Service Dogs, Opening Doors to Independence!

Jessica Gardner poses with her service dog, Ford at the 2019 Ms Wheelchair Pennsylvania competition. Picture credit to Alex Jones

Three years ago, I received the best birthday gift I’ve ever been given, my Canine Companions for Independence service dog, Ford. I can honestly say in my life he has opened doors, both physically and figuratively, in ways I never expected nor could ever imagine. With his assistance, I no longer have to ask for help with several tasks, which has given me the independence that I’ve always longed for.

When I go out,) I have the security of knowing that if I drop my credit card, purse, or just about anything else, Ford is one command away from retrieving it. Prior to getting a service dog, I would have to depend on strangers to help me do this. Meanwhile, I would be praying that they wouldn’t run off with my personal belongings. Now this is no longer a worry, which allows me to focus on important activities like shopping and picking out a new outfit and of course I ask Ford’s opinion.

My best furry friend helps me with tasks around my apartment such as, getting drinks out of the fridge, putting my foot rests up and down so that I can transfer into bed independently, helps me put my coat on, takes my socks off and opens and shuts doors. The list goes on and continues to grow.

One positive aspect that I didn’t expect was I went from the girl in the wheelchair who some people didn’t know how to approach, to the girl with the awesome dog.  In my experience people don’t see my disability first, instead they notice Ford.  Ford gives me a new sense of confidence. I know that I’m not going into that meeting, giving a speech, or meeting that new person alone. Now I have Ford by my side.

I would highly recommend anyone with a disability who could benefit from a service dog to look into getting one.  Especially those with disabilities who are transitioning into college or are pursuing independent living. These amazing dogs make these changes easier.

Looking back at my own transitions, I see how beneficial it would have been if I had a service dog during these times.  When I first moved into my own apartment there were several occasions where a trained dog would have been helpful.  I remember dropping my phone and having to wait until my attendant arrived to pick it up for me.  On a few occasions, I fell out of my wheelchair.  Once again, I had to wait hours for help to arrive.  A four-legged assistant would have come to my rescue, retrieved my phone or gotten me help immediately. In addition, I know a service dog would have provided my family with the assurance that I had a helping paw if I needed it.

In college, a service dog would have been beneficial in helping me be more independent by retrieving countless dropped pens, highlighters, papers and books. It’s not that there weren’t people around to assist me, but it’s about having the confidence that comes with of being self-sufficient.  Also dealing with my insecurities at the time, in regards to living with a disability, having a service dog by my side would have given me the confidence to interact with others more often.

Although it’s not the primary purpose of a service dog, these dogs can be a great way to help combat the negative emotional effects such as depression, anxiety and isolation that often accompany disability.  In my teen years, I experienced severe depression.  During this time, I began to realize the obstacles and limitations that were present in my life such as not being able to participate in popular activities like sports.  Also, I was unable to attend get-togethers due to friend’s houses not being accessible. Moreover, I lost friends who viewed my Cerebral Palsy as a hindrance that slowed them down (God blessed me with a friend who was always there for me and remains a lifelong friend).  These extremely difficult times were not wasted.  It allowed me to become a stronger individual, who learned at an early age to go the extra mile to show love and compassion to others.  However, I know that having a service dog would have alleviated some of the deep pain of isolation and depression.

Ford has given me the freedom, security, and confidence to reach my dreams, live my life, and empower others to achieve the independence they deserve. When I think of all the ways Ford has enriched my life not only am I blessed beyond measure, but I often refer to Ford as my angel with fur instead of wings.

There are multiple service dog training programs throughout the country. One of them is Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) cci.org.

 

 


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