Life with a Service Dog

"I'm blessed to have her!"

As told to Christine Guth by Naomi Yoder-Harris

In July 2002, when she was injured in a train derailment, life changed dramatically for Naomi Yoder-Harris, a Bronx resident who is a member of Infinity Mennonite Church (Harlem, New York). Then 40, and unable to return to work as a university administrator, she underwent almost two years of intensive outpatient rehabilitation therapy—occupational, vestibular, physical, speech—to address the effects of the Traumatic Brain Injury and balance disorder that resulted from the accident.

The children at Infinity Mennonite explain to visitors that no one is allowed to talk to or touch Daisy until Naomi gives permission.


 

“Initially, safety—even at home—was a big issue, because I had tremendous difficulty with organizing and remembering tasks, especially if they involved more than one step,such as turning off a faucet or burner after use,” Naomi says.

Naomi
 

Naomi learned strategies for coping with the confusion caused by cognitive changes. “But my husband Andre started thinking about ways to help me to feel better at home and to function more comfortably and safely in public.”

Andre became convinced that a large-breed service dog would be the answer. Although it is rare for people with balance disorders to have the benefit of this type of assistance, Naomi’s medical team enthusiastically endorsed the idea. Thanks to Andre’s diligence, within six months, an ideal breed (Argentinean Dogo) had been identified, a sympathetic, well-informed breeder located, and a temperamentally appropriate puppy (named Daisy) was purchased.

Daisy portrait - large white dog  

At home, Daisy is a “regular” dog—with the exception of the special attention and care she gives to Naomi, such as sitting on and lying against her, and picking up and bringing things on command. Outside, walking with Daisy makes it possible for Naomi to maintain a steady pace and to keep moving straight ahead, despite the confusion caused by ambient movement, noise, lights, etc.

Service dog sits next to person who is holding the harness
Daisy at work

In November 2010, when Daisy turned six, she had already been a fully harness-trained working dog for three years. Naomi never leaves home without a human escort (usually Andre or her father, Monroe J. Yoder), and invariably Daisy is at her side.  “Her custom-made harness enables Daisy to walk tightly against my right side. She kind of pushes back against me, which helps ‘ground’ me, and keeps me from continually veering off to the right, which is my natural inclination now,” explains Naomi.

“Sometimes people wonder why I don’t have a walker or cane instead. But they are for problems related to muscles and bones. My issue has to do with disordered balance and the ways my brain has difficulty processing information. It wouldn't even be safe for me to use a walker or cane—I don’t know where my own body is in space, let alone where another object is!”

Had Daisy been sent to a “training program,” she would have been away for six months, which seemed unwise, according to Naomi. “By having her with me from the time she was eight weeks old, she learned to be very gentle with me; to sit on my lap—even now that she weighs 120 pounds!—which helps me feel less symptomatic; and to maneuver around me. 

Dog lies on top of Naomi as she lies on couch
Resting with Daisy on her lap helps Naomi cope with her symptoms


That’s quite a feat, because we live in fairly tight quarters. And to make things even more complicated, I’m hesitant to turn my head or look down because that heightens my discomfort,” Naomi says. Also, the expense—$30,000—was prohibitive. “Instead, we hired a trainer for a couple of sessions to teach Andre how to train the dog—and me, which turned out to be the hardest part, because I had such difficulty remembering what I was supposed to do!” Naomi says.

Each week they attend church—a priority, Naomi says, and one of the first public places Daisy was taken during training. “Our church family has been tremendously helpful and supportive in all the adjustments we’ve had to make. And they accommodate Daisy and me just as warmly as everyone is welcomed—whether they walk in on their own, use an assistive device, or roll in on a wheelchair.”

Naomi says she now often hears people—even the children—at Infinity Mennonite telling first-time attendees about Daisy, and explaining that no one is allowed to talk to her or touch her until Naomi gives permission. “'No-interacting-with-anyone-else-without-permission-while-on-duty' is a basic rule for all service animals. It's really a necessity, because both of us have so much to concentrate on," Naomi says.  “Fortunately, Daisy’s a natural, and from the beginning, she really loved to ‘work’. I am blessed to have her!”