There’s a lot of truth to the old proverb: Happiness comes from having something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for. And given the often disabling, isolating, and limiting impact of chronic conditions, effective treatment is crucial to an individual’s quality of life. When it comes to addressing a disability in all its complexity, there’s hardly a treatment more holistic than a service dog.
Beth Holloway has been paired with her dog, Somerset (“Somer,” for short) for seven years now, and it’s safe to say that the experience has been life-changing. Beth, who is diagnosed with both cerebral palsy and clinical depression, considered seeking a service dog for psychiatric purposes first. She’d always felt a strong connection with animals, so when her therapist suggested she look into getting a service dog, she got to researching. She came across an article about psychiatric service dogs and decided to email the author who had written it. His response immediately pointed her in the right direction — he got her in touch with ECAD.
In June 2011, when Beth interviewed with ECAD co-founder Lu Picard, Beth expressed her interest in a psychiatric service dog. While ECAD doesn’t train dogs for psychiatric purposes specifically, Lu took Beth’s needs into consideration. During Team Training during March of the next year, ECAD paired Beth with a dog who had been showing a gift for emotional sensitivity: Somer.
Like many other ECAD clients, Beth found Team Training to be both a rewarding and challenging time. In fact, Beth remembers it as one of the most physically and psychologically demanding experiences of her life. Years later, she says, “It tested me in ways I never thought I could be tested.”
She vividly recalls one moment in particular. On the first or second night of Team Training, one of the trainers gave a speech and relayed some of his experiences from serving in Iraq. His stories affected Beth more than she expected, and she began to feel deeply upset. With a seemingly telepathic understanding of Beth’s emotions, the veteran’s dog took notice and took action. After the dog caught the veteran’s attention and got his permission to approach Beth, the dog came up to her to comfort her. Seeing Beth’s confusion, the handler explained to Beth that the dog wanted her to pet him.
"It was amazing that this dog that I didn't even know wanted to help me more than anything else," Beth recalls. She was surprised that a dog she’d met only hours before could understand her needs so acutely.
This was only the beginning of a service dog exceeding Beth’s expectations. Her description of life with Somer is characterized by the countless new areas of life in which Beth is able to say “I can.” Somer’s sharp memory helps Beth navigate everyday situations like identifying the vehicle that picks them up from a program, recognizing acquaintances while they’re out and about, and taking trips on the Amtrak to visit Beth’s parents. Beth is highly involved at her church, and Somer is always at her side. Somer provides an easy icebreaker for Beth to get talking with the people around her.
"She has helped me to be the kind of person that I always was, but was never able to be before," Beth says. "Because I have to look out for two of us now, I'm more capable of thinking on my feet and problem solving."
And, of course, Somer addresses Beth’s psychiatric needs as well.
"She is, in many ways, a four-legged therapist for me," says Beth. "She knows when I get sad, and she'll come and put her head or her paw on my foot." Beth and Somer were a match made in heaven from day one, and over the years, their bond has only gotten stronger.
"She has become, in many ways, my best friend," says Beth. "She is always there."
The last seven years have given Beth time to reflect on the many facets of the experience for which she’s thankful. She remembers how supportive and encouraging the ECAD team was during Team Training, when Beth began to worry that she and Somer weren’t going to work out as a team.
"Lu had faith in me, even if I didn't have faith in myself," says Beth. "It's also amazing to me that even though Somer and I have been a team for seven years, ECAD is still very involved. Anytime I have an issues, I am able to call ECAD and they are able to help me through it."
She found a support system among other ECAD clients as well. From before she even applied, to her time at Team Training, to today, she has found that ECAD fosters a community in which fellow clients reach out and help each Other. To this day, Beth keeps in contact with people she met through ECAD, counting some of them among her best friends.
"Through ECAD I've made friends for life. Friends who will always be there. People that I wouldn't have met otherwise, but now I couldn't imagine my life without,” she says.
As much as Beth’s ECAD experience has exceeded her expectations, she knows that there are many other stories like hers.
"There's a dog for every person. And a person for every dog. [ECAD] knows each dog's strengths and weaknesses. They are all trained to do the same things, but some are better than others at certain things," says Beth.
It’s with this confidence in ECAD that Beth encourages people to show their support.
"ECAD has done so much for me," she says. "Consider the lives you are changing. Not just a client. A client's family and a client's community."
This Thanksgiving is an especially apt time to celebrate the everyday blessings that an ECAD service dog provides. And the more people we can help, the more success stories like Beth’s we’ll see. Consider donating, and help us make a life-changing difference for more clients seeking to unlock their full potential.