Earlier this year, Koda, a very special and dedicated dog, went to live with Fiona Gilbert. Their relationship is unique and has been life-changing for Fiona in a way that not many people experience with their dog.
You see, Koda is Fiona’s service dog.
Kent, NY Animal Control Officer Jill Gianfransico brought Koda to Animal Farm Foundation after his original family surrendered him. Officer Gianfransico was so taken with Koda’s great personality that she called us right away.
He spent a few weeks on the Farm so that we could get a better sense of his personality, and then we sent him off to Apryl, our assistance dog trainer.
After extensive training with Apryl, Koda became Fiona’s brace and mobility support dog. Fiona has a demyelinating neurological condition, which affects the nerve fibers in her brain and spinal cord. Due to this, Fiona’s nerve impulses slow down and sometimes don’t work at all.
In addition to chronic fatigue and pain, Fiona has limited sensation on the right side of her body.
She told us:
“If I stand in one spot for too long, I can suddenly fall over because I don’t feel myself tipping or drifting. I drop things a lot and then it is hard to pick them up because I can’t get my hand to close properly. The muscles on the right side can atrophy easily if I let it, my right hands and feet are always a different temperature from the left. The first time I went to the emergency room (which is how I was diagnosed) I had fallen over and couldn’t get back up or feel my right side, I went to the emergency room thinking I was having a stroke.”
For Fiona, walking is the trickiest activity. She says it’s “energy expensive and exhausting.” But now that she has Koda, walking isn’t as much of a challenge.
She talked about some of the tasks he helps her with:
“He provides counter balance for me when I am walking so that I can stop thinking as hard about walking, he braces for me to get up and down off the floor as well as braces me so that I don’t lose my balance when I am working on my clients.”
Due to Fiona’s condition, she has extreme numbness on her right side. Koda often puts pressure on her foot and leg so that she not only knows they are there but where they are. He also retrieves items from the floor for her.
As a personal trainer/movement specialist, many of Fiona’s clients have similar experiences to hers. She has spent years refining protocols for various medical conditions, including neurological ones. Koda helps make her invaluable work possible.
“I perform a lot of proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation work with my clients. It is very demanding … but, it is so effective for so many conditions that I would feel negligent if I didn’t do it. It is exhausting for me. I had hoped a dog could help me with it. I had absolutely no idea how we were going to make it work or how Apryl (AFF’s assistance dog trainer) was going to train the dog to do that. Koda just fell naturally into that role and it has been amazing and awe inspiring.”
The pair did have an adjustment period, which is very normal for a service dog team. But, there was a moment where everything clicked for the pair – a moment when Fiona knew that Koda was the perfect dog for her.
“I was about to start PNF work on a client and Koda got up, walked over, put a paw on my shoulder and just looked at me with a face that said, ‘I can help you, where do you need me?’ I asked my client if it was OK, she said yes and we did it. It was just so natural for him. I nearly burst into tears.”
Koda has had a ripple effect on Fiona’s life. She’s not as exhausted when she leaves work, which means she doesn’t have to immediately “crash on the couch” when she gets home.
The team experiences challenges though when they are in public. Due to the prevalence of fake service dogs, people often assume that legitimate handlers aren’t actually disabled. When you combine that stigma with the stereotypes surrounding “pit bull” dogs, things can get overwhelming.
“I also get accused of having a fake service dog. People say things like: ‘You are so bold to pass your “pit bull” off as a service dog.’ I also get asked all the time,“so what is really wrong with you?’ Because he is a “pit bull” dog, people also say things like, ‘a pit bull can’t be a service dog’ or ‘aren’t you afraid he is going to turn on you?'”
She says she’s developed a thick skin for both fo them, but people are always impressed when they see him perform tasks for her.
As an assistance dog, Koda has to have a relaxed personality. Fiona says he’s just as chill at home as he is on the job. The only difference is that he is a total lovebug off-duty. Fiona says:
When he is off-duty and you say “hi” to him, he could literally kiss your face for hours if you let him.
Koda is just one of our many assistance dogs who is changing the lives of people with disabilities and helping the world to see that all dogs are individuals. You can see their stories here.