“Why don’t you get a service dog?”
Usually people don’t recognize a seminal point in their lives when it occurs. Karen Shirk certainly didn’t.
But when Alice, her personal care attendant at a residence for people with disabilities, spoke this simple sentence to her, it nudged Karen’s life into a completely different direction which in turn transformed the lives of hundreds of disabled children and their parents.
With compassion, wit, and insight, author Melissa Fay Greene documents some of these transformations in her new book, The Underdogs.
Shirk has a rare neuromuscular disease called myasthenia gravis (MG) which weakened her muscles to the point where simply getting out of bed, dressing, and functioning during the day felt like an insurmountable task.
Eventually, she decided to get a service dog, but she found that service dog-agencies wouldn’t place mobility dogs with respiratory-dependent people, she got a dog herself and found a trainer to help her teach him to be a service dog.
Not wanting others to have similar problems finding a service dogs, she started the nonprofit 4 Paws for Ability to train rescued shelter dogs to place with kids suffering from severe disabilities.
Throughout the book, Greene combines Shirk’s story with unflinching accounts of how her service dogs broke down the walls around disabled kids and helped them take a more active role in the world around them.
But Greene makes the book even more compelling by examining the impact these dogs have on the parents of disabled kids: They can sleep through the night, some for the first time in years. They are no longer burdened trying to anticipate their child’s next tantrum. They can take their kids with them on simple errands without spending an hour trying to get them in the car. They can go on family walks.
One of the best examples of this is Greene’s description of a father with his daughter at a basketball game. The girl had severe anxiety and a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which triggered several raging tantrums a day.
But not long after she got her dog, she agreed (for the first time) to go watch a basketball game. Here’s how Greene described it:
“The look on James’ face – a father seated at a basketball game beside his daughter and wife, with a good yellow dog at his feet – was neither pained nor brave; he looked more than happy; he looked wistfully happy, immersed in the event, while keenly aware that it was the kind of everyday happy family moment he’d thought that elude them forever.”
The stress of dealing with a disabled child can be crushing for any parent. Greene illustrates how theses dogs are like pressure valves that relieves their stress and gives them something they weren’t sure they would ever have – a happy child.
By weaving together the stories of these families and Karen Shirk and sprinkling in some science about dog behavior and the human brain, Greene has written an exceptional book that provides a thorough and entertaining examination of the complex relationship between disabled kids, their parents, and their service dogs.