Sarah and Alice Eloise; a service dog team

February 6th, 2014 by Carrie, the Just Mildly Medicated gal

I am so happy to have a guest post from Sarah of Sarah Kate’s Silver Linings on her experiences with multiple complicated health issues and how her service dog, Alice, has helped.

I always find it funny when someone will refer to me as brave  because of the things I have faced with health issues, as if there was an option and I chose to be brave, so with that said I will try and refrain from calling Sarah brave but I will say that Sarah handles her health issues with a grace that is well beyond her years. I have learned a lot from this gal and she holds a special place to me.

So heeeeerrrreeeesss Sarah!

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I know a bit about your health issues, can you share with the Just Mildly Medicated readers some of your diagnosis journey?

“My diagnosis journey has been long and complicated, and it remains incomplete!  I am continuing to search for more answers, but currently my primary diagnoses are:

1) Hemophagocytic Lymphohistiocytosis (HLH): HLH is a rare, life-threatening hematologic condition that causes my immune system to be highly stimulated, yet ineffective.  During an HLH flare, a type of white blood cell called macrophages consume my other blood cells, causing dangerously low blood counts.  Macrophages also attack vital organs, particularly my liver and spleen.

2) Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD)/Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS): RSD is a chronic systemic pain condition.  This causes me to have constant, intense pain covering my entire body.  Additionally it has led to dystonia in my right arm.  For three and a half years now I have been unable to bend my elbow, and the function of my hand, wrist, and shoulder have been highly compromised.  RSD has gained a reputation as being the most painful condition on the McGill Pain Scale.

3) Digestive Tract Paralysis (DTP): Digestive tract paralysis is precisely what it sounds like — paralysis of the digestive tract!  Dysmotility in my stomach and intestines leaves me unable to eat and reliant on total parenteral nutrition (TPN) which is administered intravenously each day over 15 hours.

4) Mitochondrial Disease (mito): Mitochondria are responsible for generating about 90% of the body’s cellular energy, and when they fail, mitochondrial disease develops.  Because of the widespread function of mitochondria, symptoms vary greatly from patient to patient.  It is thought that mito has caused me to have chronic pain, severe gastrointestinal issues, and bone marrow failure, in addition to other symptoms.”

 

How does your health impact your daily life?

“Unfortunately my health conditions are very disabling.  Most days I do not feel well enough to leave the house, making it a rare occurrence for me to go anywhere other than to appointments with my doctors.  And I think it goes without saying that naturally the diminished function of my right arm has greatly influenced my life as well.

Still I am sure to be up and out of bed each day.  I have found ways to keep myself busy and entertained at home.  Gradually I have adapted to one-handed living, and now I can even sew and cook!  And of course I have such fun playing and training with my sweet Double Doodle, Alice Eloise.”

 

What originally made you think you pursue a service dog?

“It is difficult to imagine, but a person with RSD can feel excruciating pain from even the lightest touch.  Something as delicate as a gust of wind can be entirely unbearable.  So anytime I am in a crowded area I have to be very protective of my right arm so that passersby do not unknowingly bump into it.  Then one day it occurred to me that if I had a service dog, she could act as a barricade between the bustle of a crowd and my painful arm.  Since that enlightened idea first came to me, I have envisioned more and more tasks that my service dog could perform to assist me in my day-to-day activities.”

 

How did you find the right organization / training program for you?

“The story of Alice Eloise and me is a bit out of the ordinary in many ways, including the manner in which we became a service dog team.  Most of the time a person receives their service dog from an organization dedicated to training dogs and matching them with a handler in need.

But for my specific requirements, I decided that it would be most suitable for me to self-train my own service dog.  I chose this route for multiple reasons.  Firstly, my big sister is allergic to dogs, so it was essential for my new companion to be of a breed that is considered hypoallergenic so as not to create any problems for my sister.  As a Double Doodle (also called a North American Retriever, which is a Golden Retriever X Labrador X Poodle mix) Alice Eloise fits this criteria.  Secondly, I simply wanted to form the unparalleled bond that grows from training a dog from puppyhood.

I fondly desired to be an integral part of those fun and silly puppy days!  Although the prospect of self-training a service dog was indeed rather daunting, it has proved to be a wise decision in our case.  Since she was a tiny pup, Alice Eloise has been exposed to my IV equipment and all of the little intricacies of my daily life;  although my typical routine is the furthest thing from average, it is all that Alice Eloise knows, making it completely normal in her estimation.”

 

How did Ms. Alice Eloise get her name?

“Alice Eloise is a very special name for a very special pup!  And of course there is a story behind this unique moniker.

Long before Alice Eloise was even born, I fantasized about someday having a Doodle of my own.  I was perpetually dreaming up different names, hoping to stumble upon the perfect one for my future puppy.  A while back an outrageous series of medical complications landed me in Orlando, Florida, for an extended stay.  After a day spent happily at Downtown Disney, I spent a night not-so-happily in the emergency room.  And in case you hadn’t heard, emergency rooms are notoriously slow.  So in order to pass the time, I found myself playing the name game.

With fanciful recollections of a Disney-filled day fresh in my memory, the name “Alice” came to mind, as “Alice in Wonderland” is a favorite book and movie of mine.  But growing up with such a common name as “Sarah” was enough to make me feel the need to be absolutely certain that my one-of-a-kind pup would have her own unique identity.  So voila, I tacked on the name “Eloise” for some added flare!  Whenever we go out and strangers ask about my pretty red dog, they always have a giggle upon learning that she is “Alice Eloise the Double Doodle”.  I guess they don’t meet such an interesting dog everyday.”

 

What was it like when you found Alice Eloise and knew she was for you?

“It was pretty much that magical, sparkly, so fantastic it couldn’t possibly be real, Christmas morning kind of feeling.  I often wish that I could go back in time and revisit that marvelous day when I first met my tiny, enchanting Double Doodle pup!  I had already fallen in love with Alice Eloise in photos, but when I went to visit her and her siblings, I tried to keep my mind open so that I could select the puppy with the temperament best suited for service dog work.

Well, in the end I am not so certain how open my mind truly was.  Even in the midst of seven roly-poly darling Doodle pups, Alice Eloise was the shining star who melted my heart all to pudding!  Oh my goodness, my baby Doodle’s charming personality had me entirely smitten in a snap.  She was very gentle, rather shy, and all kinds of sweet.  As she has grown her character has blossomed;  she somehow manages to be simultaneously quiet and docile, silly and spunky!  I like to claim that this diverse demeanor means that she is “well-adjusted”!  Really, I believe that God matched Alice Eloise and me perfectly.  You know how they say that dogs resemble their humans?  Alice Eloise most certainly has a personality that reflects my own!”

 

What types of things does she do to assist you?

“As I mentioned above, I have trained Alice Eloise to heel closely to my right side so that my painful arm is not jostled when I am out in public.

I also have difficulty removing jackets, sweaters, and gloves on my own, so Alice Eloise has learned to tug them off for me. Alice Eloise also performs retrieval-based tasks.  In the evening when I begin my TPN infusion, I am connected to a very heavy and unwieldy bag of fluids.  I am unable to carry the bag on my own, leaving me rooted to the same spot for most of the night.  So if I need something that is not within my reach, Alice Eloise will fetch the item for me.”

 

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What tips would you give someone interested in looking into getting a service dog?

“It is important to be aware of just exactly what a service dog is.  Oftentimes service dogs are confused with therapy dogs or emotional support animals.  But while therapy dogs and emotional support animals fill very honorable and important roles, they do not perform tasks aimed at mitigating a person’s disability, and are not granted public access.  The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities”.

With this definition in mind, my advice would be to take a step back and really ponder what you are looking for in a service dog.  How could your potential dog best help you?  The nearly endless list of tasks that a service dog can perform to positively impact the life of their handler is simply amazing!

And on the flip side, seriously consider what you will be able to do for your dog.  Will you be capable of providing for all of your dog’s needs?  This selfless animal will be dedicating their life to serving you unconditionally.  In return they deserve proper medical care, balanced nutrition, regular grooming, and plenty of play time and exercise.

And most importantly, a service dog thrives on love.  The special connection between a person and their service dog can be positively beautiful.  I have been so very blessed to have such an amazing best friend as Alice Eloise.  Sure, she helps me with everyday tasks that I am unable to do on my own.  But at the end of the day, when the service dog vest comes off, my little sweetheart, Alice Eloise, curls up in my lap to cuddle…  And if you ask me, that’s the best service any dog could provide!

You can read a special blog post that I wrote about the journey Alice Eloise and I have taken as a service dog team by clicking here.  And if you are considering applying for or training your own service dog, please feel free to leave a comment with any questions you might have!  Alice Eloise has been such a delightful gift in my life;  so I am passionate about helping others attain this same pleasure by finding their own service dog in any way that I possibly can!”

 

What  was the hardest task for you and Alice Eloise to master?

“Task training has never been a source of great difficulty for Alice Eloise.  Of course we always strive for improvement, and we hope to expand our repertoire of individually-trained tasks designated to alleviate my disability;  but Alice Eloise has a sharp mind.  Since we have trained regularly since she was very young, she has “learned to learn”, if you will.  She has grasped the concept that whenever we are in training mode, she is supposed to be learning something.  Once she begins to focus on deciphering just what that “something” might be, she picks up on tasks and tricks relatively quickly.

Rather, with my friendly Doodle, the most challenging aspect of training has been teaching Alice Eloise to maintain her composure when she sees a favorite friend!  And she has a habit of taking a shining to any potential new friends we might meet, too.  Quite simply she has trouble containing the overabundance of love in her heart.  We have made such a lot of progress, though.  The way I view it is that if we are going to have a problem, this is the best problem for us to have.  Just think if Alice Eloise was at the other end of the spectrum;  if she had a history of being resentful to humans, I would be forever nervous that at some point Alice Eloise might respond negatively to a person whom we would happen to meet.  That behavior would be most unbecoming to a service dog, and she would be out of the job in an instant.  I am entirely pleased with Alice Eloise’s behavior when we are on outings.  She exhibits a professional bearing and has come to greet admirers that she encounters while working with a polite tail wag, and then goes about her business.  It’s something equivalent to an amicable handshake in the human world!

Whenever we are on her own turf, though, she continues to welcome guests to our house with, er, enthusiasm!  I try to manage the precarious balance that allows Alice Eloise to be a working dog, but still hold onto that joie de vivre characteristic of wildly happy pups.  I want her to be able to relax at home and to play with gusto!  While service dogs are indeed highly respectable citizens, remember that they are still dogs!  So never judge a service dog who is off duty.  Their devoted work more than earns their right to let loose and play hard!”

 

Have you and Alice Eloise have any embarrassing bumps in the road during early public access days?

 “Regrettably I have no humiliating anecdotes of public access flubs to have you doubled over with uncontrollable belly laughs.  Well, actually to be honest with you, I don’t regret it one bit!  Still, the uncertainties held in our first excursions together were somewhat intimidating to be sure;  how might Alice Eloise react to all of the novel, exhilarating, and maybe even slightly scary discoveries that she was sure to happen upon while on these momentous adventures?  What about the mysterious physics of elevators, the speeding stretchers whizzing by, the strangers wearing funny masks?  A hospital offers any number of opportunities for a rookie service dog to make a shambles of their reputation, landing them smack-dab in that proverbial doghouse!  But the only way to transform these unfamiliarities into commonplace situations for my fledgling service dog was to expose her to the big, wide world out there.

To my delight, all of my initial misgivings have thus far been dismissed, as Alice Eloise has yet to cause a stir on any of our outings.  Granted, the first time she accompanied me to the pediatric hematology/oncology clinic, she did give an uncharacteristic, high-pitched squeal when the technician called my name to escort us to an exam room.  You can bet that I was mildly mortified!  But if that is the most disreputable blot on our résumé, then I consider our career as a service dog team a success!”

 

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5 Responses

  1. Lindsay says:

    I can’t tell you how much I love these service dog team stories!

    Alice Eloise and Sarah make a great team. I’m so glad they found each other.

  2. […] into the fascinating daily life of your favorite service dog team, Sarah Kate and Alice Eloise. So click here to hop over to “Just Mildly Medicated” and get the scoop! I will be back soon, but for […]

  3. Yvonne Rieger says:

    I love reading Sarah’s stories – such a professional, entertaining writer! I am blessed to know Sarah and Alice Eloise and they couldn’t be a more perfect pair – the love and friendship they share is incredible and they even look slightly similar….a very special bond. Thanks to Sarah for sharing her story and getting the word out for rare illnesses. And thank you Carrie for sharing your blog with Sarah. God bless you. Hugs!

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