Finley the Service Dog: A Story of True Love
Finley, my Golden Retriever service dog, was rescued as a puppy, but ultimately, I was the one rescued by him. He is a hard worker, always ready to do his job, a constant AND faithful companion.
As the result of a massive hemorrhagic stroke in December 2008, I have visual field cuts and left side weakness with spasticity. Throughout my recovery, I used various assistive devices to help me with walking and mobility.
l began to diligently research and pursue getting a service dog in 2010. I discovered there are numerous service dog organizations throughout the country. Factors I considered when choosing an organization were: cost, location, reputation and my needs. The organization I chose was local, used rescued dogs and offered a lot of support to their clients. As a puppy, Finley and his litter mates were abandoned. Thankfully, they were rescued, and Finley began his journey to becoming a service dog.
The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service animal as “… a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.” The task, or tasks, performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability. A service dog must be individually trained for each person. It is also the responsibility of the handler (the person the dog is serving) to be in control of the dog. A service dog can be a valuable asset in the life of a stroke survivor, but a service dog requires a commitment on the owner’s part — regular exercise and meticulous grooming.
After completing an application, I was invited to meet with trainers to determine if a service dog would meet my particular needs. At this interview, the trainers got to know me and my specific needs and were able formulate a plan.
For most of Finley’s life, he has been working on learning how to be a good service dog — he started training when he was 1 year old, and I got him when he was 2. He needed to know how to behave in public. He needed to be able to focus on his jobs even with distractions such as other dogs, animals or food. He must be confident in performing the specific skills I need.
In February 2012, I went to final training. It was an intense 10 days, but we needed to work together fluidly. I had to learn to trust Finley, and he needed to learn to trust me. Processing new information is a challenge since my stroke, so there were some hurdles during team training. With the guidance and patience
of the staff, we completed it. However, we are never without support. To this day, the trainers are always a call, text or email away.
During team training, we practiced all our skills. Finley has been specifically trained to help me maintain my balance when walking. He helps me up and down the stairs. He assists me from a seated to a standing position. Finley retrieves items I drop and gives them to me. Although not formally trained to do this, Finley has learned to alert me to things on my left side. If I fall, there’s a way Finley can help me get back up. We also practiced going to public places such as malls, grocery stores, restaurants and movie theaters during team training.
Finley accompanies me in all places the public can go. We go to restaurants, nail salons, movie theaters, plays, shopping, fairs and use public transportation. At restaurants, Finley goes under the table. He always goes to my medical appointments — unless it’s a sterile environment such as an operating room. He also attends painting class and goes to church with me.
As his partner, I am responsible for Finley’s behavior. I wear a belt around my waist; attached is a leash that keeps Finley connected to me. He wears a harness with a handle. I hold onto the harness for stability when walking. He doesn’t wear his harness when he is “off duty.”
It is not all work and no play for Finley. He enjoys walking with me, but that’s still work. He waits by the door for his dog walker, who gives him a power walk. Sometimes, he simply runs in the yard at lightning speed with a toy.
Survivor Denice DeAntonio with her friend and service doc, Finley
A service dog is not for everyone. It may shed. It requires grooming. There are veterinary costs and food bills. Insurance does not cover the cost of service dogs. It is important to keep cost in mind when considering a service dog. My initial fees for Finley were $7,000, which included training.
It is important to remember a service dog is still a dog. Even though Finley has had excellent training, sometimes his inner dog comes out. Like the time I bought my husband a small cherry pie from the farmers market and placed it safely on my kitchen counter. My husband eventually went to eat his treat, but it had mysteriously vanished. We looked everywhere. As a last resort, we looked in Finley’s bed, and there was the empty pie tin, licked clean, its wrapper and a very satisfied dog.
There is no denying a service dog can add to the quality of your life. With Finley‘s support, I am able to walk up to three miles in one trip.
Having a stroke altered my life. One of the best gifts from my stroke is Finley. I walk more confidently and longer distances. I use the stairs with an ease I would have never imagined. Through him, I rediscovered an independence I thought I lost. Finley is now 7, and there will come a time he must retire. I will always have a special place in my heart for him, but I cannot imagine my life without my service dog.