It is funny how sometimes things happen exactly how they are meant to.
I never imagined myself as a service dog handler. I did not know I could be eligible to become one. But from the first moment I met Denise, I recognized that she would become the biggest blessing in my life.
And trust me — she has been.
This is the beginning of our journey together.
In August 2014, I had a fall. This was not odd for me, as I often lost my balance as a result of my disability.
I still do, although on very rare occurrences — thankfully.
On this particular day, however, I was afraid and felt extremely alone. It was during a train connection stop. I was transferring myself from the toilet back into my wheelchair, and for some unknown reason I lost my balance and fell between the wall and my wheelchair. I hit my head on the metal toilet paper dispenser.
I hit it very hard.
I was alone — not in a stall, but rather in a standalone accessible washroom. I am rarely afraid once I have fallen.
But this time, I was terrified.
I was afraid of not having enough strength to pull me up in my wheelchair. I was afraid of not being heard if I yelled for assistance. I was afraid of missing my train connection if I took too long to catch my breath and move again.
I checked in with myself, and was on my way a few minutes later.
But that situation remained predominantly in my thoughts.
Fast forward a month. I was back on my university campus and I caught sight of a disabled womxn with a black standard poodle. The dog was wearing a small black harness with the letters ‘SSD’ engraved on it.
To say I was intrigued would be such an understatement. I wanted to approach the womxn and start a conversation about her dog, but I did not do so for weeks. Instead, I would spend my study breaks researching the internet in hopes of finding any information pertaining to the acronym ‘SSD’.
A few weeks passed and I finally gathered the courage to approach the womxn when I saw her again. She explained to me that the black standard poodle was a service dog from the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides.
I had never heard of that organization before — let alone thought I would be eligible for one of their dogs. But it was not long after I met that womxn and her service dog that I applied to become a handler.
The Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides provides Dog Guides at no cost to individuals who qualify. There are currently six programs — including Service Dogs.
I honestly did not believe that I was disabled enough to receive a service dog of my own.
Queue the internalized ableism once again.
I did not believe that I would pass my home assessment, but I did. Even when I was accepted into the program and waited for the moment that a dog would be ready for me, I doubted myself and remained skeptical for the next year.
I am an anxious individual — but up until that point had never experienced such a profound level of anxiety. I am now embarrassed to admit that such thoughts were once engraved in my head.
My application was complete, and the waiting process began. I was told it could take from two to four years to receive a class invitation. The Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides typically trains labradors and poodles. Poodles are prioritized for individuals who have dog allergies — such as myself.
Applicants are required to complete a questionnaire so that trainers can further understand daily lifestyles and other pertinent details. This information is then used to match a Guide Dog with a handler according to similar characteristics, which ensures that a dog is suitable for a specific handler and vice versa.
The wait time was longer for poodles, and I definitely did not expect to receive a phone call from my trainer anytime soon — but I decided to contact them after 10 months of being on the waiting list because I wanted to know where I was placed on the list.
My trainer replied to my email promptly afterwards, and informed me that I was definitely closer to the top but she did not know when a service dog that suited my needs and lifestyle would be available.
I received a second email from my trainer exactly a week after. I had never been much of a believer of things happening exactly how they should. But what happened next completely shifted my mindset.
I vividly remember reading the message. I could not catch my breath when I attempted to tell my father the news. Poor guy — he thought someone passed away. My reaction was that pronounced.
The email informed me that a service dog was ready for me, and I was thus invited to the next training class.
I excitedly accepted the invitation to attend class — without necessarily thinking about the repercussions of doing so.
But then the reality slowly began to catch up with me.
It was the first term of my second undergraduate year. The training class would be held from the last week of November to the second week of December — in other words, during the most hectic time of my academic term.
Throughout the weeks leading up to my departure, I would ask myself if it would be all worth it to miss such a significant part of my term.
I would convince myself that there would be other service dogs waiting for me in the future. There would probably be a future class that would be held at a more convenient time for me.
But for the first time in my life, I did not want to mess with the course of faith. I knew there must have been a reason that a service dog was waiting for me at this exact moment of my life.
There was a plan that was greater than the one I had created for me.
And I was not about to reject it.
Did you know? I am an Accessibility and Disability Consultant
Through Chloée Catherine Consulting, I help business owners, corporations, private entities, and the travel industry foster inclusive spaces within their own environments. Visit thinkbeyondaccess.com for more information.