The first time Airdronian Jo Cook-Yorke went out in public with her service dog, it was a watershed moment.
"I remember it was just the most incredible moment that I had had in a long, long time. To be able to get out of that home by myself for the first time in a year, and knowing I can do this forever from now on, that is life-saving," she said.
Cook-Yorke lives with Functional Neurological Disorder (FND), a medical condition that affects the functioning of the nervous system and how the brain and body send and receive signals. Those who are diagnosed with FND can experience anything from problems with walking and fatigue. Cook-Yorke experiences all of these symptoms, as well as seizures.
"He helps with stability. I [also] use a power chair and that chair has a joystick on it; before I have a seizure, he will help get my hand off the joystick. They don't tell when it's going to happen. It's not like they say you will have one every Tuesday at two o'clock."
After she recovers from a seizure, the anxiety can be debilitating but with her service dog by her side, he eases that anxiety and the disorientation.
"I can't move a little bit beforehand and then coming out of it, he stays with me. If I drop something, he picks it up," Cook-Yorke said.
Between the time her doctor recommended that she procure a service dog to meet her medical needs, to the time the dog came to stay by her side, two years would elapse along with a $30,000 fee. Cook-Yorke explained that during the time of her search, there were only a handful of certified and approved organizations within the province. She would end up contacting Aspen Service Dogs Inc. in Edmonton. In the two years that she waited for her service dog, she would raise funds to cover the hefty price tag.
"[The expenses] are not covered under insurance, but you can utilize those costs as a tax deduction, but that's about it," she said.
One of the reasons that the wait times are so long for service dogs is because of the strenuous process of training the canines go through.
"For the first year, it's basic and advanced obedience. They go by the dog's aptitude as to what type of help they will be [giving]; be it mobility, PTSD, autism, etc," Cook-Yorke said. "They come back to you and ask you if your needs have changed and so you tell them and they decide what dog would work for you."
Closer to the end of the two years, the service dogs will make a home visit. Cook-Yorke would have two dogs visit her during the home visits. The second dog would become the service dog she has today.
"It's a lifelong thing. If you've ever owned a dog, you can't just train them and hope for the best; to never work on those skills again. You have to continuously work on stuff," she said.
Like any canine, Cook-Yorke's dog is adorable and elicits responses from the public when he is out and about with her. However, she underlined that people need to understand, that her dog isn't just a pet; he is on duty and at work and his attention needs to be focused on her.
"There are the passive-aggressive people who will stand real close and stretch their arm as we walk by so their fingers trail across his side or back. I called them out on it," she said. "Most people know not to pat him, but they will talk to him and make eye contact with him and that takes attention off of me. If I am going to have a seizure and I need him to get my hand off the joystick, he's not going to do it because he's not paying attention to me. Taking a service dog's attention away from a handler can be very dangerous."
Even when he is in the house with her, there are rigorous rules that must be observed. Other family members in the house are not permitted to pet him. Cook-Yorke's husband can pet him, but only at night. However, it's not business all the time. When at home, he is like any other dog in many ways, enjoying a lazy afternoon nap or frolicking with his ball.
Last week the provincial government announced that it would be providing $300,000 and qualifying three additional organizations to raise, train, test and place service dogs. In a press conference, Maureen MacKay Co-Owner and Chief Executive Officer of Aspen Service Dogs Inc. spoke of the profound impact service dogs have on the lives of those who use them.
"Simply put, service dogs change lives for Albertans with disabilities, giving them independence, safety and companionship, allowing them to take an active part in education, employment and meaningful social connections to their communities," she said.
Nine Service Dog organizations were given funding.
"With the funding and additional organizations up to 80 service dogs a year can be qualified to serve in Alberta, said Minister for Community and Social Services, Jason Luan.
Cook-Yorke considers herself very lucky to have been able to get a service dog that matches her needs. She now plans to help others, in the hopes that they too may find joy and independence in having not only a life-long companion but one that understands their complex physical and emotional needs.
"I'm now on the Board for the South Alberta Service Dogs Foundation and I am going to be helping them fundraise so that we can help other people get these dogs."
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