Vakaa, Rough Collie Mobility Service Dog

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Most people would say four dogs – four large dogs – in one household are too many dogs. One dog? That’s normal. Two dogs? Still within the realm of what’s socially acceptable. Three dogs? You’re pushing it. Four or more dogs? Expect to experience raised eyebrows, shaking heads, and a general air of Why would you do that to yourself?

To be fair, I consider that an entirely reasonable response. Sometimes I watch our Fabulous Four rampaging in play through our smallish house and think, What have we done?

Vakaa, our dog #4, was yet another case of unplanned puppy parenthood. Well, sort of.

 

4 dogs, 3 Collies sitting side by side and one Australian Shepherd/Great Pyrenees mix reclining on a couch. The Aussie is wearing a party hat. All dogs are depicted in black and white except a young Collie in color who wears a rainbow striped tie
L to R: Freckles, Yoshi, Vakaa, Gustav

 

Do We Want Him?

One morning in March, I awoke to a surprise text message. A young couple who had bought a Collie puppy were no longer able to keep him and wanted to give him back to the breeder, per their buyer’s agreement. Nancy had enough dogs of her own and preferred to rehome the puppy. She wondered if I knew anyone who could take Winston…

I asked Cheyanne, “Do we want him?”

Honestly, I expected the answer to be no. When we agreed to let Sir Gustav sire some puppies, I had the option to select a puppy or receive a stud fee. Cheyanne and I had discussed it – puppy or money? Much as we wanted one of Gus’s puppies, we needed the money more. Having a chance to get a son of Gus for free (again) just meant an additional expense long-term.

 

A small, happy Collie puppy drapes the front half of his body over a picnic table bench while being petted by 2 adoring humans
Winston’s dog park debut

 

So imagine my surprise when Cheyanne said, “We’ll take him on a trial basis. But we’re only keeping him if he works out as a service dog for you.” If we hadn’t met Winston and experienced his temperament at one of our monthly Collie playdates, the answer might have been an easier “no.” But we had immediately loved him. Winston walked in like he owned the place, utterly confident in his lovability. He charmed every adult Collie and human at the dog park that day.

So we went to pick up Winston, who at three months old had already grown considerably from the last time we’d seen him! His name became Vakaa, a Finnish word meaning “steady.” My known ancestors hail from Poland, not Finland: but we wanted him to have an uncommon name that reflected his purpose – to be my mobility service dog. (One of our friends still refuses to call him anything but “Vodka” though.)

 

A small sable merle Rough Collie puppy sits while wearing a red "in training" vest
An auspicious beginning

 

Another friend pointed out “vaca” is also the Spanish word for “cow.” This suits him, since Vakaa is large and tends to moo a lot. So taken together, it could be said I have a steady cow. Very apropos really, since Vakaa is learning to perform brace/mobility support tasks for me.

You may be wondering, why were his first owners getting rid of him? Apparently Vakaa was having bouts of explosive diarrhea. Living on the third floor of an apartment complex is less than ideal for potty training purposes even if your puppy’s poo isn’t in liquid form. Worse, after working remotely during the initial Covid panic, his owner was permanently called back to an office location and would no longer be home to care for him. In some ways, Vakaa was one of many “pandemic puppies.”

We expected a literal shit show ourselves; but we took one look at the food Vakaa was eating, switched it, added some probiotics, and never had any problems. I can hardly believe Vakaa has only peed in our house a total of four times since we brought him home and has never once pooped indoors. He was staying out of his crate overnight by the time he was six months old. (Yoshi, on the other paw, unrepentantly peed indoors until she was seven months old.) Of course, having two work-from-home people was hugely helpful.

 

A sable merle Rough Collie puppy rideshappily in a car between 2 smiling people
Emily and Cheyanne with Vakaa on his “gotcha day”

 

Instinct Versus Training

As for the service dog training… Initially, I was fairly confident we could get Vakaa public-access ready on our own. Years ago I had trained his father Sir Gustav myself, and together we passed the TDI (Therapy Dogs International) certification evaluation, which is similar to a CGC (Canine Good Citizen) test but somewhat more challenging.

When I lost my job – collapsing to the floor when you’re a teacher is typically frowned upon – it became apparent I was physically getting worse, not better. Gus had an instinctual aptitude for helping me at home, so I began public access training with him. We didn’t get far.

 

A mahogany sable and white Rough Collie lies on a school walkway next to a boy student sitting beside him wearing a backpack
Gustav, resident therapy dog at a school where I taught in 2015

 

First, retraining an outgoing dog who’s been encouraged to be friendly with people that no, now you want them to ignore those potential friends and only focus on you just doesn’t work well. I know, that should have been obvious. But I was hopeful and desperate.

Second, I had no idea how to task train. Helping me get back up after I had a fall? Gustav did that on his own. Pacing slowly alongside me and bracing me with his big body if I couldn’t stand and was reduced to crawling? A natural reaction for Gus. He continued to help me at home, but I didn’t know how to build on the foundation of what he did instinctually.

 

A girl on a small loveseat couch wearing a green shirt hugs a large mahogany sable and white Rough Collie in her lap, while an Australian Shepherd mix puppy cuddles in front of them both
Emily, Gustav, and puppy Freckles in 2016

 

So for Vakaa, I acquired a book, The Ultimate Service Dog Training Manual, to learn how to shape a service dog from puppyhood and train target behaviors. I read, highlighted, and reread. I hoped and prayed I would somehow be able to afford a professional trainer on a consulting basis, someone to guide Vakaa and me to become a competent handler/service dog team.

I was troubled that my declining health severely hampered my ability to train Vakaa as much as he needed. I was nearly homebound. Walking even around the block while alone with a young, energetic puppy was becoming an issue, as a fall on pavement was a possibility.

At just 33 years of age, I looked perfectly fine but felt old before my time. My increasing limitations devastated me. I grieved the loss of my active lifestyle, questioned the value of my existence, and wondered if it would be nobler to quietly end my life than be a burden – financially and otherwise – on my loved ones. (They never said that, but such was my perception.) Basically, I became horribly acquainted with despair and depression, the traveling companions of chronic illness. Constant pain is a war of attrition.

 

A meme from the movie Princess Diaries with Wesley saying, "Life is pain, Princess. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something."
“Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.” – The Princess Bride

Talk Isn’t Just Cheap

Some backstory should be beneficial, loath as I am to tell it… Basically, I slowly lost my health until I lost my job (right before Christmas 2016), my car (2017), and my self-respect (somewhere along the way). The car was a voluntary surrender in lieu of repossession, but it made no difference in terms of how much I owed and the impact to my credit. I also had a buildup of medical bills and began to use my barely-touched credit cards out of desperation. So eventually I filed for bankruptcy (around Christmas 2017).

I figured writing was my only other marketable skill, and I had been trying to make it as a freelance writer. Nobody wanted to buy my words. Talk isn’t just cheap: it’s usually free. But I wrote a bit for an Internet Marketing Specialist simply for the exposure. He liked what I did and offered to build and maintain a website for me if I would provide the content and split the profits with him 50/50. Enter Collie Chatter!

 

A white t-shirt that says "Collie Chatter" is laid out beside a stack of Collie Chatter business cards c
Gifts from Cheyanne to celebrate the launch of Collie Chatter

 

Gerry does great work, and I think the blog looks like it might be making enough money to be income-generating. To me it seems misleading and disingenuous to let people think we’re killing it, but I’ve often been told the best way to become successful is to act successful. And from a marketing standpoint that’s great business advice, no doubt.

But people, I am so tired of the fake it ’til you make it! mentality my upbringing embedded in my brain. Pretending to be fine all the time is exhausting, and I have no desire to do it anymore. Oh, don’t get me wrong: if the average person asks me how I’m doing, I will still offer the accepted cultural lie of, “I’m good!” I know the “How ya doin’?” question is a formality and most people are horrified if you start to tell them how you’re really doing…

For right now though, I have decided to be honest. I may chicken out on vulnerability and never hit “publish” on this post. But maybe I’ll bring myself to go through with it.

 

photo of a person in silhouette sitting on a hillside overlooking a city lit up at night with the caption, "The biggest lie I've ever told is I'm fine." - Himanshu Baswal

 

Anyway, I’ve been faking it the past few years, and I still haven’t made it. Most months, Collie Chatter barely makes enough money to break even. I’m lucky if we cover the monthly costs of web hosting and business emails, and I have you all to thank for that. If you’ve ever visited Amazon directly from Collie Chatter and bought something, anything, that’s a small commission for us (usually 1%-3% now). One memorable month, I made $50 profit – payable in Amazon credit. That was nice, but it’s not a living.

We tried selling our own Collie Chatter merchandise through a print-on-demand platform, but to date the only person who’s bought anything from our store is my supportive father, back when we were still designing hoodies with our dogs’ faces on them. I do like our clothing and other products, but they’re squarely in the category of luxury items. I haven’t bought any of my own merch though I could get it at cost, and somehow that feels like the saddest thing I’ve typed thus far… *Interlude while I play the world’s smallest violin*

 

a man in glasses sits in a kitchen chair wearing a black hoodie with a sable and white Rough Collie's face on it
My dad modeling one of our early hoodie designs

 

 

An Added Miracle

A fellow teacher who once found me collapsed on the floor at work had suggested I apply for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits. But the culture I was raised in had created in me an utter horror of it: everyone on disability was clearly faking it unless they were blind or wheelchair-bound. I couldn’t bear being viewed by family and friends as a lazy bum milking the government. A failure. But after six months of attempted self-employment, Cheyanne and past coworkers finally talked me into applying for SSDI. I wept my way through filling out the application.

I cried when I was denied in 2017. Then denied again after an appeal. And again after the hearing before a judge two years later. The final denial paperwork said I “did not appear to be in any pain during the hearing.” Clearly, I had been too stoic and should have thrown in a few groans, winced dramatically as I shifted in my seat, or occasionally said, “Oww.” (Would that have led to a hysterical female verdict?) Still, the psychologist appointed by the Social Security department who evaluated me prior to the hearing had written that I displayed “a blunted effect,” which gives me resting poker face. I’m not sure how thoroughly the judges look through all the paperwork though.

 

grumpy cat with caption "go cry about it"
Thank you, I shall do that

 

Not knowing what else to do, I reapplied for SSDI in 2019, knowing it would be another two-year process at least. Meantime, I found out that my city of Jacksonville, Florida has a program for people who are low-income and indigent to receive temporary healthcare at one clinic. I qualified as a City Contract patient. This allowed me to go back to doctors – even specialists! – looking for answers about what was physically wrong with me. It was completely free of charge. As an added miracle, I was able to get free medications. I couldn’t believe it.

I am officially considered a full charity case by the city of Jacksonville. Also, I eat on the charity of the state of Florida, since I have an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card, or food stamps as many still call it. For pretty much everything else, Cheyanne is supporting me. My parents send me occasional care packages, which is where I get most of my clothes. Since Cheyanne can’t afford to update our electric panel so we can run a dryer at our house, we rely on the charity of her mom by going to Holly’s house to do our laundry. We have gone to the laundromat occasionally, but she insists we shouldn’t…

Basically, I have become the type of person I would previously, judgmentally have despised. Truth be told, I still despise myself on my worst days.

 

A picture of the cartoon character Daffy Duck with the caption "you're despicable"

 

You Don’t Need That

Round 2: I was denied for disability benefits again. Then again after a 2020 appeal. Most people are denied for SSDI. According to ssa.gov, the denial rate is now up to 69%. I’ve realized trying to get approved for the nation’s Social Security Disability Insurance program (the equivalent of poverty-level income, not intended to fully support someone) really is like trying to get your insurance company to pay out on a claim. They will crawl through tiny, mouse-sized loopholes to avoid paying you! But that’s to be expected. These aren’t philanthropic organizations we’re talking about…

Technically, I have enough work credits to qualify for disability income: I started working at the age of 16 and usually worked 2 jobs simultaneously until I was 27 years old, after which I cut back to one full-time job due to health issues. But a disability is often judged by its visibility, and to the naked eye – I have none. At 34 years old now, I’m still young, and the cane and walker I use could just be… props for attention?

 

A sable and white Rough Collie in a training vest walks beside a girl in an orange shirt using a walking cane
Perhaps the pooch is also a prop

 

Even a close family member once told me, “You don’t need that cane. You’re aging yourself, Emily.” I’m sure she was embarrassed by me. Her remarks bothered me enough that I left the cane in the car and risked walking on icy ground during a Michigan mid-winter: despite having sprained my ankle on ice-slicked steps the previous winter, which meant I was on crutches for the rest of my visit and had needed airport wheelchair assistance for the return flight to Florida.

 

If I Quietly Slipped Away…

So my thoughts turned to suicide, and I had nearly convinced myself it would be better for all involved if I quietly slipped away. After all, what was I contributing to the world? Dog stories? Please. I wasn’t directly helping people like I had as a special needs teacher. I had lost my purpose. I recalled how the Biblical King David offered a reward to anyone who would slaughter the disabled people he hated – the blind and lame – of the ancient Jebusite fortress of Zion, then Jerusalem became the seat of his power (II Samuel 5:6-9 KJV). I pondered cultures of old who believed the honorable thing was to throw themselves off a cliff or isolate until they died when they were no longer useful to society.

 

A girl sits on small loveseat couch surrounded by 3 Collies and an Aussie mix, her smiling face barely visible due to the large Rough Collie sitting in her lap
This couch wasn’t meant for the five of us

 

And if things didn’t improve, we might have to part with “our dog-children.” I cried – my eyes have produced more tears the past few years than in their previous, culminative existence – when I told Cheyanne it might be best for our pets if they went to new homes with people who had enough money to care for them better. Probably no one would want our cross-eyed, snaggle-toothed cat, but there would be many eager takers for our beautiful Collies.

Though for us, it would feel like the old days before food stamps when families were broken up and poor parents were encouraged to surrender their children to orphanages if they couldn’t properly feed them. Not that our dogs aren’t getting fed, but I wish we could afford more high-quality food. Gus needs joint supplements now that he’s 10 years old, plus he should be getting Cytopoint shots to prevent recurring hot spots, and there’s a growth by his eye that needs to be removed since it’s now large enough to impede his vision… Vakaa could also benefit from joint supplements as he starts to do mobility support tasks.

Cheyanne said it still wouldn’t be fair to them, because our dogs adore us and wouldn’t be as happy anywhere else as they are with us and each other. Our four are a tight-knit pack, and the six of us together are a smoothly-functioning unit. Even if someone actually wanted Bobcat, Chey pointed out how sad our dogs would be without him. At this point, he’s almost more our dogs’ pet than our pet. They’re obsessed with him.

 

A sable and white rough collie lies on a bed with her face touching the gray striped sleeping cat beside her
Yoshi and Bobcat cuddle the most

 

At my lowest point of nearly abandoning life, a fellow Collie lover reached out with a recommendation for a professional trainer. Betsy even offered to help pay for sessions, though she couldn’t have known how dire my situation was. It’s not like I had a GoFundMe account. From an online perspective, I am pretty private, almost emotionally distant. Even if I know someone well, sharing personal problems and feelings is highly uncomfortable. Case in point: I streamed tears while typing the previous paragraphs, and there’s no one here but me. I am sorely tempted to trash this entire post, delete all my social media accounts, and return to being the online ghost I was for a few months…

Asking for or even accepting help when freely offered is not easy for me. So naturally, I thanked Betsy for the trainer recommendation and did nothing. I couldn’t imagine her offer of financial assistance was serious, nor could I admit how badly I needed it. But she reached out again, and I finally told her my training budget was exactly zero dollars. (Cheyanne and I had been running behind on the mortgage, electric, and medical bills, just for perspective.) But she said, “Don’t worry about that; I’m sure Erik will help you.” I’d be willing to shout Betsy’s name from the rooftops for connecting me with Erik.

 

A man wearing a P.A.W. Service Dogs t-shirt and white baseball cap stands beside a sable and white Rough Collie wearing an "In Training" vest in a busy mall. The dog has his attention focused on the handler's face
Vakaa is infatuated with Erik

 

The wonderful human being Betsy found to help us is Erik Kolbow, dog trainer extraordinaire. Erik had formerly been a Mine Detection Dog (MDD) handler in the Middle East, training dogs to find improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Eventually, Erik was injured in the field, received a medical discharge from the military following a traumatic brain injury (TBI), and went on to work as a service dog trainer with K9s for Warriors before starting his own dog training business. After successfully running his behavioral training company for a few years, Erik decided to do more idealistic work for much less money and founded P.A.W. Service Dogs.

 

Did We Ruin Him?

With his background, Erik had some fairly exacting standards. First, there was the initial consultation over the phone, wherein I informed him that I was autistic. Plus we had multiple dogs, and Cheyanne and I had been housing a teenage girl for a few months: so our small house was quite crowded. It seemed important to state all those things up-front, in case they would be dealbreakers. (Spoiler: they weren’t.) Imagine the irony when I realized part of Erik’s mission is to train service dogs for children with autism…

 

a sable and white rough collie puppy lies at the feet of a teenage girl in a laudromat. They are looking at each other smiling
Cassidy and Vakaa

 

Once I was done with my attempted self-sabotage, Erik set up an in-home assessment. He was honest with us that the number of beings in our household was an initial concern, so he was assessing our little dog pack as well as Vakaa and us. Surprisingly, we passed.

Then there was a public access evaluation. I went along for that, Erik handled Vakaa, and I quietly observed. I wondered if the training Cheyanne and I had done would be enough. Had we properly prepared or totally ruined Vakaa? It was all up to him now.

When we left the store where Erik had conducted his evaluation, he got on his knees beside my big puppy, ruffled his fluff, hugged him, smiled up at me – and nodded. I grinned. (Or at least I think I did. Sometimes the emotions I feel don’t make it to my face. Again, the autism. There’s a real possibility my dogs display more facial expression than I do.)

That was how Erik told me he would train Vakaa. When you work and live with dogs, you tend to rely on nonverbal communication a lot…

 

a large sable merle and white rough collie puppy prances at the side of a big man walking down a store aisle. The Collie eagerly looks up into the man's face, and the leash is looped around the man's body while his hands are in his pockets
Vakaa’s first training session with Erik

 

Vakaa was seven months old at the time. Some of you who keep up with Collie Chatter on social media or follow the email newsletters may have wondered where I’ve been lately. I did sign a media release not to discuss/display the training process online until I got the go-ahead. But I’ve mostly either been sick (mentally unhealthy as well as physically ill, I’ll admit) or I’ve been busy with multi-weekly training sessions with Vakaa and Erik.

It’s embarrassing for me to talk about my health problems partly because I tend to think no one actually cares to hear about them. But I believe you all deserve more of an explanation, assuming you want additional information, that is. (Tell me if I’m oversharing, please.)

In this age of technology, it’s very easy to create a “Stepford Wives” online life that looks flawless. But as I’m no longer content to pretend… Maybe there is war in Ba Sing Se, and maybe it does us more good to talk about it than conceal it.

 

a smiling girl with the caption "there Is no war in Ba Sing Se"
A reference from Avatar: The Last Airbender

 

My old pastor once pointed out we are trained to talk about problems in the past tense after they’ve been overcome. “But,” he said, “I think we need to hear more from people in the midst of the struggle.” Then he opened up the mic to anyone who wanted to tell what they were going through. Listening to others’ struggles proved so helpful, these sharing sessions became a periodic event called “Evidence of Grace.” There is a simple strength found in shared difficulty, a comfort in knowing you’re not alone in your situation. “I’ve been there” is powerful, but “I am there” hits different.

Anyway, in the spirit of continuing forthrightness, I’ve learned things about my health in the past year, some of which Vakaa is already helping me with… I’m still learning about these health issues and have more questions than answers, so please educate me if I get something wrong or you know something useful!

 

A girl wearing a black hat walks into a store with a sable merle and white Rough Collie at her side wearing a blue P.A.W Service Dogs training vest
Public access training

 

An Alien Changeling

A very distinguished male psychologist diagnosed me with moderate Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). I’m probably mentioning autism overmuch, but I’m still trying to wrap my head around it, you see. Although in truth, I kind of knew on some level. You don’t work at special needs schools for years without realizing you’re relating to your autistic students perhaps a little too much.

Concerning proper social interactions with people, there continues to be much I cannot comprehend. I’ve often felt like an alien changeling planted on Earth, told to assimilate as human. I tried to fulfill my mission – I really did. Yet while flattering myself I came close, I have been reliably informed by multiple sources I never quite got it right. For example, a good friend from college had me saved in her phone contacts as “My odd-duck friend.”

Cheyanne has fun giving people various reasons to excuse my sightly-off behavior. “She’s from Michigan,” she’ll say. Or, “Emily was homeschooled.” Or my personal favorite, “Don’t mind her; she grew up in a cult.” Only two of those things are true, but people generally seem relieved to have some manner of explanation. However, I’ve learned to mask well enough that some people – even some family members – don’t believe me when I tell them about the autism. To them, I’m just weird like I’ve always been. No reason required.

 

A sable and white Rough Collie and a girl wearing blue basketball shorts sit beside one another in a pile of leaves next to an abandoned garden rake
Emily and Gustav in their Michigan days, 2014

 

Every conversation is full of potential pitfalls for me. It’s why I write. I can contemplate, backspace, and edit until I get the words right. There’s no time for that in dialogue.

Yet I can converse on topics not relating to me just fine, and I can talk dogs all day! As my fridge magnet says: “Introvert but willing to discuss dogs.” Give me an abstract question, and it’s like a gift. I was, after all, a teacher, and I love info dumping.

But in my head, there is often panic when someone, especially a person I don’t know well, asks me a direct question about myself. Then I become an instant idiot. Sometimes I tell strangers accidental lies.

 

A man wearing glasses and a blank but panicked expression with the caption "autism intensifies"

 

For example: a nice person asks my favorite color. My mind goes blank as a shaken Etch-A-Sketch, and I no longer know the names of any colors. “Pink!” I finally blurt out. I spend the rest of the conversation berating myself, because I hate pink. My favorite colors have always been green and blue. But pink was the first color I recalled after being silent for a truly inappropriate length of time in response to a gently lobbed, underhand pitch of a question.

Funny thing is, I’m much more comfortable talking about the autism than discussing my actual physical problems. When I mention being autistic, people often laugh like I’m joking and get uncomfortable when they realize I’m not, or they get uncomfortable straight off the bat. Either way, it amuses me more than it probably should. (Is a warped sense of humor also an autistic trait?)

I may be socially awkward, but Vakaa is a consummate socialite. My dog doesn’t mind that I’m neurodivergent, and he helps set me and others at ease.

 

3 people, a woman wearing shorts, a man wearing a P.A.W. Service Dogs shirt, and a woman leaning on cane, stand around talking while 2 sable and white Rough Collies sit at attention
Group training session with Cash the Collie (Twitter @BetsyLarey)

 

Like Loose Rubber Bands

Did you know there is such a thing as being too flexible? Apparently, dislocating one’s hips at will is not a secret superpower. Since people could see my hipbones moving in and out of place, it used to be a bit of a freakish teenage party trick. Being extra bendy, seems like I missed an opportunity to be a gymnast as a child…

When I played high school volleyball, I never had to “warm up” during pre-practice stretching. I’ve always been able to not only touch my toes, but place my entire palms flat on the floor before my toes – with no effort. Who knew those were signs of Hypermobility Disorder, possibly Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome?

When my rheumatologist realized I have hypermobility issues, she said that explained the constant joint pain, put in a referral for me to see a geneticist (that appointment is still pending for March), and sent me to physical therapy to learn how to exercise without straining my joints.

 

A woman in a black hat sits on the seat portion of a red Rollator walker while a sable merle Rough Collie lies at her feet looking up into the face of his trainer, a man squatting on the floor beside him
Vakaa, Erik, and Emily in public access training

 

In August 2021, I was also evaluated by an occupational therapist. Based on my balance issues, weakness, and fall history, she recommended I get a Rollator walker. I thanked her, left, sat on a nearby bench with Vakaa at my feet, and cried.

*Sidebar* Apologies for the excessive crying mentions in this story. Once upon a time, I simply couldn’t cry in front of people; but my veneer has been cracking. Even so, most people never realize my eyes are leaking unless they look directly into my face. I’m somewhat of an expert in the field of blank-faced, subtle weeping. Tears are silent after all: it’s the accompanying facial contortions and boo-hooing which give one away. I learned this in church. If you’ve ever sat through a good old guilt-you-til-you-sob sermon, you’ll understand.

I had known I probably needed a wheeled walker, and I did want the independence such an aid could give me. Cheyanne had been my human crutch increasingly often when my knees stopped cooperating and I could no longer walk on my own. Yet it was still difficult to hear a medical professional suggest I needed more than the cane I’d used for years. It’s one thing to walk with a dog for occasional brace support on stairs or getting up and down. Dogs are cute. Walkers are not.

 

A sable merle Rough Collie lies at the feet of his handler. His eyes are a light hazel color and there is subtle merle freckling on his face and ear tips
The cutest “medical equipment”

 

But Vakaa is learning to walk in place beside me when I have to use my Rollator, and having him with me helps ease the humiliation I feel for needing it at my age. It’s like people are staring at him because he’s adorable, not staring at me. Focusing on Vakaa also distracts me from the constant pain of having connective tissue that behaves like loose rubber bands.

One of Vakaa’s favorite things is to fetch items off the ground which I’ve dropped in my poor coordination and clumsiness. While that may sound trivial, it is such a relief not to have to bend down on days when I’m very sore, dizzy, unbalanced, and generally having a hard time getting around. Vakaa also loves bringing me my cane from where it leans in a corner by the door. (To make this easier, we use gear ties.) We’ve worked on “tug” a bit with a rope tied to handles, and he may also learn to drag my walker to me in the future. He’s also pretty good at gnawing caps off of water bottles when my hands/arms hurt too much to open them.

 

a sable merle rough collie picks up a cane from the floor with his mouth
Vakaa doing cane retrieval

 

 

Why Am I Having Convulsions?

For years, I had been told I was having anxiety or panic attacks, which I would have believed if the tremors/spasms I experienced were accompanied by feelings of anxiety or panic. Mostly they were accompanied by feelings of irritation and frustration. When I told one doctor that, he said, “But what are you thinking when these episodes happen?”

Though I’m not always great at social cues, a gaslight alarm went off in my head. “I’m usually thinking, Well darn, it’s happening again,” I said.

After one particularly rough night, I finally googled, “What does it mean if I’m having convulsions?” I’d never thought to search that specific word before. For the first time I realized what I’d been unsuccessfully trying to describe to doctors for over 10 years might well be seizures.

 

A whale and a pot of petunias fall through the air. The whale thinks "Hello Ground" while the pot of petunias things "oh no not again"
Reference: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

 

So the next time I saw a neurologist, I no longer stuck to a vague description of symptoms. It hadn’t been enough before to tell multiple specialists, “I have violent tremors… Sometimes my muscles tense so much I can hear things popping in my back and can’t unclench my hands… It usually happens at night… I shake so hard it shakes the bed.”

This time I simply said, “I think I’m having seizures.”

That neurologist  – I’ve had several at the training clinic for resident doctors – asked, “What makes you think you’re having ‘seizures‘?” He put “seizures” in literal air quotes and laced his voice with enough professional scorn to let me know how ridiculous I was being.

 

The greatest gift you can give someone is to understand them - Regan Howard

 

I was shook. But I was also determined. Though I certainly didn’t want to divulge my issues to a total stranger, I kept insisting there was more wrong than anxiety, winding up on the verge of frustration tears from feeling so belittled and inarticulate. (Hello, Autism? Is that you again?) I think more to shut me up and get me out of his exam room than anything, the neurologist said he would order an EEG (electroencephalogram) to look for seizure activity.

In September, I was checked into the Epilepsy Monitoring Unit at a local hospital. I almost backed out, since they wanted to keep me under observation for a week, during which time I wouldn’t be able to bathe and would have to relieve myself using a bedside commode. With an IV in place plus EKG and EEG electrodes/ wires connected to my head and chest, I would be bound to the bed. I was convinced it would be a great deal of discomfort to no avail, but Erik, Cheyanne, and Holly all talked me into going. Erik also planned to bring Vakaa to visit me.

 

A girl with green eyes and glasses is in a hospital bed with her head wrapped in gauze and wires hanging down on the side
Grateful the gauze cap covered the Medusa effect of the wires

 

On my first day of being admitted to the EMU, a strobe light test revealed focal (partial seizures). Later, I lost consciousness and the EEG scan of my brain waves during that time captured a frontal lobe seizure. I was immediately medicated and have been on medicines to control seizures since. Legally I can no longer drive unless I experience six months seizure-free. I’ve been mourning the loss of more independence, but I have no desire to cause anyone, myself included, accidental injury from crashing a car during a seizure.

“If we all threw our problems in a pile and got a look at everyone else’s, we’d fight to get back our own.” – Regina Brett, God Never Blinks

 

Working out the Kinks

Fortunately, the medications are working somewhat, as my seizure frequency and severity have lessened. I’ve had more strength and endurance, needing my cane and Rollator less as long as I stick to short distances and don’t remain on my feet for long. In the future, I’m hopeful I can regain much of my independence and mobility with nothing but Vakaa at my side most of the time.

 

A girl in a jean jacket kneels outside in front of a fence next to a sable merle and white Rough Collie
Emily and Vakaa at 9 months old

 

Unfortunately, I’m like many Collies in that my body does not easily tolerate medications. All too often, if there are possible side effects, it seems I will experience some. I’ve had extended, unpleasant GI tract upset, worsened dizziness such that I felt constantly seasick, drowsiness that left me randomly falling asleep during the day, and most recently, amplified depression and an aggressively itchy hives outbreak – all in reaction to seizure medicines. We’ve joked that the seizures might have been preferable.

Kidding aside, I am mucho grateful for the marvels of modern medicine. While my seizure disorder (epilepsy?) isn’t nearly as bad as what many people experience, one neurologist told me every time I have a seizure my brain is essentially frying its own circuits. I reassured her I would not go off my medication. I think it’s simply a matter of working out the kinks and finding a drug that my body will tolerate. (I’m about to start another medication, so here’s hoping third time’s the charm!)

 

(a meme) Me: I'm gonna start my new meds nice and slow... Side Effects: picture of Leonardo DiCaprio making a yeah right face
“I’m gonna start my new meds nice and slow”

 

Erik and I have discussed cross-training Vakaa as a seizure alert dog, but if the medicine works as it should for me it may not be necessary.

 

My Body Is A Donkey

Sometimes I think my body is like a stubborn donkey: when I want to go, it says no. I am prepared to catalogue a few ways my mortal flesh gives me fits; but in return I request that some of you relate and commiserate in the comments section below so I don’t feel like a pathetic whiner. I can’t be the only one who is eager for a release from mortality and an upgrade to a pure spirit state…

Anyway, migraines. Ugh. We hate them, right? Who else has spent time huddled miserably in a dark room during the day, sensitive to light as well as sounds and seriously considering adding a guillotine to your Amazon wishlist?? I’m joking. About decapitating myself via guillotine anyway, not about being extremely light-sensitive. Staring at a screen for extended periods of time is just asking for a headache. I watch very little TV now because of this. The larger and brighter the screen, the worse the reaction.

 

Epilepsy symptoms: anxiety, weakness, muscle contractions, jerking, headaches, loss of consciousness, staring

 

I’m finding workarounds to increase my screen time, but I’d be truly interested in any recommendations you all have. Cheyanne got me yellow-lens glasses that block blue light. I wear them over my regular glasses and look absolutely dumb, but they help. She downloaded a blue light filter on my laptop too, and I keep screen brightness as low as possible. In preparation for writing this post, I spent about an hour trying out downloadable dark mode extensions until I found one to darken my entire computer screen. It’s glorious.

I have sunglasses which fit over my regular glasses when I go outside, but I still can’t spend much time in direct sunlight without getting a headache. Cheyanne calls me a vampire. The clip-on shades also protect me if I’m around flashing lights, so they don’t trigger a seizure. And, I am developing more of a hat collection. Hats are excellent sunblock tools, and I’ve always liked them. Writers are expected to be eclectic, yes? We can wear hats even if we never lived through the 1940s, I think.

 

two girls, one wearing a headband with light brown hair and one wearing a hat with dark brown hair, smile at the camera together in an airport
Emily and her sister Meg in 2014

 

This last year I learned I have some fairly common and therefore hopefully #relatable issues: bone spurs and degenerative disc disease – or Triple D as I like to call it – in my neck. It isn’t too terrible since currently my discs are just bulging, not burst (herniated). However, it probably contributes to the migraines, and my neck is almost always causing me pain. That could also be connected to the hypermobility issues, since my head gets “heavy” and hard for my neck to hold up. Cheyanne teases that I am “a giant baby” with a wobbly neck… She’s not wrong. Again, I’m learning ways to deal with it, and I already know some things I should change.

Sadly, I probably need to enter a new relationship with a desk chair that didn’t come off the side of the road, though I’m attached to my vintage wooden one. It still swivels, which is fun; but the bottom mechanism is rusted so that it no longer raises or lowers. Sitting at a lower height than my desk makes my arms go numb as I type. (I was recently told that might mean carpal tunnel.) But sometimes it’s just so hard to let go of old relationships even when they’re toxic, you know?

My ideal chair will also be tall enough to offer neck/head support. Yet the headrest can’t be positioned too far forward or my neck soreness will increase… I have this same ridiculous problem when riding in cars. Anyway, I am in pursuit of the perfect chair and open to suggestions for ergonomic, budget-friendly office or gaming chairs. Matchmakers of the Internet, make me a match!

 

A girl wearing a green coat and black hat walks down a store aisle looking at office chairs while her sable merle Rough Collie lies a few feet behind her in a down stay wearing a blue in training vest
Searching for the perfect chair!

 

Where are my tendonitis (or maybe carpal tunnel depending which medical professional I talk to) people at? How about ganglion cysts? I have them in both wrists and my forearm tendons get inflamed, which sometimes painfully complicates typing. Repetitive motion exacerbates this, so the treatment is basically prescription painkillers and Voltaren gel, a couple stretches I learned at physical therapy, and “stop doing what hurts until it stops hurting.” I’ve tried writing by hand, but that hurts worse.

And of course, I’ve been told I have fibromyalgia, and most likely the ME/CFS (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) that often goes with it. Women of the world (and the occasional rarely affected man), let us unite around the general confusion and derision surrounding fibromyalgia and demand effing answers!! ….as soon as we all find the car keys we lost somewhere in the fibro fog. I’ll need one of you to drive me to the meeting though, on account of being banned from driving for a while. Stupid seizures.

 

I lost my mind in the Fibromyalgia Fog Bank somewhere off the coast of WTF Happened To Me Island

 

 

Kind of Bad At What I Do

I’ve already mentioned how I am a neurodivergent headcase, but I suppose I should say for the record that my depression is officially diagnosed. It would be considered situational rather than chronic, I think, since my mental health is directly related to my physical health – or a medicine my body hates. If I have a bad day physically, I’m sad and frustrated. Nearly everyone can relate to “the big sad” at least occasionally. What is grief but a period of depression, and who in life will never have call to grieve?

I’d be interested to know how others cope with their sadness. For me, it’s reading. I immerse myself in lives (real or imagined) not my own, and that is my escape from pain and my own brain. If I hadn’t had books these past few months, the majority of my time would likely have been spent curled in the fetal position weeping.

I often have difficulty concentrating and comprehending now, so I’ve consumed more fiction than nonfiction lately. Some days I read old vintage Collie books, other days I only listen to audiobooks, and often I return to the strange nostalgia of the Bible (1611 edition), which due to my upbringing I began reading and memorizing as soon as I could read. Shakespearean-era English isn’t the typical idea of a good time; but ancient Middle Eastern/Western, Jewish and Christian Scriptures are practically light reading when you were quoting KJV Bible verses as a toddler instead of nursery rhymes. There is a comfort in adhering to childhood patterns.

 

A girl wearing glasses and very modest attire holds a book
Emily being weird in 2014, back when she couldn’t wear pants

 

My psychiatrist also said I probably have “a touch of OCD.” This comes out in perfectionism when I write, in the way I must find the ideal word. The number of draft revisions I log before I am finally ready to go live with a blog post is perhaps excessive… Although that’s somewhat blameable on having to write in short spurts.

For a multitude of reasons, I am a very slow writer. Writing did seem the only logical way forward after my health declined and I could no longer teach, and yet… I’m kind of bad at what I do. Realistically, if I ever want this hobby blog of mine to become profitable, I would need the ability to rapidly pump out content. (Info is generally worth more than stories, I now realize.) For now, my primary focus should be getting better. The better I feel, the more I can do.

 

What Comes Next

I’m sorry, but my Collie Chatter output may be even more sporadic in the future. The day after Christmas, I learned I was denied again for SSDI benefits following my hearing. I have through February to file a request for reconsideration with the Appeals Council, but per the Social Security Administration’s own website, statistically there is only a 10% chance of approval at this final stage. This is the last hurrah.

 

It's no concern of mine whether your family has food. You really should have thought of that before you became peasants. - Yzma from The Emperor's New Groove PC: Turning Point USA
Unplanned peasanthood has consequences

 

If I’m denied again, I will lose my EBT (food stamps) and my health insurance – including free meds – since those programs are contingent upon my applying or being approved for disability. Once I lose EBT, I will lose discounted Amazon and Internet. I’m not sure how I’ll pay for the medications I take for seizures, sinus tachycardia, pain, Vitamin D deficiency, and high cholesterol. (Weirdly enough, it runs in the family. Even my skinny dad and older brother take cholesterol medication.)

Though I couldn’t be gainfully employed while applying for disability benefits – if you get a paying job you automatically disqualify yourself, even if you subsequently lose said job – I can look for a job (and hope I can somehow keep it this time) if I get approved or more likely denied. That may look like I mistyped, but the fact is getting a side hustle or part-time work and making a certain amount of money once approved for SSDI is allowed. You just can’t be employed while applying for it.

Anyway, I’ll likely attempt to land and hold an online job while continuing to train with Vakaa. I’m afraid that won’t leave me much leftover screen-time tolerance, low-pain moments, and energy for Collie Chatter. If I do find time to write it will be devoted to informational articles, but I will continue to take story submissions and guest posts. (Feel free to pitch me your Collie story or other blog post idea!)

 

I've told you my story. What's yours?
What’s your story?

 

For now, I can only apologize for being mostly absent and ask that my readers remain patient with me. It’s no exaggeration to say I truly lost the will to live for a while, and I’m still fighting my way back to belief that my life has meaning. If not for Cheyanne, Vakaa, and Erik showing up when they did, there is an excellent chance I would not be alive right now. Their intervention saved me, and I view their arrivals as very timely answers to prayer.

Then there are all the family and friends who have refused to give up on me. More people love and care for me than I feel I deserve, and they help ground me in this life. If I ever finish a book, I’ll have an entire acknowledgment section to devote to them, but as this is a dog blog… I must mention the daily, steady love from Sir Gustav, Freckles, and Yoshi. I’m even grateful for the sporadic affection of Bobcat, our resident feline who purrs in my lap and gifts me with regular adornments of grizzled hairs.

 

a dark-haired smiling girl rests her chin atop a large mahogany sable Rough Collie while a Collie puppy and freckled Aussie mix cuddle together by his paws
Emily, Sir Gustav, baby Yoshi, and young Freckles

 

But Vakaa is obsessed with me. He has all the best qualities of his sire, amplified by an attentive, velcro-dog personality. He watches me so much it should be creepy and is so ever-present it should be stifling. I look at him, and he positively beams at me until I can’t help but smile back. He is always eager to wear his “In Training” P.A.W. Service Dogs vest, because he has no idea he is a company representative going to work. It’s no drudgery for him, just joy that he gets to go places and be with me and his other favorite humans, Cheyanne and Erik.

Vakaa celebrated his first birthday in December 2021. If all goes according to plan, he will be a full-fledged mobility service dog by this time next year, very possibly sooner. Yet I have to keep in mind that an estimated 50%-70% of service dog hopefuls “wash out,” being found unsuitable for various reasons. If by some stroke of misfortune Vakaa doesn’t make the cut, he can still continue to assist me as an at-home service dog as his father Gustav has done. But I am cautiously hopeful Vakaa will pass the public access test in future, as well as Erik’s high standards for a P.A.W. Service Dog.

 

a very happy sable merle and white Rough Collie grins at the camera while lying amongst potted trees in a nursery
He’s always so happy

 

Collie Tendencies

One of the largest hurdles with Vakaa has been overcoming the Collie tendency to be vocal. As the trainer of Rough Collie guide dog Amelia said, “Collies have a lot to say!” Vakaa is inclined to offer an opinion on everything, in the form of yaps, whines, grumbles, teeth chomps, and huffs. Ideally, a service dog will be seen and not heard. Per the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), a handler with an out-of-control dog can be asked to leave an establishment’s premises. If you see a disruptive dog yapping, growling, peeing in public, or generally causing a scene, that’s probably not a service dog, but an ESA (Emotional Support Animal) someone is trying to pass off as a service dog.

Recently, Cheyanne took Vakaa grocery shopping with her. He was in gear and rocking his public access outing, then a little Chihuahua mix rounded a corner, saw Vakaa, and lost his tiny mind. There was banshee-level shrieking, lunging, growling, pulling, and even laughing on the part of Tiny’s people, who thought their dog was being oh-so adorable. Vakaa didn’t respond in kind, but he was definitely distracted and didn’t take his eyes off the little menace. Cheyanne had to turn around and leave the aisle, because the people kept approaching.

Vakaa was off-kilter after, but got back on task soon enough. Then the people came and stood behind Cheyanne and Vakaa as they waited in the checkout line, and the same damn process repeated itself. Vakaa whirled around to make sure Tiny couldn’t sink his teeth into his tail, and can you blame him? Cheyanne fantasized about punting Tiny like a football… She didn’t speak up though, saying the people seemed the type to get offended and do absolutely nothing to improve the situation. Anyway, if you see someone like that in public, you have my express permission to say something. Will it do any good? Probably not. But think of the satisfaction! *End rant*

 

A smiling woman holds a small baby while Vakaa sits at attention at Emily's feet waiting for permission to make a friend
Meeting this baby made Vakaa’s day

 

*Ahem* Anyway… While Collies are sometimes grouped in the “Fab Four” breeds for service dog work, I personally would not recommend them for most handlers – particularly not a first-time handler or someone who has never owned/worked with a herding breed. Von Eling Training sums it up very nicely here:

Herding breeds have a lot of qualities that make them an ideal service dog candidate. They have amazing work ethic, are handler oriented, incredibly intelligent, and easy to train. However, most herding breeds are genetically protective and tend to be pushy. They require handlers who are experienced and confident. Because of this, they are not often recommended as psychiatric service dogs, but tend to do well as service dogs for medical response, mobility, and detection.

Collies (Smooth and Rough) are one of the exceptions to the idea that herding dogs don’t generally make good psychiatric service dogs. Although technically of the same breed, Smooth Collies get our pick over Rough Collies because their low maintenance coat makes them ideal for any handler. They are a sensitive dog, which means they do best with softer handlers who are consistent in their training and giving of commands…

 

A girl wearing blue swim shorts and a black and gray top runs through the surf being chased by a leaping sable and white Rough Collie
Cheyanne and Vakaa playing in the Florida surf

 

Keeping Up with the Coll-dashians

(Terrible pun, I know. Blame Erik: he started it.) Per their media release, some photos and videos remain the property of P.A.W. Service Dogs, so I suggest following P.A.W.’s website and social platforms if you want to see all the Vakaa training updates and progress as well as other amazing service dogs in training. In addition to Vakaa the Rough Collie, Erik is currently training two Standard Poodles, a Labrador Retriever, and a Golden Retriever (for therapy work). He didn’t intend it that way, but that’s the Fab Four lineup right there!

Plus, P.A.W. is also training other future therapy dogs for community outreach, including retired champion show dog Cash the Rough Collie, or Cash the CollieMan as he’s known on Twitter.

 

a mahogany sable and white Rough Collie wearing a blue P.A.W. training vest sits calmly while being petted by 2 children and a woman
Cash the Collie makes a great therapy dog PC: Betsy Larey

 

Erik used some of his own funds when he made the decision to transition from Five Star Dog Training, his profitable, personal business, to operating P.A.W. Service Dogs. Not that he thought he’d become wealthy through a service dog startup, but because he wanted to make even more of a difference than before. This big, gentle, softspoken man just wants to give back to the world.

One day Erik arrived at my house about 20 minutes early and shocked me by mowing my front lawn – which resembled a meadow thanks to Florida’s rainy season. I didn’t ask him to do that. He simply knew I was physically struggling and Cheyanne was working overtime to support us, and probably suspected we don’t have money to hire a lawn care service.

My point is, that’s the kind of guy Erik is: so if you’re looking for a good cause to support, P.A.W. Service Dogs is a worthy one that could use some financial love as it continues to get off the ground. The more money coming in, the more staff P.A.W. can hire, the more dogs will be trained, and the more people will be helped. You can also contribute by sharing this story or Erik’s story to get the word out.

 

three military men in dress uniform pose for a picture, while the middle man holds the leash of a wirehaired german shorthair pointer
Erik and Homer, his Mine Detection Dog

 

Like what you read? Please support Collie Chatter by leaving me a tip on vocal.media (donations as low as $1 are accepted) or purchasing one of our recommended dog products from Amazon so we can buy more dog supplies ourselves. I can’t bring myself to create a Go Fund Me account, but I don’t feel bad asking people to go fund my dogs!

 

An Australian Shepher/Great Pyrenees mix and 2 sable and white rough Collies with tongues all lolling rest beneath a spreading oak
Freckles, Yoshi, and Vakaa on New Year’s Eve 2021

Emily Sowulewski

Emily is an avid writer, blogger, and Collie lover who collects and posts stories about Collies from around the world. Submit a story, ask a question, or just say hi; Emily would love to hear from you.
  • Is there anything I can do / call me if you need cheering up or otherwise
    I loved/ hated this article / I hated you are facing all these challenges but love the brave way you face them.
    Vakaa looks lovely
    Hi Cheyene
    See you somewhere
    Pati

    • Thank you so much, Pati! We do need to schedule a phone call; it’s been too long since we talked! I’ll message you 🙂