Used to be, there were days on end when Sara Cheney was convinced she didn't deserve to take another breath. Trapped in a dungeon of dark thoughts, various scenarios played out in her head -- slicing wrists, gulping pills, a truck slamming into a concrete wall. The closest she came to dying was the day she put the barrel of a Browning semi-automatic pistol into her mouth and started to squeeze the trigger.
No psychiatrist or therapist could banish such thoughts. No pharmaceutical could keep a lid on the temptation. Then along came a dog named Hannah -- a golden retriever that licks her face, stares into her eyes, and likes having her front paw held, like two girlfriends holding hands.
Hannah has given Cheney what was missing -- a reason to wake up in the morning. And that's just the beginning of all Hannah has done for Sara Cheney.
Hannah is not just any dog. She's a certified service dog specially trained to help Cheney deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, bouts of severe depression and the kind of social anxiety that makes standing in a checkout line feel like being cornered in a dark alley.
Hannah creates both a barrier and a bridge between Cheney and the world beyond her front door. Hannah wakes her from nightmares. Hannah senses her rising anxiety in time to ward off full-blown panic attacks. And she makes Cheney laugh. A lot.
Hannah came to her through Alaska Assistance Dogs, one of Alaska's oldest service-dog nonprofits. The group was founded in the Matanuska Valley in 2001 by Carole and Dodd Shay and a board of directors with hopes of improving the lives of Alaskans with physical disabilities or mental health troubles.
Witnessing the before and after of their efforts, the Shays have no doubt their organization has made a difference. Like their first military veteran, a man whose PTSD had a stranglehold on him for years. One day a month he forced himself to take a taxi into town for a doctor's appointment and to pick up supplies, and then went home and shut the door for another month. The vet couldn't sleep for days leading up to the chore. While in town, he'd pop tranquilizers just to hold it together long enough to tend to business. Then it would take him days to recover.
His service dog Jill, being a social creature, wouldn't stand for that. As tuned into her needs as she was to his, he found himself doing things he never could have imagined, like sitting in a coffee shop or a bookstore so she could socialize. Jill dragged him to town to see her friends so often he got used to it.
He sees his doctor only every three months now. He has cut his medications in half. Three years after Jill arrived, he called the Shays from the Virgin Islands to tell them he'd bought a sailboat and planned to sail it to Alaska.
"But now I've got to teach this damn dog how to swim," he joked.
"He not only got his freedom," Carole Shay said, "he threw caution to the wind. That guy's got a life now because of that dog."
A Rand Corp. think-tanker turned ski instructor turned zookeeper turned wilderness ranger, Carole Shay met her first service dog in the mid-1980s. Two months later she started volunteering as a puppy raiser and there was no turning back. She became a certified service-dog trainer in 2001 through the Assistance Dog Institute, now Bergin University of Canine Studies, in Santa Rosa, Calif., the first accredited university of its kind in North America.
Dodd Shay, a retired building inspector, got his training credentials there in 2010. As did their first employee, behavioral specialist and trainer Ellis Gugel, who graduated last spring. With the Shays moving toward retirement, Gugel joined the team last fall, along with his wife, Kate, as the new executive director. Now the Shays work only 30 hours a week instead of 60.
After years of watching dogs work their magic, Carole Shay went back to school at 59 to become a licensed clinical therapist. She has designed a number of programs for children and adults with special needs as well as for those dealing with the aftermath of war, domestic violence, rape and other traumas where the dogs are the therapists. They often overlap with therapy clients helping train the service dogs.
Training takes place in various locations from animal shelters to the clattering lumber aisles of Home Depot -- the more distractions the better since service dogs must learn to ignore them. Tapping into dogs' innate sensitivity to humans, the Shays have trained them to help with everything from mobility to mental health issues with many tasks custom-fit to the clients like fetching from the fridge, reminding people to take their medications and detecting and defusing oncoming panic attacks. Each dog has its own way of sounding the alarm: leaning against someone, a gentle snout poke to the ribs, shaking the cuff of a person's pants.
Rather than arranging marriages, the Shays let dogs choose the people they want to work for. They tried five times to match Ingram, one of their best dogs ever, but the chemistry never seemed right. But the moment the dog saw a new client, a young girl with cerebral palsy who'd been teased all her life, he made a beeline for her and lay at her feet as if to say, "I have found my destiny."
AAD supplies dogs without ever presenting a bill, though the animals don't come cheap. A minimum of $10,000, more often closer to $20,000, goes into purchasing top-of-the-line puppies, veterinary bills, obedience school, professional training and training of clients as handlers, though even that is a relative bargain when compared to the elites of the service-dog world -- guide dogs for the blind, which can run $40,000 to $80,000.
No client is expected to come up with that kind of money. Some pay what they can or apply for grants to help cover a portion of the costs. By and large, the dogs are free. The Shays rely on grants and donations, big and small, to do what they do, and now and then by digging into their savings. They've had a few discussions about whether that's a good idea but always come to the same conclusion.
"You gave me my life back," their clients tell them.
"Where else are you going to get this kind of bang out of your buck?" Dodd Shay asks. "It's just not going to happen. It's been a tremendous reward."
What the Shays ask from clients is a commitment to training, however long it takes to master about 80 commands and instill the impeccable manners it takes to pass the Assistance Dogs International Public Access Test, which can take from several months to a year. Service dogs are entitled to the same rights as guide dogs for the deaf and blind under the Americans with Disabilities Act. They can go anywhere people can go and live in housing where dogs are otherwise prohibited.
The Shays recently took a dog back from a veteran with PTSD after he stopped showing up for training sessions and didn't respond to attempts to contact him. It may have seemed cold but fulfilling training commitments is an industry standard, the Shays explained.
The dog, Scotty, is now the mental health moderator and constant companion of 17-year-old Jaclyn Johnson, who volunteers as kennel manager and official photographer for AAD and who plans to become a professional service dog trainer herself. It wasn't pleasant recalling Scotty but the Shays couldn't risk having a valuable, partially trained dog out and about in public, possibly giving service dogs a bad name. There's already plenty of that going on.
People have claimed everything from guinea pigs to iguanas as qualified service animals. The fact that bogus credentials are available over the Internet hasn't helped.
Therapy animals, those providing comfort and emotional support, do important work but they are not technically service animals, which have special rights under federal law. The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits businesses from denying access to those with disabilities.
It's OK to ask whether the animal entering a shop or restaurant is a service animal, and even what tasks it performs, but that's it. If the questions start getting personal or argumentative regarding the person's disability and need for such a dog, that becomes harassment. If the dog is indeed a service dog, the business could be fined up to $55,000 for violating the person's civil rights.
To crack down on the nondisabled gaming the system, the ADA was amended recently to specify that only dogs, and where reasonable, specially trained miniature horses (used by people with aversions or allergies to dogs) have public access rights.
For those with paralyzing social anxieties, these dogs can open doors literally and figuratively. People with PTSD, night terrors and other debilitating fears can sleep better knowing their dogs have their backs.
"Their ability to detect danger and threats to us far exceeds our own," Ellis Gugel said. "So you wake up and you've got this (companion) saying, 'Hey, I know you're scared but I can smell 6,000 times better than you. I can hear 2,000 times better than you. I'm telling you, there's nothing wrong.' "
That level of peace of mind doesn't come in the form of a pill.
The preparation of this story was partially underwritten by the sponsors of the Pick.Click.Give. program, including Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, Friends of the Alaska Children's Trust, Mat-Su Health Foundation, and Rasmuson Foundation.