task of pouring a glass of milk.
So with all this, how did I come to the idea that a service dog could be in my life? The answer is; I didn’t. The love of my life did. She did when I told her that the only way I would have a dog was if he was service trained. This was another of my attempts to not have another pet, just yet. This was before I knew there were service dogs that could help with balance and stability, recovery from a fall, and other tasks. We were accustomed to sight or seizure dogs but not stability. So we found Service Dog Project, visited and quickly fell in love with the organization. I still hadn’t admitted to myself that I was a candidate, even when they asked me if I was an applicant. I’m persistent, so it took me a long time to even acknowledge what was happening. For several weeks we visited, volunteered and showed up as much as possible. During this time everyone, with varying degrees of patience waited for me to come around. My personal trainer, who wrote a letter of recommendation made the point that I won’t accept help from a human, but I’d never deny a dog. That is quite an accurate statement. I didn’t even fill out the paperwork on my own; it was handed to me completed except for information that required my effort. Once my paperwork was submitted the process moved along rather quickly because I was already forming a bond with my service partner, Casper, through volunteering and socialization. It turned out that the dog needed a job and he picked me, and my family. This was noted by the organization and the match gelled better than I could have imagined.
My life has changed in many ways. I stopped using my cane the day I drove home with a Great Dane in the back of an extended cab Ford Ranger. The cane is now reserved for times when he is given freedom to run.
From a physical stand point there are changes that are apparent. I walk straighter, slower and easier. I trip less with the dog than when I allowed myself to be off balance with or without the cane. I have less stress on my elbows and shoulders now that I am not sending a shock from the ground through a cane, even with relatively light pressure. It was a something I didn’t notice until I didn’t live with it.
I see a difference in myself whether I’m out in public or I am working at the office. I feel a higher level of confidence. People are still going to notice my disability and that’s fine with me, but they also notice my Dane. It’s amazing how a many smiles he brings to the faces of the otherwise distracted. There are very few people who walk into a person with a Dane while they send text messages or update their Facebook status.
Having Casper has helped me to stop denying my disability and to embrace it. I will never stop looking toward improvement but I have learned that relying on others when needed is not a detriment; it can be a positive way to maintain and improve relationships. I have found that there are many people who are more willing to share their time and story when you have a friendly face next to you. He has also helped me find a voice for my story as well as disability awareness in general. I made a false assumption that in our hyper-connected world everyone had a comfort level with service animals and understood that disability does not make us so different from others. With this new reality a passion for awareness and education is becoming a priority. I always thought that my story and perspective wouldn’t make a difference but we have found that many people appreciate the message.
It is our hope that Casper brings light and awareness to your lives, as well, as you follow us on this continued journey together.