Tyler & Bella

What a Difference a Year and a Dog Makes

By WAGS’ Program Director, Kelly O’Ferrell

“Increasing independence” is more than a dog picking up something for someone, opening a door or lying quietly as an “unobtrusive helpmate.” Service Dogs all over the world change people’s lives in ways that cannot be measured by how fast they retrieve or by the number of dogs placed in a year. We’ve witnessed our WAGS dogs changing people’s lives in “quality of life” ways they never dreamed possible – or even necessary. Some of these outcomes for those served by our service dogs include:

  • Making it easier to go out in public
  • Accepting their disability more
  • Becoming more assertive
  • Meeting new people and making friends
  • Feeling happier and better about their life

WAGS’ Clients – their family members and care givers – notice these changes as the days and months pass into years. When I asked Tyler if his life at UW Whitewater is different having WAGS’ Service Dog Bella, he said “I feel more confident having Bella there to help me if I need it. She made it easier for me to meet new people.” Bella was placed with Tyler on June 25, 2007. As part of WAGS’ routine follow-up, I went and visited with Tyler, Bella and Tyler’s mom, Kirsten at their new home in Verona this week. Tyler’s family sold their home in Madison this year and moved into a beautiful new home that Tyler’s step-dad built on their land in the countryside of Verona. He is on summer vacation from UW-Whitewater until mid-August. When we placed Bella with Tyler, he was working here in Madison for UW Engineering until he started at the university in August, 2007.

Like most parents, Tyler’s mom and step-dad had concerns about Tyler going off to college. But knowing that he had Bella made that transition just a little easier. “It was reassuring knowing that if Tyler drops his cell phone, Bella is there to pick it up for him.”

The amount of time that Tyler spends home alone (when he’s not at college) has increased because of Bella – and how Kirsten feels when she’s not there has also changed.

“I was a lot more nervous about leaving Tyler at home alone before Bella.  I know that Bella can get his cell phone if he drops it and that she can get him out of the house if necessary.” Their new home doesn’t have an electric door yet that Tyler can activate from his wheelchair. So, they simply tied a tug rope to the door that Bella can easily grasp with her teeth and tug open for Tyler.

And, like most parents who hear, “Mom, can you come and …”, Kirsten now arrives saying, “Tyler, if this is something your dog can do, you’re in trouble.” Of course, we laugh while Tyler squirms.  Kirsten knows that, because of Bella, she doesn’t need to go and help Tyler in ways she had to in the past. Having Bella not only improved Tyler’s life, she has improved the entire family’s experience together.

Speaking about his experiences at UW Whitewater, “When I get hot, Bella pulls the covers off of me and comes and lies down beside of me if I get cold. She turns the lights on or off, pushes the elevator button, and picks up my pencil, phone or video game controller. She keeps me company and makes the other people on the [dormitory] floor smile a lot. They miss their own pet dogs and can love on Bella when she’s not working.” A tug rope was also attached to Tyler’s dorm room door just in case the electronic equipment doesn’t work. “I know that I can get out of the room now, no matter what.”

Tyler and Bella went to the Multiple Dystrophy Association Summer Camp in Kenosha this past June. Tyler said that Bella was great at picking up stuff for him – even girls. Bella is, like all Golden Retrievers, quite the chick magnet. By the end of the day, Bella and Tyler were falling into bed, both “dog tired.” Between Harley riding, basketball, hockey and football, they had fun filled days, although Bella stayed back during the Harley ride. The activity that Bella liked the best, though, was fishing. “She loved to fish,” Tyler said.  “She would jump at the fish, wanting to play with it but afraid of it too. She made us all laugh!”

Absolutely Bella is changing Tyler’s life in ways he hadn’t even expected. And, Bella is a dog – a being with her own experiences. Like any young being, she gets excited and shows it sometimes. And, like all good Service Dogs, she recovers quickly and continues on her way with her best friend, Tyler. I hear that Bella gets pouty and sulks when Tyler leaves her at home; watching the windows for his return. I turned and looked back as I was leaving and saw Bella standing next to Tyler in a Heel position, Tyler’s hand gently rubbing Bella’s head. Bella has made a tremendous, positive difference in the lives of this family.