Thia's Family Pack has been a dream almost eight years in the making. It began when I agreed (half-heartedly) to foster an American Staffordshire Terrier named Leila. Leila's previous owner, Diana, whom I had known for many years, called and told me that she needed a foster home for her dog. Diana used to visit with Leila, the first time when she was only a few weeks old, so I told her that I would take her but didn't know how long I'd be able to keep her because my husband had recently been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's Disease and I was in the process of putting him into a long-term nursing facility. If you are at all familiar with Alzheimer's Disease you know that there comes a point where for the patient's own safety they cannot remain at home unless you can afford to hire a full-time caregiver, which I could not. My husband's heart and lungs were shutting down, his muscular-skeletal system was deteriorating at a rapid rate and he no longer recognized me, our children or grandchildren. The doctors were telling me that he had maybe 6 months to a year to live. Needless to say, it was a very distressing time for the family. I fully expected to lose my home so didn't feel I had any business fostering a dog but we took Leila in and she became my angel and my family's hope.
After Leila came to our home, she started behaving unlike any dog I'd ever known. She herded my husband into chairs, prevented him from leaving the house, howled and barked loud enough to attract neighbors for, what appeared to us at the time, no apparent reason. I was constantly trying to figure out what was wrong with her and why she was so entirely focused on my husband - frankly I was concerned she might try to hurt him the way I had heard dogs did to weak or injured animals. Yes, at the time, I was that ignorant! Out of sheer frustration and nervousness, I was relating Leila's behavior to my husband's neurologist while finalizing paperwork for nursing care and to my surprise, he took the papers I was signing away from me, scribbled out a note and told me to take my husband NOW for a very specific type of brain scan. So off we went. A few hours later, back in the neurologist's office, I was given the greatest news I would imagine. I was told that my husband did not have Alzheimer's Disease. In fact, his problems were due to the cumulative effects of a previously undiagnosed seizure disorder. All those times over the years that my husband stared off into space or appeared to be ignoring me he was having Petit Mal seizures. Over the course of the next few months, with the seizures now being controlled with medication, my husband's heart and lungs repaired themselves, his long and short term memory started returning but the damage to his muscular-skeletal system we were told was permanent. Best of all, his personality which had altered drastically over time, was back to the way I remembered him being when we were first married. We have had Leila almost 8 years now, Diana never asked to have her back, and she still takes care of my husband. He has difficulty walking and most days is in considerable pain. His memory is sketchy and will never be what it was but he remembers me, our children and our many grandchildren. Leila gave me back the love of my life by saving my husband's life.
What an awesome thing! Who knew a dog could have such a profound impact on a family? Aren't dogs just stupid animals that we keep as pets for our enjoyment and entertainment? Until Leila came into my life I did not know how truly ignorant about animals I was! The more research I did, the more amazed and awestruck I became. I started college when my husband first started showing signs of mental impairment so that I could better understand what he was going through and maybe find a way to help him. At the least I wanted a job that paid enough to cover his medical expenses - working as a secretary for an ad agency, even with as much overtime as I could manage, wasn't doing it. After Leila joined my family and I saw what she did for us, I wanted her to do that for others too. I trained her as a therapy dog, we registered as a team through Pet Partners and we volunteered working with at risk children. My mentor professor at ASU started giving me articles to read on animal behavior and started me thinking about changing my career focus from human psychology to animal psychology.
I started wondering with all Leila did for us, maybe a regular service dog could help out more. How wonderful would it be for my husband to be able to go out without me! So I contacted several service dog organizations. All those phone calls and the only thing I wanted to do was beat my head against a wall. My husband wasn't disabled enough - what does that mean exactly? He has full social security disability, he will never be able to work because he not only has to change position ever 20-30 minutes due to pain, he can't walk more than 50 ft without sitting down and the mental impairment caused by the long term effects of untreated seizures means he would need to be retrained for whatever work he was doing every time he has a seizure. Isn't that enough? What more do you want wrong with him?? Based on their criteria for immediate placement of a service dog he was way down on the list. I mean 8-10 years down on the list. And, they informed me it would cost between 15 and 20 thousand dollars ($15,000 -$20,000)! I couldn't come up with that kind of money if I sold everything we owned, including the house. I went back to wondering about all Leila did for us. Why couldn't I train her to do what he needed? Turns out, absolutely no reason whatsoever. I had a mission. If I couldn't get the help we needed, I would do it myself!
After graduating from ASU with my BS in Psychology, I enrolled in a dog training course and obtained a certificate at as Dog Trainer/Instructor. I then enrolled in graduate studies in Companion Animal Behavior Analysis and Counseling focusing on dogs/cats/horses. I started training dogs. I completed an internship working with equines and service dogs in training and still occasionally substitute teach in the school's animal science courses (mainly equine science and horsemanship). Leila has been a fully trained and working service dog for my husband for the last 6 years. After completing 180 hrs of graduate studies, my mission became one of pay-it-forward. We were blessed with a natural seizure dog and I was able to train her to be so much more, now it was time to give back... to help another person or family that is in that awful place where I was before our angel walked in the door. I started doing volunteer training for several individuals needing a dog for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other forms of cognitive impairment usually brought on by traumatic brain injury (TBI ). My first dog was for, and with, my daughter. Her husband is a disabled Veteran with PTSD and TBI. There are no state or federal regulation stipulating that you cannot train your own service dog, in fact it is preferable that a psychiatric service dog (PSD) be an existing companion dog because they have already bonded to you and know when something is wrong. People who are not disabled enough need someone to teach them how to do it themselves. I decided I wanted to be that someone.
One thing that everyone involved with animal behavior and welfare have in common is they all volunteer. With so many of my colleagues volunteering their time at shelters I discovered that one the least adoptable dogs were those relinquished by older individuals who either thought (or were told by family members) that they could no longer care for their beloved pet. I was dumbfounded. Don't these people know that their dogs are more than pets? Don't they know that just stroking a pet will lower blood pressure and decrease depression so prevalent in people over 50? I had another mission - decrease the number of relinquished pets due to lack of education. Existing companion animals love their owners! You can teach an old dog new tricks! Elderly does not mean stupid, people can be taught easier ways to care for their pets that do not include heavy lifting, excessive exercise and lots of bending or even manual dexterity! I started teaching my own family... and friends... and friends of friends. The program works. People who were ready to relinquish their animals started keeping them and are maintaining their independence - in their own homes.
With the pushing, prodding and wonderful selfless help of my daughters, Thia's Family Pack became a reality. Our mission statement is that we will offer help and support to all disabled individuals who fall into the category of 'not disabled enough' to obtain assistance in a timely, cost effective manner. We offer services to people that will enrich their lives, the lives of their companion animals and the lives of their personal service angels. To that end, Thia's Family Pack offers in-home PSD Training, Basic Obedience Training, Pet Sitting, Dog and Cat Nutritional Advice and Counseling, and our unique ‘ElderCare’ program.