Dear JLAD Executives & Volunteers:
I have tried many modalities of treatment—likely too many—in a bid to rid myself of the anxiety I have carried with me since the early 1990's, which only worsened until I was medically released from the Armed forces in 1996. As soon as I received my discharge papers, I entered a black hole.
I sobered up from a state of drunken homelessness on August 13, 2001, and since that date I have been on a quest for recovery in all aspects. Years of practising yoga, meditation and the 12 Steps helped me keep my waking anxiety attacks in check, but very little seemed to help the panic that slips between the nexus of wakefulness and sleep.
For nearly three decades I've been waking up in cold terror, gasping for air and clutching my heart, shaken by a profound awareness of mortality. No matter how many thousands of times I've woken up in this manner, I remain convinced every single time that I am on the verge of death. This near-nightly drama has been such a regular part of my life for so long, it's difficult to gauge the depth of impact it has had on my day-to-day functioning. I know for a fact that it has been the major factor behind my often deep aversion to sleep, which led to a prolonged state of sleep deprivation. These night episodes are at least partly responsible for derailing my relationships as they've managed derailed my self-confidence.
Several years ago, during a particularly challenging period, my therapist asked if I'd ever considered a service dog for PTSD. I hadn't—in fact I don't think I even knew assistance dogs were used specifically to address some of the symptoms I was experiencing on an ongoing basis. The suggestion planted itself like a seed in my mind, and the more I considered it, the more this idea sprouted into an inner desire, and I was excited about the possibility of how undertaking such a responsibility could feed me at the level of the soul. The merest possibility that I might one day be free of, or nearly free of, the night madness, was enough to excite me.
It soon became apparent that the wait lists for organizations training Assistance Dogs in Canada were so long that none of them were adding names. I'm not sure what stroke of fate led me to inquire with JLAD, but I do know that at the time I was living in an off-grid cabin in the province of Quebec. Years prior I'd lost even partial custody of my children by staying at my job in India, and I was still in denial of my own mourning.
Instead of appreciating the trees, which I normally find soothing, I found myself wandering through the woods wondering which branches could hold my weight. Many times things have seemed hopeless, even when—objectively speaking—I have so much to be grateful for. The nature of depression is such. It hijacks the brain, turning even the sweetest smells sour, seeing the shadows looming beyond the next thought, and the next, ad infinitum.
So when Joy St. Peter advised me over the phone that my name would be added to the wait list of service dog recipients, I was over the moon. Then, a few years passed, and I wondered and doubted both if it would ever happen or even if a service dog was right for me.
A few months ago, while I was camping in Sedona to escape another brutal Canadian winter, the thought of a service dog came to me, and I felt a peculiar inner knowing that I was ready. The thought which followed this was: Wouldn't it be serendipitous, since Arizona is much closer to Oregon than Ontario, if JLAD called now to advise that I'd been matched with a dog? Not 48 hours later I got a call from Joy.
Now I didn't end up with Robin, the sweet bear I was initially matched with; instead, through several twists of fate, I have been matched with the whipsmart and seemingly ultra-sensitive Ras. We have only been home for a few days, at our new home on Vancouver Island, I can state with full confidence that this dog has already changed my life—not just my day to day routine or my nights, but Ras has already profoundly impacted the pattern and the shape of my thinking. This dog is quietly, subtly, and seemingly effortlessly guiding me into a new paradigm.
During my training I heard a lot about how the training program in the correctional facilities helps the prisoners. I don't doubt that that is true, and I am grateful for it, as tough as it must be when it comes time to say goodbye to these animals when they move on to the next chapter.
I'd like to focus, however, on the great benefit I have received from these men I have never met; I keep thinking how precious a gift it is to have these anonymous strangers pour their hearts and souls into these puppies, and do such a great job of teaching them and loving them and growing with them to nurture them to such a place where they can then be gifted to someone who needs their skills. Such a gift is almost unbearably touching—it's as raw and as real as anything I have ever felt. I don't care what these men did or didn't do to get to where they are, they are heroes to me. To them I say: I give you my gratitude, my respect, and my admiration.
And then, like the yin to the yang, there is this army of mostly women—if not entirely women—volunteers. These are not just any women, but a cadre of fiercely loving and loyal women—strong women, of the ilk our beleaguered planet needs most right now. These women are not just training and feeding and loving puppies; they are doing very potent energy work, work that touches everything it comes into contact with because it is work that no witness can deny comes authentically from the heart.
Which brings me to the matriarch of this endeavour—the pack leader, so to speak—and a woman who so thoroughly embodies her own name it's almost a cliché. Joy: your tenacity, your heart and your courage are truly inspiring. An your laughter—well, it's not only infectious but it likely has powerful healing properties as well. Thank you for hearing me when I called you for help.
I've only had Ras a number of days yet, and already I wake to find him standing on my chest, nuzzling my face, nudging me back to the land of the living. Not only at night, but I find him interrupting me throughout the day when the mental wheels are spinning; he doesn't like worry, he cannot seem to abide anxiety, and so he patiently keeps reminding me to drop it, that he is here with me and he has my back. And thanks to all of you for everything you have poured into this strange and wonderful creature, I am starting to believe that he does.
I send you all at JLAD every drop of gratitude a human heart can hold. Thank you for this gift.
John-James & Ras
Jake...one word FABULOUS! Jake has made my life so much better. He goes with me to all of my infusion appointments and specialists. He has not only comforted me and taken away so much stress but everywhere we go I see smiles from all who see us together. At physical therapy the people that are in the office say he even takes away their stress :)
He has bonded so tightly with me. He is my shadow and has assisted me in opening doors, bracing, he loves to bring me my medications, phone and if I drop anything he runs to get it and bring it to me. He is happiest when he is doing things to help me. He is the best helper. I have not had a bad fall since receiving Jake. I averaged at least 2 a month before Jake. I am now doing more social things as I feel less self conscious about my mobility and anxiety. We have been to a concert and several movies together and he behaves beautifully.
I am so appreciative of everyone that had a part in training and matching me with Jake. Tomorrow is his birthday and we are going to the park and getting a new treat at the pet store when we are done! Jake just makes me so happy. If I am in pain he puts his head on my lap or between my legs and it just seems to melt away. He is everything I had hoped for in my 5 year journey of being on waiting lists! Thank you!
Jake & Karen
Trek has unpacked a life that was packed away and almost forgotten. I can now tackle that barrier of blacktop that we call a street. That black expanse acted like an impassable river. I would start across and freeze in the middle. I year ago, I started wearing bright colors to become a traffic cone in hopes that people would see me before they got too close. Trek has ended the the brightly colored clothes phase of my life. I can now cross the street anywhere with confidence. I point him in the right direction and he pulls me across.
He has also opened up the outdoors for me. Trails that were a challenge are now easily accessible. Trek acts as a four paw drive balance point at my side. I am now able to hike and site see. Fishing the rivers has now become a reality.
Finally, Trek has become my fitness partner. I can walk the neighborhood with a new found feeling of confidence. His need of exercise has pushed me to increase my workouts to suit. I feel better and am enjoying the new found freedom.
There are so many ways that Trek has impacted my life. The three above are what came to mind when sitting down to write. The training that Trek demonstrates daily is a direct compliment to his trainers in EOCI. I cannot effectively put into words the profound changes and feelings of thanks that I owe you. Thanks for making this become my new reality.
Steve & Trek
What would you call a companion, protector, friend, helper, exercise partner and public educator? I call him Gary, my assistance dog. I received Gary from Joys of Living Assistance Dogs on October 19th, 2012.
I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) over 13 years ago and most likely was living with the disease for several years prior. Growing up on a ranch, I was always a hard worker and a body on the go. However, when I started to experience double vision and weakness in my legs in 1992, I had no idea that eventually I would be diagnosed with MS. MS slowly degraded my vision and my ability to walk. Everyday tasks that were always so easy and quick for me became a frustrating struggle. I first started using a cane, then a walker, and eventually a motorized wheelchair to help me with mobility. My kids used to tease that they had to run or ride their bikes to keep up with me so losing my ability to walk was difficult to say the least. Regardless, I ventured on and remained as positive as possible and tried to adjust to my new body that I no longer had control over.
In 2009, I upgraded my scooter to an electric wheelchair as my means of transportation. Soon after, I hired a caregiver to help me with everyday tasks such as grocery shopping, laundry and cooking. In 2010, my family and I inquired about an assistance dog from The Joys of Living Assistance Dogs. I met with Joy and a service dog in training and became very excited about the possibility of receiving a dog to help me in ways I could no longer help myself.
In late 2012 (after two years of anticipation) I was notified that I had been selected to receive Gary, a two year golden retriever and graduate of The Joys of Living Assistance Dogs. I traveled from Bend to Salem and lived in a hotel for two weeks as I learned everything Gary had learned in order to make my life with MS more manageable. Gary has given me the confidence to navigate going out in public in a wheelchair. He opens doors I otherwise would not be able to. He picks up everything I drop (which seems to me more and more as the MS affects my fine motors skills). Gary turns lights off and on that I cannot reach. Gary attends all of my doctor’s appointments with me and provides support for the ever changing challenges my MS brings. He is my ever present companion and makes me feel loved. I now feel more independent and active than I have been in at least 10 years. This is all thanks to Gary, Joy, and the amazing trainers of the Joys of Living Assistance Dogs.
Kathy & Gary
My name is M."Brandy" Branzelle. I am from Massachusetts and currently reside in Northern California. I have served in US Army during Vietnam and the Cold War. I am presently a 100% disabled woman veteran. I am receiving treatment at the VA Hospital for injuries incurred while in service to our country. I am being treated for PTSD, MST, and several physical issues.
My role in the service included Military Intelligence Command and ASA (Army Security Agency) in Europe, South Asia, and the U.S. All of my work required Security Clearances.
In 2011, The Joys of Living Assistance Dogs (JLAD)’s Help for Heroes Program awarded me “Diego” - a Golden Retriever/Yellow Labrador mix. Having Diego since October has greatly impacted my life; at home, in the public arena, and socially.
Diego has provided me with more confidence in meeting the blessings of everyday life. I consider the word challenge as negative thinking, except in competitive games. I suffer from Osteoarthritis that at times causes difficulty doing physical tasks: gripping items, bending down to pick things off the floor, etc. I think the only body part not affected by this disease is my left little toe!
Additionally, I am hearing impaired. Therefore Diego serves as my ears. He alerts me to sirens, doorbells, telephones, knocking at the door, and many other sounds I am either unable to hear or locate the direction they come from. As my hearing may continue to deteriorate, Diego will have his job cut out for him. All the while, he will have a life of constant learning, a constant companion (who is a "crazy" lady that lives to laugh). By the way, Diego has the biggest smile I have yet seen on a canine.
I worked with the JLAD Director, Joy St. Peter and my assistance dog, Diego, during our training camp in October 2011. During that individual training, I experienced firsthand the life changing ways service dogs affect veterans in need. Seeing the difficulty I have descending stairs, Joy St. Peter suggested that I let go of the stairway hand rail, using only Diego’s support to descend the stairs. After moments of panic, and prayer, and trusting in Joy's assessment skills and Diego ability, I summoned the courage of the soldier within and we successfully completed the mission as directed. Many years have passed since I have felt so safe and free.
Help for Heroes restores confidence, self-worth and improves the self-image of a veteran. We only have to trust our faithful friends - both human and animal.
God bless all of you at JLAD for giving me, a veteran, the opportunity to be free. As you are now on point, thank you for your service.
God, Honor, Country
M "Brandy" Branzelle, USA, SA California
Brandy & Diego
Tollie is my hero! This is our story.
My name is Toria. I'm 33 years old and live with Muscular Dystrophy. I am able to move only my right hand to control my electric wheelchair. My family and I knew that it was only a matter of time until my limited mobility would require the aid of an assistance dog, specially trained to look after my needs.
In April 2006, Tollie, a year-old golden retriever, came to live with my family. What a difference he's made in my life! I'm enjoying a newfound independence and freedom through Tollie.
We were still getting to know each other when I took a trip to California in May to visit my sister. While she was at work one day, I was enjoying a rare afternoon of solitude when I suddenly lurched forward in my wheelchair. Although the seat belt kept me in my chair, I was left hanging upside down.
Tollie, recognizing my distress, immediately tried to push me back into position. Unfortunately, even as big as he is, Tollie was unable to right me in my chair. As he was trained to do, he removed the blanket that was covering my face, which allowed me to breathe a little easier. He also keep nudging my left arm to relieve the pressure from its hanging position.
I was pretty scared. Tollie stayed with me, right by my head, comforting me. It would be eight more hours until my sister would be home from work. Fortunately, a friend who lives in the area, summoned by my sister when I didn't answer the phone, rushed over to see what was wrong. Of course, the door was locked. Tollie raced to the door, opened it, and as he had been trained to do, led the neighbor right to me.
Within minutes, I was back in an upright position, having had enough of inspecting my sister's floor. Tollie is my hero. He did what he was trained to do: stay near me, help as best as he could, and perform the tasks for which he's been trained.
I know, that had it not been for Tollie, my situation could have been -- would have been -- a lot worse. I am forever grateful to Tollie and to The Joys of Living Assistance Dogs who selected him as a puppy for training, raised him, loved him, trained him, and trusted him to take care of me, especially in an emergency.
I love you, Tollie!
Tollie & Toria
Vanessa is such apart of everything each day. I'm so grateful for her, she is so special to me. I'd like to share with you 2 moments, Vanessa and I shared together recently, I was at the National Disabled Veterans winter Sports Clinic @ Snowmass Colorado (last week) to ski. There was a huge number of people there (300 Veterans , + staff+ family members plus care givers -a lot of of folks) She quickly figured out where every door in ever large venue to help me leave if necessary if I was overwhelmed (I was several times) After one day she figured out and could consistently take me to my hotel room, if I got confused and lost my way. There were a lot of service dogs there, and she behaved perfectly. She was well received by every one and every place I went. She came to the slope every time I came in quite happy to see me:):)
On the last day as we were getting ready to come home. Vanessa and I met Amy Purdy (snowboarder, paraolympian, dancer on dancer with the stars, medal winner @ Sochi Olympics) I'm a little shy (and probably a bit star struck) in situations like this. Vanessa broke the ice. She commented on how beautiful a dog Vanessa was. And talked with both of us for over a half and hour.
Vanessa keeps me safe, helps me orient to places around me, and makes me more comfortable and able to talk to people I don't really know
I just wanted to share and say an extra thank you
George & Vanessa