Three years ago, on September 18, 2011, my life changed forever. I’d been through fear and near death before, with an illness 15 years ago that was expected to be terminal, but somehow I came through that relatively unscathed, and ultimately became healthier than ever, with great promise for my future. In the instant my bicycle went over the side of Mount Evans, I lost almost everything… my home, my job, medical school, and almost my life. I also lost that happy, confident, person I used to be. I’ve not forgotten who I was, but I’ve forgotten how to be that person, and I want that back so badly. There are brief occasions when I glimpse that person, but how do I learn to be me again? For three years I’ve been surviving… surviving that fall, and its injuries, surviving the 4 spine surgeries (so far), surviving an immune deficiency, and never looking to the future, still trapped in that moment when everything changed.
I’ve not forgotten my dreams and aspirations, but in my present state, they’re unattainable. At the same time, I yearn for that person I was, an I yearn for the future I almost had… and I yearn for the ability to make what happened simply a nightmare, that’s whisked away from memory upon awakening.
I’m lost in foreign territory. I’ve tried therapy, medication, etc… but none of it changes anything. I know there’s no logic to my constant anxiety, the crying, the fear. If it were a fear of heights, I’d understand it. If it were a fear of riding my bicycle, that, too, I’d understand, but my fears now simply aren’t rational, and often I don’t even know what I’m afraid of, but I’m afraid just the same.
My whole state of being has fluctuated widely on the 3 years since the accident, but after everything that happened with my last surgery, I suddenly lost those last residual traces of feeling, well, like me. I feel like a stranger to myself.
Not long ago, I recalled what my old dog, Rigel, did for me when I was ill all those years ago, but beyond that, and how he had a way of keeping me in the now, and keeping me from isolating myself. Unloved by his previous owner, when I first saw him in the pound, I felt an instant connection, and instead of following the common sense of choosing a dog with both eyes, no infection, and well nourished, I followed my instincts, and never regretted it.
That was when I began in earnest trying to save for, and adopt, a Shiloh Shepherd. Somewhere in my heart, I know the unconditional love of a dog, and the way a dog close to someone can always sense what they’re feeling, know what they need, could be the one thing that helps me find myself again, a new self, certainly, but help me to feel real again, and learn to live, instead of just survive.
Once I found I COULD adopt a Shiloh Shepherd, I began looking for organizations that could help me train it to be a service dog, to help with my spine injuries, of course, but more importantly help with the PTSD. I also told my doctor about Rigel, and all he’d done for me before (I didn’t mention the words “service dog,” and his response opened the door wide open… He said he thought a service dog might be an excellent idea as a means of helping me. Shortly after, I received a response from Guild Assistance dog Partners (GAP Service Dogs), not only saying that they could help train the dog I chose, but that there would be no exorbitant cost, unlike many other organizations. Certainly they train their own dogs to place as service dogs, but they’re one of the only organizations that will also train dogs people already have to be service dogs… and in spite of many dogs not being their own, they also have one of the highest success rates. Suddenly, everything was fitting together.
It even opened the door on one of my former aspirations… to train a Shiloh Shepherd to scent cancer. I don’t want to use the word “if” right now, so I’ll say WHEN I get better, I do hope I can do this with the pup I’m getting. I hope I’ll recover enough to complete my medical training, and that my dog can work by my side, saving lives by detecting cancer in its earliest stages… the least expensive of exams with potentially enormous benefit to the patient, for caught in the early stages, cancer is far more treatable than it is later. There are already dogs who do this. For more information, see http://www.dogsdetectcancer.org/about.
My Shiloh isn’t coming cheap. My debt is going to increase substantially by getting this puppy. It will be worth it, though, for many reasons. The biggest, of course, is the potential for helping me in my recovery. There are other reasons that are for the benefit of both me and my pup. The ISSR Shiloh Shepherd breeding program has very strict rules about which dogs are permitted to breed, and those aren’t limited to the individual dog’s health and temperament, but the health and temperament of each dog’s siblings and beyond, not to mention looking at ancestry to try and avoid too much inbreeding. As a rare breed and a breed in development, there isn’t a huge gene pool yet, and it’s important to try and pair dogs that aren’t closely related, to prevent the health and behavior issues that can develop with inbreeding. In addition, every Shiloh undergoes a LER, or a temperament evaluation. At the age of 1 year, every Shiloh also has its hips x-rayed and graded, and with careful breeding, genetic hip dysplasia has been practically eliminated from Shiloh Shepherds.
The largest focus for the ISSR program is to further develop the breed, focusing on stable temperaments, high intelligence, and excellent physical health. A higher percentage of Shiloh Shepherds are in either therapy or nonviolent service work (including Search and Rescue) than any other breed.
The extra caution taken in this program is reflected in the cost of the dog… but well worth it. Rigel was likely a Shiloh, and formed a bond with me as no dog or animal ever has before or since. He was the smartest dog I’ve ever known, and had the best temperament. I believe the Shiloh Breed to be more compatible with me and my needs than any other, based on my experiences with Rigel, what I’ve seen of other Shilohs, and what my research into the breed has shown me. I can’t afford to be paired with the wrong type of dog. Not with my health issues, physical and mental. I already know what my needs are, and I’m not willing to settle for anything else. I don’t expect this dog to be Rigel, but I do expect that our bond will be just as strong.
Part of my healing, I believe, also involves my taking responsibility for my puppy, making sure (s)he is trained properly, and ensuring (s)he is well provided for, loved, and most of all, happy. The puppy needs to be allowed to be a puppy to develop properly and properly socialized. Even GAP service dogs knows this, and many trainings begin simply by letting the dogs play together for a while, so they can have some fun, blow off steam, whatever. It’s good for the dogs, and it’s good for their people- we all like to see the dogs happy. I’ll have to make sacrifices, but I intend to make sure my pup is well provided for, happy, and loved.
I’ve already begun training with GAP service dogs, for it’s not just the dog who needs to be trained. I do too. We both need to know what the other is saying, thinking, doing if we are to be a team. Teamwork is needed in any successful service dog/human relationship.
The name I’ll be giving my pup, Galen, is a name I chose for him/her many years ago, when I first wanted to raise a Shiloh to scent cancer. It means “Healer.” Galen will be my healer, and this Shiloh so full of promise will hopefully shepherd me into my next stage in life… not just a life worth living, but truly living again.
Galen was born November 20th. (S)he will be 3 weeks old on Thursday. For the first time in a long while, I have hope again. That hope, and what it hopefully brings, is more valuable than all the diamonds in the universe.
Rigel (with cat) Puppies (and dad)