We met at the dog park, of course! Anne was on a long-term pet sitting assignment for a friend who was working overseas. Her fluffy friend growled and barked at anything that moved. I showed up fresh off the plane from Hawaii with my two cattle dogs, Hapa and Maka, who were trailing along off leash. I fell for her Aloha and I think she liked my tan or dog whispering ability, because fluffy puppy didn’t bark or growl at me or my dogs. We have been together every day since!
Several years earlier while living in Hawaii working as a coffee farmer/tree trimmer, I contracted a parasite called histoplasmosis which left me partially blind. As my disability qualified me for a Service Dog, I inquired to an organization in San Jose, California who promised me a free Service Dog; the dog was free, but everything else involved cost around $8,000! A friend of mine who breeds cattle dogs for the Big Island cattle industry/Parker Ranch in Waimea, Hawaii, gave me my forever best friend, Maka Uli (Hawaiian for “Black Eye”). Initially I just trained Maka to stand on my back and bark when I fell down and if he couldn’t revive me due to a head injury or something, he would go down to the house or the neighbor’s and get help. He learned to do this in a weekend! So I trained him on other things I had problems with, like glass doors and finding items I couldn’t see or find, like my phone. For us with invisible disabilities, often it’s not the big things that trip us up, but the small things, i.e., not the trip to Detroit we’re going to take, but packing our suitcases or finding our car keys that will throw us into a panic!
The little things that so many people take for granted easily send us into a tailspin. One of the most difficult things for me was finding my way out of the huge big-box stores we have today. When I get turned around and can’t find the exit, I get panicky and anxious and spiral downhill from there. The very last thing I want to do is approach a human and ask for help; we don’t like asking for help! So I trained Maka to find the door; meaningless to you, insurmountable for me.
Maka has learned many ‘physical’ tasks that help me on a daily basis, but the psychological work and tasks he does for me which we developed over a period of time is more valuable, in my opinion. Today I may not know where the exit is or where I left the keys, my boots or my phone, but I always know where my dog is: right at my feet, and he knows where everything else is.
I call myself a Mog – part man, part dog! Maka and I are one. He independently decides whether I need comfort, confidence, or caution. Physically, he surveys my environment and protects me. An example of this is if I get near any type of drop off or platform, he will lock down on the ground and not permit me to go any further. A real world example of this is camping on the beach in Kauai when I wanted to walk down to the crashing waves at night, he blocked me, barked me back, and would not let me go near it.
Maka is an excellent judge of character and steers me away from any humans he’s not comfortable with. Additionally, he’s a reality check for me. If I get off kilter or some would say, delusional, he reassures me and gives me confidence to move forward. At times my thoughts and speech become disorganized and I’ll think and talk in circles. When this pattern begins, he will tag my hand to get my attention. If I ignore him or push him off, he will bark loudly three times, then I have to pay attention to him.
If I lose my confidence or feel insecure, I look at my dog who lives in the moment and he reminds me to do the same. In addition to using the traditional Psychiatric Service Dog tasks and work like eye gazing, deep tissue therapy, etc., we play a therapeutic game that I call mirroring.
Briefly, mirroring techniques is an intense manner of holding, stroking, breathing and eye gazing that fosters a oneness with the dog and creates a wholeness within the Handler during times of stress and anxiety. Handlers are encouraged to recognize the behavior modifications these techniques create within the dog and integrate similar changes into their own situation. The action of helping the dog to overcome behavior issues created an epiphany of change within the Handler. For the PTSD sufferers, the unconditional love, companionship, and eagerness to please and oneness the dog provides, combined with the Handler’s attempt to become more dog-like (living in the moment) creates a magical transformation which occurs repeatedly daily for many, many years.
Traveling through life together with our dogs and experiencing these things firsthand, Anne and I are compelled to share this experience with others.