When we are walking through the University of Maine Presque Isle campus, there is a hero among us: Saint the service dog. Dr. Jacqui Lowman, known as Dr. J. to her students, has had Saint since August of 2010. Dr. J. was born with health and physical challenges caused in part by her spina bifida. Saint is her first service dog. When asked why this was she said, “I always thought that other people needed a service dog more than I do. That one day it would be bad enough that I would need a service dog. When I asked my doctor when that day would come she said, “‘Birth.’” On that day Dr. J. learned that a service dog could be of use to her now, that she needed one and that she had deserved one from the moment she was born.
Dr. J. has never been one to shrink from challenges. In fact, she looks for them intentionally so that she can defeat them head-on. This past summer she even hiked up Mount Katahdin. With Saint by her side, of course. Before Saint came into the picture, Dr. J. was caring for her elderly mother. Her mother was now unable to help Dr. J. with her physical challenges. It was getting to the point where she would need a caregiver, a stranger, to come to the house. With Saint in the house, she doesn’t need a caregiver. Saint can help her overcome the same obstacles, no matter where she is. Whether she is at home, on campus or hiking up Mt. Katahdin, Dr. J. can depend on Saint to help her accomplish any physical challenge.
When asked how her life changed after the arrival of Saint, Dr. J. says, “I can go anywhere because of Saint.” Some of Saint’s tasks include helping Dr. J. get dressed and undressed and picking up dropped items. When the public looks at Saint they see a cute dog, a pet. But Dr. J. stresses that her purpose is as a tool. “She is more important than my wheelchair or my van, but she is a tool. She is my best tool.” This is something that we need to remember when we see Dr. J. with Saint. When Saint’s vest is on she is at work and must remain in that mindset. It is important to ask Dr. J. if we can pet Saint. Sometimes she’ll say yes, and sometimes no. Like any dog, Saint wants to be petted and cuddled. But dogs also need to be mentally and physically stimulated, which are what Saint’s tasks do. Saint’s vest does come off, and she has time to play like a regular dog and gets snuggled.
Saint’s tasks focus more on activities of daily living, ordinary things that most people do not think twice about. Her qualities and intelligence do not end there. In 2012 Dr. J. started feeling poorly. Doctors did not know what was wrong. As time dragged on Dr. J. began feeling worse and worse. Her first trip to the ER yielded nothing but Mylanta and Calcium Citrate. Three days later Dr. J. pushed through her day and returned home exhausted and feeling worse than ever. She lay down on her bed, but throughout the night Saint kept nosing her awake or dropping a shoe on her head. Saint had been out, had been fed. There was no reason for her to behave this way.
The next morning Dr. J. called her friend Kim-Anne Perkins who insisted she return to the ER. Kim-Anne also called Dr. J.’s physician in order to persuade Dr. J. that she needed to go to the ER. Dr. J. was not keen on going since her last experience was not good as well as unsuccessful. Luckily, Kim-Anne and the doctor won the argument. Once there doctors found that Dr. J. had massive internal bleeding somewhere. Dr. J. was admitted to the ICU. She had testing done so that doctors could find where she was bleeding and was then life flighted down to Bangor for emergency surgery. Afterwards she needed 12 pints of blood. She also needed to learn how to speak again. She later realized that Saint had been dropping the shoe on her head or nosing her awake because she was unconscious and Saint was trying to
keep her awake. That was not something that Saint had been trained to do, but she was a service dog, an intelligent animal who was attuned to her person and knew when something was not right. That is how Saint saved Dr. J.’s life. Saint also has other skills such as acting as a bridge between Dr. J. and others in social situations.
Before Saint, Dr. J. says children would be curious about her wheelchair and want to ask questions. The parents would only stare and would grab their children away and say, “Don’t look at her!” Dr. J. realizes they thought they were doing the right thing, but were really sending a bad message. It makes a child think that if someone has challenges it’s the end of the world. With Saint children ask if they can pet the dog, and then ask why she is there. Saint’s taken something that is scary and made it approachable, friendly even. Dr. J. has also seen in her classrooms that Saint has a calming effect on her students.
Saint has become attuned to human emotions through her close relationship with Dr. J. and is therefore aware of them in other humans. Kim-Anne says that Saint is so trained in the different tones and pitches of Dr. J.’s voice that when she exclaims, “Oh no!” or “Oh my gosh!” Saint will immediately try to comfort her, by getting in her lap. Saint will also try to comfort those she considers a friend, such as Kim-Anne or Dr. J.’s students, whose voices may also change pitch during a conversation. When discussing Dr. J.’s harrowing night before they found out about the internal bleeding she says, “You cannot train a dog to do this. They just click into that mode to be tuned into their human/client/charge and just do things that make you go, ‘Wow, how does a dog do that?’ That’s why dogs are used in those situations because they are incredibly intuitive. It is not a burden to them. For them, helping is the coolest thing in the world.” It would certainly seem that Saint’s training helped Dr. J. survive. If helping is the coolest thing in the world, service dogs, Saint among them, are the coolest and best animals on Earth.
Dr. J. says that when they get home after a long day they are both exhausted. But the moment they step through the door and her gear is off Saint runs to grab her plush toys and runs around. Saint gives Dr. J. total independence. She can go anywhere, do anything, and surmount any physical challenges when Saint is by her side. “The service dogs I’ve known never doubt that they’re needed. They get to go everywhere. Saint and mummy, we’re a team,” Dr. J says.