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Monday, June 6, 2016

A Service Dog Changed Her Life

Frightening. Hard. Difficult. Frustrating. Overwhelming. Stressful. Hopeless. Devasting. These were the emotions that defined our lives in the early years following Grace's diagnosis with mental illness after her attempt to take her life in middle school.  Life stopped. There was so much to learn about battling mental illness, finding the right doctors, and learning about treatment.  I was frustrated by the lack of resources and good, affordable mental health care available for my daughter.  However, God was good and we eventually found good doctors, a stellar therapist, and the right combination of medication.  

Despite the care she was receiving, Grace still had to avoid certain situations with large crowds such as concerts, pep rallies, and large sporting events to avoid panic attacks.  As a senior, she struggled to think about leaving home for college.  In passing, a friend asked me if I had ever thought about an emotional support animal for Grace.  I didn't even know such a thing existed!  When I googled, "emotional support dog," I stumbled across information on psychiatric service dogs.  I always believed service dogs were for the blind, or physically impaired.  Imagine my amazement to discover that service dogs existed for mental health needs. As I read about the tasks psychiatric service dogs could perform, I decided on the spot that Grace needed one.  There were two primary obstacles standing in our way:  time and money.  Most waiting lists for a fully trained service dog are at least 2 years long, and they cost tens of thousands of dollars.  We needed a dog fully trained in a little over 6 months, on a teacher's salary. That's why I was excited to discover you can train your own dog if you are lucky enough to find a dog with the right personality.

I have never trained a dog to do anything - ever.  But I have learned on this journey to be persistent, and try new things, if nothing else.  I asked a friend who volunteered at a local shelter to watch for a dog with a good temperament and high intelligence.  That's how we found Titan.  We adopted him at Christmas.  At first, it was challenging to get him to acclimate to the other dogs in our home and to trust us.  He showed signs of some mistreatment in his past.  We signed up for basic obedience classes at All About Dogs in Melissa and prayed for doors to open for us to help Titan become a service dog.  After discussing our idea with the dog trainer, she helped us find Canine Solutions Dallas, which specializes in training service dogs. Grace meets with her service dog trainer once a week and then also practices on her own with Titan.  He just passed his Canine Good Citizenship test and will be working on his Public Access Test soon. He is rocking his work tasks which primarily revolve around blocking techniques to help Grace in a crowd.

I wasn't prepared for the amazing things that would happen with training a service dog.  Grace's confidence has soared.  She can see the progress Titan has made and struggles much less with anxiety when Titan is near.  Grace started her own business this year and developed friendships.  She went to prom, and spoke in front of 3000 people at graduation. She is ready to take her driving test and is planning to major in math at Ouachita Baptist University in the fall - 4 hours from home.  Finally, she is able to experience a normal teen lifestyle.  

Beautiful. Amazing. Incredible. Wonderful. Unbelievable. Humbling. Overcoming. These are the words to describe my daughter's journey.  I know that we have countless struggles ahead, but Grace is a warrior who will not give up, and her best friend, Titan, will be right beside her every step of the way.