When you meet confident and friendly Wilbur, my Service Dog, it’s hard to imagine that he was once so scared, shy, and nervous that he hid from strangers. Anywhere you see me, including on BART, in my office, at a store or any public place, you’ll see Wilbur at my side. People sometimes say, “Oh, you’re so lucky, you get to bring your dog everywhere.” My reply is, “I would very much prefer not to have a disability, but I am lucky to have Wilbur to help me so I can go everywhere myself!”
Wilbur is a Medical Alert Dog and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Service Dog. He is also learning new tasks for balance and mobility, a likely future need of mine. He is not an Emotional Support Dog, Therapy Dog, or a Service Dog in Training for someone else, some common misconceptions.
Wilbur was a battered and lost Pit Bull puppy found roaming the streets of the Fruitvale district of Oakland, believed to be an escapee from a backyard puppy mill or fighting ring. He was first fostered by Ashley Marie Barnes and Marshall Bean-Smith of Yoga Dog, a pack walking, training, and boarding service. At Yoga Dog he was socialized and began to learn to be brave, his very first task. With their talents with dogs and boundless love, Ashley and Marshall gave “unadoptable” Wilbur a new beginning.
When I adopted Wilbur, then about five months old, it was as a companion but I was also hoping to find a Service Dog for myself at some point. I was surprised and delighted to discover that Wilbur had the aptitude and trainability to become that Service Dog. I worked with him over the next year and a half as he transitioned from Service Dog in Training to the proud fully trained and certified Service Dog he is today.
In December 2011, Wilbur passed the Canine Good Citizen test with flying colors and mastered seven tasks directly related to my disability. Now he has mastered fourteen complicated tasks and is learning more. He loves to learn and he loves to work.
Contrary to popular belief, Seeing Eye Dogs are not the only Service Dogs. There are Service Dogs for many kinds of disabilities, including invisible ones. Some breeds, including Pit Bulls, are especially talented at sensing body chemistry imbalances, such as incipient seizures, panic attacks, and high or low blood sugar problems before the disabled person is aware of them. Trained Medical Alert Service Dogs perform a series of behaviors to alert their handlers to take medications or otherwise prepare for or prevent an episode.
Wilbur is a happy, friendly dog. In fact, though, he is quietly working all the time. He is always alert and subtly watching me, responding instantly to discrete verbal cues and hand signals. His vocabulary is enormous and always growing. Beyond the usual dog obedience commands, just a few of Wilbur’s understood words and phrases are: Left and Right; “the large one” and “the small one;” the names of many objects, places, people; BART and bus stops and room numbers; Upstairs and Downstairs; and “Let’s slow down,” “Let’s turn around,” and “Let’s go the other way.”
Wilbur is not a protection dog but he does help me maintain a comfortable personal space. In a crowded place or one in which he senses I am at all anxious, he unobtrusively moves into position in front or behind me, or at my side, “bracing” closely to me and “leaning in” to my body. At these times he makes eye contact with me and avoids eye contact with other people, making it very clear that he is not aggressive.
When it is time for me to take medication Wilbur serves as an alarm clock, nudging me discretely. When we enter a room Wilbur cases the place on command! If I ask, he precedes me into the room and investigates while I stand at the door. Wilbur turns on the light in my bedroom when we enter and whenever I ask him to during the night.
I have two simple conversational phrases that only Wilbur knows, commands to create a distraction. When I use them, he will “bother” me by pawing, nudging, or jumping up, allowing me an opportunity to leave a triggering situation or person.
Luckily, I seldom need Wilbur’s most amazing skills now, but it’s comforting to know they are available. He can awaken me from a night terror, holding me gently in place until I am fully awake and then fetching a bag with medication. He can alert me to an incipient panic attack with a series of subtle but unmistakable behaviors. If I were to have a full panic attack, he is skilled at applying “deep pressure” with his paws and body to my chest and upper body, an intervention that has been proven to shorten and alleviate panic attacks.
Wilbur stays by my side or nearby throughout the day. I can and do “release” him from time to time when I am at home or in a familiar place, allowing him to play and visit with other people. He is often complimented on his perfect behavior. He is very aware of being my Service Dog, however, and always keeps a watchful eye on me, never going too far for too long without checking back in. Without him as my trusted and skilled 24/7 companion, my life would be far more difficult. As I am lucky to know first-hand, service dogs exemplify the full potential of the canine’s bond with humans.
Dana Hopkins is a writer, storyteller, mom of three grown sons, and general gal of all trades. She is formally trained in theatrical, makeup, costuming, and scene design and is currently a manager at a dog-friendly boutique hotel in San Francisco, The Hotel Mirabelle. She has always had dogs, cats, and even a raccoon and trained them.