What does an emotional support dog do, anyway?

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Koufax relaxing

I was often asked this question. Sometimes I’d offer a few words, “Helps me feel safe”; sometimes I’d be abrupt, “I don’t want to talk about it,” and sometimes I’d overwhelm whoever asked with the long story explaining why I needed a service dog. I’d then launch into how I’d received a traumatic brain injury, the consequences, various changes in my life, and on and on. No answer seemed adequate.

The real answer is simple. He helps me to lead a fuller, more joyful life.

My emotional support dog

He was about 8 months old, and I was 2 ½ years into healing from a traumatic brain injury, when I strapped a red vest on him that said Service Dog on both sides. Below the writing were zippered sections which contained some poop bags and a photocopy of the dog license that identified him as a service dog. The vest hung loosely on his puppy frame. He was already getting tall, but his muscular frame was thin.

From the first-time I clicked the straps on the vest, he seemed to know that the vest meant that he was on the job, and that protecting me was his job. He didn’t pull while we walked and he didn’t look around or even stop to sniff. He seemed proud to be in a uniform and to be working.

We named him Koufax

We named him Koufax, after the great Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax. Sandy Koufax is still considered one of the greatest left-handed pitchers of all time. He is also recognized for his decision not to pitch in the opening game of the 1965 World Series, because it was the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. While not an especially observant Jew, Koufax believed it was disrespectful to participant in the Series on a sacred day. Our Koufax had a proud demeanor and when he played, he led with his left paw, making him a member of the southpaw club. We told people that he was a southpaw, Jewish, and dignified, just like his namesake, Sandy Koufax.

My learning curve

I was hyper- vigilant when we began to go out as a team, watching for other dogs, construction sites, lawn mowers or other things that might spook him. If I saw something. I’d I tighten my grip on the leash. He would keep walking forward, maybe waiting for me to relax. With the help of professional training for me, and Koufax, I learned more about his reactions, how to modulate his behavior and how to remain the leader in our partnership. I did learn to relax.

He grew into the vest. By 2 years old, he was wearing a size X-Large. We went everywhere together. In a restaurant, I would put a coat or blanket on the floor next to me. It marked his spot. After he laid down, I’d give him a treat and there he would remain until it was time to leave. If we were out for breakfast, I’d ask for a table for two and order a side of bacon for him. Most people respected the message on his vest and kept distance from us. Typically, though, the staff in a restaurant or attendants on a plane asked to touch him and often lingered to tell me stories and show pictures of their own dog.

I never felt alone. After the TBI, I didn’t want to go out at all. When I did start to venture out on my own, I would never stop to eat or dawdle. But with Koufax as my companion, I would sit down, maybe read the newspaper, or describe to him what I was seeing: the adorable children across the room, the man wearing a beret next to us.

We walked at least two times a day. He helped me to focus my attention on the present moment. I learned the best spots for him to sniff; I knew if there was someone ahead by the tilt of his head, and if I needed to be cautious by the rise of the hair on his back. We would explore new areas. I knew he could always find the way back to our starting point.

For our evening walk, I would say, “You pick the route tonight.” And he would. I’d keep the leash loose and let him choose the path. The first time we did “your choice”, he walked in a loop from our apartment, through the Smith College campus adjacent to our apartment, and back to our home. I was amazed and delighted with our game.

It didn’t matter what time of day or night we walked. He was my guide and companion, my safety, my compass.

He knew every store that gave out dog treats. He’d guide me to the bookstore, walk in and go immediately behind the desk where the jar of treats was kept. He’d stare or simply lay down and wait until he was spotted, and served. We became known at a duo. Typically, people remembered his name and would call out, “Hi Koufax” when we entered someplace. He felt comfortable and I felt that I belonged in all kinds of places.

He came with me on airplane trips; accompanied me on ferry boat rides and went almost everywhere in the car, stretching out or curling into whatever space was available for him.

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Waiting patiently for the ferry ride to Orient Point, NY, to end

He went to casual cafes and upscale restaurants; movie theaters and plays.

I wasn’t afraid to be out alone, because in fact I wasn’t alone. He was big enough to discourage anyone who wanted to bother me, strong enough to help me up a steep hill and friendly enough to allow strangers to touch him, hug him and, in fact, occasionally to kiss him.

The rainbow bridge

I knew, at least in my cognitive, intellectual mind, that dogs don’t live forever and big dogs have a limited life expectancy. Koufax and I talked about our future together. I begged him to stay with me. I bargained with G-d. I made jokes about Kofi’s commitment to be with me for 20 years. I cried and told him that I didn’t know how I would manage without him.

On the second Sabbath during the Jewish High Holidays of 2020, 5780 in the Jewish calendar, he lay down next to me as he always did. When I tried to get him up about an hour later, he couldn’t stand, and his breathing was irregular. Three hours later, at the emergency veterinary hospital, he died of metastatic cancer, never having whimpered or complained.

This isn’t a story about the heartbreak of losing a beloved pet, although indeed I am bereft.

My emotional support dog gave me access to a world beyond my disability. He helped bolster my sense of confidence to branch out beyond my comfort level; he showed me the utter joy in the ordinary, a stick, a squirrel, river rocks, an open field. He was my daily mindful meditation instructor teaching my nervous system to focus on the moment and curb the travels of the wandering mind.

Like any great teacher, what he taught endures.

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My muse. Koufax gazing at my book, Headtrong.

Written by

Author of Headstrong: Surviving a traumatic brain injury, Professor Emeritus, Springfield College, Massachusetts, love family, friends, the ocean and my dog

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