• Emily Doyon

Service Dogs: How to Save a Life

It’s that time of year again where DSN is accepting applications for its $1,000 service dog grant (https://www.dysautonomiasupport.org/servicedogs). In order to be considered for the service dog grant applicants have to fill out a form detailing their commitment to advocating and raising awareness for Dysautonomia and related disorders, show that they understand their challenges and needs and how a service dog would help them, and their conviction to fighting towards their short and long-term goals. This year, applications are due no later than 11:59pm eastern standard time September 01, 2018. The DSN Service Dog Grant will be publicly announced and the recipient notified on October 01, 2018. Last year, Hope Welch was the recipient of the grant, so we sat down to talk about her, why she was interested in getting a service dog and how that dog would help her to better (and perhaps more safely) reach her goals.

Hope Welch, 21, applied to the service dog grant as she had already been matched to a service dog that she will receive in 2019. As of now she is in the process of getting a bachelor’s degree at New Jersey Institute of Technology in pre-law and biology. Hope first applied to a service dog program when she was a junior in high school. She had just been diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and Crohn’s disease. Using a rollator in high school brought a lot of unwanted attention and she was also struggling with being independent. Due to Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), a form of dysautonomia, which caused fainting and dislocation Hope didn’t feel safe being alone. She was also fighting to be independent and thinking about college and her future. Hope started to learn more about service dogs and thought that having one could make a positive impact on her life. And a service dog would be a far better conversation starter than her rollator and would help to keep her safe without having to have her parents or friends around to assist her at all times.

Once Hope gets her service dog it will be doing heavy mobility work and acting as an additional mobility aid along with her walker, and pull her wheelchair so she doesn’t need the help of someone to push it. It will also retrieve dropped items so that she won’t have to bend over and perform deep pressure therapy for when she has anxiety attacks. The service dog would also be able to respond to her syncopal episodes or falls from dislocations. Hope would be safe using public transportation because she would have help nearby as well as help to keep her upright. The service dog would open doors for her so she wouldn’t risk dislocating her wrist or shoulder or fall from the shift in balance. Most importantly, the dog would help with tasks that Hope usually needs another human to perform which means she has to schedule her day around someone else’s and visa versa. Ideally, the service dog will allow her to live alone, but also travel alone.

Having a service dog will give Hope the peace of mind and confidence to go out into the world alone. Now, she’s afraid to do that because of how frequently she falls or faints. After her graduation, she is also hoping to move across the country, and would not feel comfortable making that decision without the help of a service dog. Her hope is also to become more active. This can be frustrating since she has to take frequent breaks to rest thereby slowing her friends and family down when they are out walking with her. With a service dog, they could walk at their own pace and Hope and her service dog could walk at Hope’s. The main thing a service dog would bring to Hope’s life other than independence, is security.

Winning the DSN Service Dog Grant was a big help for Hope. When she had heard that DSN was receiving applications she had been fundraising for her dog for two and a half years and was starting to feel like it was hopeless and she’d never raise enough to get a service dog. Hope said, “It’s hard to fundraise when you’re just trying to get through the day and complete your school work with a disability” but she’s been told that she should get her dog by early 2019. This is really exciting because that means she’ll have her dog before she finishes college so they’ll have time to work together as a team before Hope starts planning her big move. Her hope is that having a service dog will allow her to become a disability advocacy lawyer and help fight for others with disabilities.

Hope is passionate about raising awareness by distributing pamphlets about POTS/Dysautonomia and EDS to local doctor’s offices. She also spends much of her time talking to people about applying to get SSI and SSDI and coaches people on how to get disability accommodations, provides sample plans for accommodations, and has been an advocate in disability service meetings. She has also volunteered at a psychologist’s office helping to develop a program that provides coping skills for people recently diagnosed with chronic and invisible illnesses and are in mourning for their old lives.

Like many of us, Hope struggled for many years with the question of whether or not she was actually “sick enough” to get a service dog. She said, “If you’re thinking about getting a service dog, there’s definitely a good reason. It’s the same as thinking about any other mobility aid, if you believe it will enhance your life, you should definitely give it a shot.” Many service dog programs give you plenty of time to raise the funds, and some even help you with the fundraising by giving you ideas or charging recipients half the cost of what it takes to raise and train the dog. It’s a long process, but at the end of that is independence, security, safety, and while not the sole reason but certainly a bonus: companionship. Hope did a lot of research and talked to people like her with service dogs to decide if it was right for her and came to this conclusion, “If you have a disability that’s limiting your life or quality of life, and you think a service dog can help, you deserve to be able to explore that avenue.“

For those unsure of the cost there are service dog programs with longer waiting lists that cover the entire cost of raising and training the dog. There are also various grants and vouchers to explore as well to help you afford the program. Many local nonprofits, small businesses, and people in your community will be more than happy to support you. You’d be surprised by how much people are willing to help you get what you need to get more of your life back. If you’ve already been accepted into a service dog program, fill out an application form. If you have been thinking about getting a service dog do some more research to find an organization that is right for you. It’s a big step, but if it’s the right choice it will change your life in immeasurable ways. If you have a service dog being trained for you, apply today so DSN can help to make your dreams a reality!

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