By Darren Lum
Words do little to express the bond shared by Minden teen Emma Gillam and her Doberman Biggie who wouldn’t be one without the other. They’re pretty much inseparable.
Emma gave Biggie a permanent home and he has given her back her life which was robbed of its joy by mental healthchallenges. They’ve been each other’s life saver since he came home with her last June.
“Before I couldn’t walk down the street without myinsides feeling like they were shrinking and just I’ve never been soconfident I guess. He just makes me be me” Emma said adding there’sno judgment. “It’s unconditional love. Like I decide when he comes inand out of my life. He’s … I don’t know. He’s amazing. He’s my bestfriend. I can’t sleep without him.”
She accepts him for all his quirks. Their relationship works for them.
Biggie is Emma’s service dog helping her with anxiety and the post-traumatic stress disorder she has endured since Grade 4.
For years Emma had tried different things. A service dog was about the last thing she hadn’t tried.
Before Biggie anxiety-related “temper tantrums” were common her mother Tracy Jordan said.
“When her anxiety gets so bad that’s kind of the only way it comes out forher not being able to handle it. And she was having those quitefrequently which was getting harder and harder to control. Since having the dog I can probably only count three maybe of those tempertantrums and they’re nowhere near as bad since” Jordan said beforecorrecting herself that there were likely even fewer than three.
Sheacknowledges parenting a teenager comes with its share of challengesbut the emotional outburst prevented any type of dialogue.
“It isdefinitely much easier to come to a resolution [with] because it doesn’t get blown out of proportion the way it used to” she said.
Evenbefore Emma and her mother trained Biggie they knew he possessed greatqualities. His helpful and caring nature calmed Emma’s anxietiesallowing her to visit the fish hatchery despite her aversion to newexperiences.
“That was was when we decided that maybe we should look into him being a service dog” Emma said.
Jordan said Biggie helps in many ways one specific action known as “deep pressure therapy.”
“So when he senses her having an anxiety attack he’ll get her attention.Like either kind of climb on her or pull her attention away from theanxiety and bringing her attention to him to calm her down” Jordansaid. “If she’s standing he’ll come up and boop her leg with her noseor do circles around her or something to get her attention and then when she takes her attention to him depending on the situation then itcalms her down. If she happens to be sitting on the couch for examplehe’ll climb on the couch and get on her lap. So depending on whatposition she’s in he gets her attention in one way or another and kindof pulls her away from what’s going on in her mind.”
Jordan and Emmahope their story will raise awareness about the benefits of service dogs for people with disabilities and how financially accessible they are in Ontario as well as educate the public about being around service dogs.
“When he’s in his [service dog] vest and he’s working he shouldn’t betouched. He’s doing a job. He’s not a pet at that point and just goinginto stores. Sometimes you get funny looks” Emma said. “A grocery store for example. He’s allowed to be in a grocery store because he’s aservice dog. You get people like ‘Why is there a dog in the grocerystore.’”
Another important point is when Biggie has his vest on he is trained to not defecate and urinate.
The idea of the service dog came from Morgan Fisher a registeredveterinary technician at the Minden Animal Hospital who is a friend ofKristyn Begbie of Snowflake Meadows where Biggie came from. Emma was avolunteer at Snowflake Meadows for a while before she got Biggie. Theteen believes their relationship was meant to be after an adoption forhim fell through. It was nearly a month before she convinced her parents to take in another dog to live at their household.
Biggie serves as an important distraction for Emma whose confidence has grown as aresult of his enduring presence Jordan said.
“It’s put her in aroutine which is good and it gets her out and knowing that an animalcan’t survive without the help of their human they’re kind of dependenton each other” she said.
Jordan who referenced the Accessibilityfor Ontarians with Disabilities Act characterized the process of having a dog identified as a service dog as being like filling a prescription.
“So a doctor or a psychiatrist has to write a note stating that yourequire a service dog to mitigate your disability. The note doesn’t have to be specific because it’s for privacy reasons. It depends on thedisability” she said.
There are two areas of law that support theuse of service animals in Ontario: AODA and the Ontario Human RightsCode. AODA states that service animals are not to be treated like petsand that people who require a service animal for their disability not be excluded from services or from a provider of services premises. Theservice animal should be easily identified and the owner can present anote from a regulated health professional that the animal is requiredfor a disability.
Emma always has a note with her on her mobilephone from her psychiatrist who made the diagnosis that she suffersfrom post-traumatic stress disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.
In Ontario service dogs can be trained by their owner. There are no setguidelines for training in Ontario Jordan said. Much of it is commonsense such as the dog needs to take instruction be well-behaved andnot aggressive. It helped that Jordan and her daughter were experienceddog owners. During Biggie’s training period they would periodically ask a friend who owned a pre-trained service dog about what it was trainedto do. A seeing eye dog is a different type of service dog whichrequires specific training. There are pre-trained service dogs for avariety of disabilities which are quite expensive.
When Emma firststarted at the Haliburton Highlands Adult and Alternate Education Centre last year in March it was difficult due to her propensity toprocrastinate. This past year she found focusing was far easier withBiggie.
She has three credits this year and admits she’s stillbehind in her year but recognizes the progress that wouldn’t have beenpossible without Biggie. Some of her peers have shown a real affectionfor her dog including one who makes a point of bringing in treats forhim.
Minden Hills-based therapist and social worker Dianne Mathesknows the benefits of an animal in therapy. She said her purebred golden retriever Shilo is a “therapy assistant” and was trained by her fromwhen he was a puppy following her other dogs Sierra and Jasper.Although her dogs were never formally trained they’ve been helpful foryoung and old patients alike.
“I started building with eye contactwith [Shilo]. Showing him my emotions and showing him that when he putshis paw on me you know [he] learns how that feels good. And so youteach him to be really attuned with people” she said.
Mathes saiddepending on the person this can be helpful because the dog shows whathappens if they’re stressed and what happens if they can breathe andrelax a bit.
“Obviously people and children in particular can bemuch more responsive to having a dog come over and do something withthem than having another person right? So therapy dogs because I’vedone all this background work with him around helping him knowdifferent emotions through me if a person breathes and let’s say theystart to cry his response is to go and put his head on their lap. Ifthey start to get frightened he’ll take a paw and gently put the paw on their leg or stand beside them and give them a bit of comfort. And Isay ‘Shilo is showing you that he’s trying to calm you down or he’strying to soothe you or trying to comfort you.’”
When Shilo feels the person is calmer he exhibits a clear indication of the change.
“You’ll see him take a big deep breath and [he] sort of goes ‘Aaaa’ and then he goes over and lies down. It’s like his job is done” she said.
She gives part of the credit for Shilo to her breeder Kaitlin Luck whoruns Minden-based Cedar Grove Golden Retrievers where dogs are trainedwith attention to being emotionally sensitive to their needs includinglots of touch and stroking.
From her experience owning animals and seeing them in action with patients she is amazed by their abilities.
“I’ve learned animals want to help us in so many ways. They want to soothe us and help us and support us. They are so willing to try so manydifferent things to make that connection with us and get our approvaland have a relationship with us. It’s taught me so much how animalscommunicate and how I can communicate without necessarily always doingas much work as I think I have to” she said.
Her advice for otherslooking to train a dog for service or for companionship is about makingan emotional connection. The rest just falls into place.
“If you’rereally focused on being in an attuned connected relationship on anemotional level with an animal and you’re very gentle and quiet withhim he will just start to naturally respond to you” she said.
Emma admits her relationship with her dog isn’t perfect but she wouldn’thave it any other way particularly during the pandemic that has been asource of stress for everyone.
She cannot begin to imagine her life without Biggie.
“Not a chance. I keep thinking that” she said. “Like anybody when youspend too much time with a person or whatever you do butt headseventually. We do have our moments and bits of anger where he doesthings spiteful things that make me mad but we get over it. I justlook at all the positive things that he does for me. I definitelywouldn’t be laughing as much as I do and he keeps me sane.”