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 givenher back her life, which was robbed of its joy by mental health challenges. They’ve been each other’s life saver since he came home withher last June.
“Before, I couldn’t walk down the street without my insides feeling like they were shrinking and just, I’ve never been so confident, I guess. He just makes me be me,” Emma said, adding there’s no judgment. “It’s unconditional love. Like, I decide when he comes in and out of my life. He’s … I don’t know. He’s amazing. He’s my best friend. 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.
“Whenher anxiety gets so bad that’s kind of the only way it comes out for her not being able to handle it. And she was having those quite frequently, which was getting harder and harder to control. Since having the dog, I can probably only count three, maybe, of those temper tantrums, and they’re nowhere near as bad since,” Jordan said, before correcting herself that there were likely even fewer than three.
She acknowledges parenting a teenager comes with its share of challenges, but the emotional outburst prevented any type of dialogue.
“It is definitely much easier to come to a resolution [with] because it doesn’t get blown out of proportion the way it used to,” she said.
Even before Emma and her mother trained Biggie, they knew he possessed great qualities. His helpful and caring nature calmed Emma’s anxieties, allowing her to visit the fish hatchery despite her aversion to new experiences.
“That 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.”
“Sowhen 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 the anxiety and bringing her attention to him to calm her down,” Jordan said. “If she’s standing, he’ll come up and boop her leg with her nose, or do circles around her or something to get her attention and then when she takes her attention to him, depending on the situation, then it calms her down. If she happens to be sitting on the couch, for example, he’ll climb on the couch and get on her lap. So, depending on what position she’s in he gets her attention in one way or another and kind of pulls her away from what’s going on in her mind.”
Jordan and Emma hope their story will raise awareness about the benefits of service dogsfor people with disabilities and how financially accessible they are inOntario, 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 be touched. He’s doing a job. He’s not a pet at that point and just going into stores. Sometimes you get funny looks,” Emma said. “A grocery storefor example. He’s allowed to be in a grocery store because he’s a service dog. You get people like, “Why is there a dog in the grocery store.”
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 registered veterinary technician at the Minden Animal Hospital, who is a friend of Kristyn Begbie of Snowflake Meadows, where Biggie came from. Emma was a volunteer at Snowflake Meadows for a while before she got Biggie. The teen believes their relationship was meant to be after an adoption for him 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 a result of his enduring presence, Jordan said.
“It’s put her in a routine, which is good and it gets her out and knowing that an animal can’t survive without the help of their human they’re kind of dependent on each other,” she said.
Jordan, who referenced the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, characterized the process of having a dog identified as a service dog as being like filling a prescription.
“Soa doctor or a psychiatrist has to write a note, stating that you require a service dog to mitigate your disability. The note doesn’t have to be specific because it’s for privacy reasons. It depends on the disability,” she said.
There are two areas of law that support the use of service animals in Ontario: AODA and the Ontario Human Rights Code. AODA states that service animals are not to be treated like pets and that people who require a service animal for their disability not be excluded from services or from a provider of services premises. The service animal should be easily identified and the owner can present a note from a regulated health professional that the animal is required for a disability.
Emma always has a note with her on her mobile phone from her psychiatrist, who made the diagnosis that she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.
InOntario, service dogs can be trained by their owner. There are no set guidelines for training in Ontario, Jordan said. Much of it is common sense, such as the dog needs to take instruction, be well-behaved and not aggressive. It helped that Jordan and her daughter were experienced dog owners. During Biggie’s training period, they would periodically ask a friend who owned a pre-trained service dog about what it was trained to do. A seeing eye dog is a different type of service dog, which requires specific training. There are pre-trained service dogs for a variety of disabilities, which are quite expensive.
When Emma first started at the Haliburton Highlands Adult and Alternate Education Centrelast year in March, it was difficult due to her propensity to procrastinate. This past year she found focusing was far easier with Biggie.
She has three credits this year and admits she’s still behind in her year, but recognizes the progress that wouldn’t have been possible without Biggie. Some of her peers have shown a real affection for her dog, including one who makes a point of bringing in treats for him.
Minden Hills-based therapist and social worker Dianne Mathes knows the benefits of an animal in therapy. She said her purebred goldenretriever, Shilo, is a “therapy assistant” and was trained by her from when he was a puppy, following her other dogs, Sierra and Jasper. Although her dogs were never formally trained, they’ve been helpful for young and old patients alike.
“I started building with eye contact with [Shilo]. Showing him my emotions and showing him that when he puts his paw on me, you know, [he] learns how that feels good. And so you teach him to be really attuned with people,” she said.
Mathes said depending on the person, this can be helpful because the dog shows what happens if they’re stressed and what happens if they can breathe and relax a bit.
“Obviously, people and children in particular can be much more responsive to having a dog come over and do something with them than having another person, right? So, therapy dogs, because I’ve done all this background work with him, around helping him know different emotions through me, if a person breathes and let’s say they start to cry, his response is to go and put his head on their lap. If they start to get frightened, he’ll take a paw and gently put the paw ontheir leg or stand beside them and give them a bit of comfort. And I say, “Shilo is showing you that he’s trying to calm you down, or he’s trying 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 thenhe 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, who runs Minden-based Cedar Grove Golden Retrievers where dogs are trained with attention to being emotionally sensitive to their needs, including lots 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 many different things to make that connection with us and get our approval and have a relationship with us. It’s taught me so much how animals communicate and how I can communicate without necessarily always doing as much work as I think I have to,” she said.
Her advice for others looking to train a dog for service or for companionship is about making an emotional connection. The rest just falls into place.
“If you’re really focused on being in an attuned, connected relationship on an emotional level with an animal and you’re very gentle and quiet with him, he will just start to naturally respond to you,” she said.
Emma admits her relationship with her dog isn’t perfect, but she wouldn’t have it any other way, particularly during the pandemic that has been a source 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 you spend too much time with a person or whatever, you do butt heads eventually. We do have our moments and bits of anger where he does things, spiteful things that make me mad, but we get over it. I just look at all the positive things that he does for me. I definitely wouldn’t be laughing as much as I do and he keeps me sane.”