Kaylie sits, quiet and alert, as Gail Ferraro talks about what having a service dog means to her.
“She helps expand my world. My world without her,” she holds her fingers about an inch apart. “My world with her — I’m like anybody else. I can do what I want.” She spreads her arms out.
Ferraro, who has arthritis and fibromyalgia, as well as severe anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, has had a psychiatric service dog before. She found the first one herself through a trainer in Montana who came to work with her and the dog. That dog, Sadie, stayed with Ferraro for 10 years until she was in the hospital so often she couldn’t care for the dog. Sadie found a new home with the family which had been taking care of her.
“I did my grieving for her and what she had brought to my life and one day I knew I was ready to do it again,” said Ferraro.
She found Kaylie through Helping Paws, a dog rescue society in Creston which cares for homeless dogs and chooses those with the proper temperament to be trained as service dogs. The other dogs are adopted as pets.
“The trainer, Diana Miller, told me that Kaylie was very nurturing, intuitive and gentle and she is. We were matched because of my need for a tall, strong dog who would help me with balance and mobility. I also need a very sensitive dog. She has so much love and we have a trusting relationship,” said Ferraro, glancing down at Kaylie, who turns to lay her head on her knee.
Kaylie, three, is a Great Dane-Shar Pei cross, who still has some training to complete.
“I’m going to miss her so much when she has to go back for a little while. She has already made such a difference to me. It’s hard to put into words to people unless they have experienced a disability and having a service dog, what they mean. I can do so many things I couldn’t do without her. Today I was able to take the city bus which I hadn’t done in a couple of years. It was Kaylie’s first time on a bus and she did so well,” said Ferraro.
“She senses when I’m tense and anxious and comforts me. Doctors have told me that I would do well with a service dog and one said it was a brilliant idea. A lot of people are not aware of the laws about service dogs. They are not regarded as pets and must be allowed to go anywhere a person would go. A psychiatric service dog, or any service dog is part of a person’s medical care and medical team.”
Kaylie wears a gentle leader that lets her respond to the slightest touch and a service dog vest that is a sign to her and others that she is working. She does not wear the lead or vest at home and goes out with a dog walker to a dog park several times a week to be a dog, socialize with other dogs and get her exercise.
“I’m pleased to be able to talk about what Kaylie means to me. I want people to learn that these are specially chosen and trained dogs who can be as much benefit as other parts of medical treatment. The other night, I was having a bad anxiety attack and couldn’t get my breath. I thought I might have to go to the hospital. I called to Kaylie, who was sleeping at the foot of my bed and she crawled up and laid on my shoulder and arm and slowly my anxiety came down,” said Ferraro. “There is another issue that is important and underestimated and that is touch deprivation. That is an issue for people, mainly seniors, who live alone. A dog gives you that comforting touch with another living creature. Their love for you is always there and it’s unconditional. The bond becomes very strong. It is my personal passion to see that people who could benefit from having a service dog know about what they can do and have access to them if they want them.”
Kaylie seems to nod in agreement.
Lisa Kongsdorf, executive director of Independent Living Vernon, which offers services and referrals for people with a variety of disabilities, said the Okanagan has a higher population of people with disabilities.
“I know a number of people who could benefit from having a service dog,” she said. “We do advocacy for people and help them to get service dogs when we can.”
Service dogs help people with vision or hearing impairment, autism, diabetes, and a range of physical and psychiatric disabilities. While it costs about $37,000 to train a dog, most training facilities rely on donations and fundraising so that dogs can be made available at low cost, often a symbolic $1, to those who need them.
Independent Living Vernon sponsors the Dogs for Independence Walk which raises money to help people to get dogs. The walk takes place Oct. 13, starting at 10 a.m with breakfast at The People Place and continuing with the walk along the 25th Avenue linear park for as far as the participants and dogs (must be on leash) want to go. The fee is $20 per person and there are prizes for pledges raised. For more information and team or individual registration, call 250-545-9292 or see ilvernon.ca.