Hola! I’m Journey aka DeVael’s Anything Is Possible, AD, ADEu. I’m a 3 year old Bernese Mountain Dog (not Burmese! and no, I’m not a Saint Bernard) and I am an assistance dog. What does that mean? Well, it means that I help my mom with her disabilities and make life a bit easier and loads more fun.
What is your job, exactly? For starters, I’d like to point out that not everyone with a disability cares to discuss their personal medical history with others, so please respect their privacy if they are vague with you or choose not to share that information with you.
Now back to me! My official job is medical response and mobility dog. My mom has a form of epilepsy that isn’t usually manifested in the typical way that people think of when they think of epilepsy. Normally she doesn’t have convulsive attacks, which is a good thing, because that’s scary to watch! However, the form that she has can be just as dangerous. She has what are called “absence seizures” and “atonic seizures”.
Absence seizures are also sometimes called “petit mal seizures”. To other people, it may look like mom isn’t paying attention – she may stare blankly, she may just stop walking (sometimes in the middle of the street, which is dangerous!), she may walk face first into a wall or out into traffic without realizing what she is doing. My job is to prevent that from happening by leading her away from walls or other objects, and something that is called “intelligent disobedience” – she may try to cross a street, but if I see that there are cars coming, I will block her from doing that until she can give me a specific cue that lets me know she’s ok and ready to go.
Atonic seizures are also sometimes called “drop attacks”. To others, she may just look clumsy – maybe she is carrying something and her arm just drops, and things fall out of her hand, or maybe she is walking and one of her legs just stops working and she falls. My job is to “catch” her by bracing my body against her to help steady her.
Sometimes when these things happen, mom is disoriented or confused and not really sure of where she is, how she got there or what to do next. In those cases, my job is to help orient her by licking her hand until she regains her composure and knows where she is, and to help lead her back home or to another safe place to sit down until she’s ready to continue.
I also remind her when it’s time to take her medication because she can be forgetful, I alert to some of her medical issues ahead of time, which gives her time to figure out how to best cope, and I cheer her up when she’s having a rotten day.
What kind of training have you had? Lots!! As a baby, we worked on the basics – sit, down, stay, be quiet, and to walk nicely on a lead. Training sessions were kept short and fun so that learning something new was always a game to me, and I enjoyed it!
As I grew, we did group obedience classes so that I would learn to work with all sorts of distractions – other dogs, sounds, smells and places. This is important because I go with mom wherever she goes, and you never know what you might come across out in the world!
When I was almost a year old, we started what is known as “public access training”. This means I began to accompany mom into stores, restaurants and other places where dogs normally aren’t allowed, so that I could learn how to work in those environments.
All in all, I did a little over 380 hours of specialized training for my job – 120 of basic and advanced obedience, 120 of public access training, and 140 hours of task training. Task training is learning the specific things that I would be doing to help my mom with her disability and what makes me different from a well-behaved pet dog.
I took the Assistance Dogs International certification test in March, 2013 and passed with flying colors. That means I graduated from “in training” status to “assistance dog” status and officially began working with mom as a team.
When you see us out in public, if I am wearing my harness or vest, that means I am working. It is very important for me to stay focused and not get distracted, so please respect our space and ask permission before talking to me or patting me. Even if I’m napping on the floor while mom is waiting in line at the bank or hospital, I am still on duty and distracting me could put mom in danger. And please don’t be offended if mom tells you that it’s not a good time to visit at the moment – she may not be feeling well and really needs my help.
What about fun? Do you ever get to be “just a dog”? Of course! My regular day off is Sundays, and usually I go to the park, or hiking, or to the beach, and just have loads of fun! I enjoy swimming, running, and playing with friends. I also enjoy “siesta” which is a fancy word for taking naps!
What sort of gear do you wear? Primarily I work in a mobility harness made by Bold Lead Designs. This harness best enables me to help mom when her balance is off, and it’s really comfortable!
And sometimes I take a mat with me, if we are going to be sitting for a long time, so that I’m more comfortable and so I don’t leave hair behind on the floor when we leave.
As you can see in the above photo, a very important part of my working gear is my ID card – without it, businesses can ask us to leave, so I have to carry it with me at all times, clipped to my harness, to identify myself as a trained assistance dog.
On days when mom is feeling well, sometimes I wear the vest that we got from our program. It’s also really comfortable and my favorite color too!
Another important part of my working gear – my shoes! I work in all sorts of weather (except snow, which makes me sad – I love snow!) and it’s vital to protect my feet. An injured paw could have me out of work for several days, so better to prevent than to cure!
I also have a raincoat that goes over my mobility harness when it’s wet outside, because nobody likes the smell of wet dog and mom says it’s rude to take a dripping wet dog inside a shop. I think she’s nuts, I love the smell of wet dog and playing in the rain!
A very misunderstood part of my gear is my head collar. Most people think that it’s a muzzle and that if I’m wearing it, it means I am a bad dog that might bite. Nothing could be further from the truth! I’m very sweet and would never bite someone. By law, here in Andalusia, Spain, all dogs over 40 lbs must wear a muzzle when in public. It’s a silly law, in my opinion.
That said, assistance dogs are allowed to wear a head halter, similar to what horses wear, while working because a muzzle would prevent us from opening our mouths and we wouldn’t be able to do our jobs properly. The head collar allows me to open my mouth, pick up dropped items, pant, eat and drink normally. Plus it helps mom communicate with me more effectively because of the sensitive feedback it offers.
Here are examples of muzzles – note that the dogs can’t open their mouths with these devices.