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Evanston RoundTable, August 3, 2011

Hobi, the Wonder Dog

When Michelle Milne first met her Golden Retriever-Black Lab mix, in the spring of 2009, the furry black puppy jumped into her lap and, as she put it, “never got off.” That’s how her dog and Michelle bonded – a bond strengthened by his amazing ability to help her through her difficult times.

For Ms. Milne, the difficult times began in 1995. She was in Zambia working with rural clinics as a health and sanitation worker for the Peace Corps when she somehow contracted a rare, unidentifiable virus that left her almost paralyzed. The disease began with a fever and numbness in her feet that, terrifyingly, started working its way up. Dying nerves “felt like ants eating the insides of my legs,” she recalled. For a time she could barely walk.

Back home, doctors helped stabilize her condition, which she manages with medication and physical therapy. But hardly a week would go by without sudden bouts of severe back and leg pain, deadening fatigue, and devastating anxiety and panic attacks that often sent her to the emergency room.

A South Evanston mom of two, Ms. Milne first decided to get a puppy to keep her older dog, Cedar, canine company. At the time she had never heard of “pain dogs.” She picked Hobi out of a lineup of pictures posted online by a Barrington pet shelter. “I emailed and said, ‘I think you’ve got my dog.’” As soon as they met, she felt a strong, immediate connection. Hobi could sense when one of her attacks was coming on, and by snuggling and cuddling with her, the way a mom does with an anxious child, provide a calming and comforting presence that helped ease her pain and calm her nerves. The result: fewer trips to the E.R. and less medication. Once, when back spasms prevented Ms. Milne from getting off the floor, Hobi wedged himself beneath her so she could get to her feet.

She did some research and learned that Goldens and Labs are two breeds that make excellent “service dogs” because of their comfort with people, trainability and unflappable nature. The most common and well-known service dogs are the familiar seeing-eye dogs. But service dogs are being used to help people with an increasingly wide variety of disabilities and conditions, including mobility and balance issues, severe pain, autism, seizure disorders, clinical depression, hearing impairment and post-traumatic stress.

Ms. Milne noticed right away that Hobi was highly sensitive to her moods. He’d sidle up to her several times day to look her in the eye and small her breath, what she calls “a face check,” to determine how she was doing. She decided to teach Hobi to be a working service dog, and located an organization, Delta Society, that provided materials and guidance.

Many service dogs are raised by professional handlers in programs designed to breed and train the animals to work with humans. However Ms. Milne says because of the long waiting period and expense – sometimes years and many thousands of dollars – some people will raise and train their own service dog, like she’s doing.

Training includes getting Hobi comfortable and used to remaining calm and focused in a wide variety of public places and conditions, such as in crowds, stores, taxis, buses, theaters and restaurants. According to the U.S. Department of Justice web site, businesses and organizations that serve the public are required “to allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals onto [the] premises in whatever areas customers are generally allowed.”

It’s not hard to know when Hobi is working. He wears a red vest that says “in training.” Ms. Milne calls it Hobi’s “business suit…whenever he has it on, he knows he’s on duty. When I take his vest off at home, Hobi’s ‘inner dog’ will come out, and he can relax and play like a puppy.”

But the vest also performs another important function, to alert the public that Hobi and Ms. Milne are a working team. In their two years together, there have been only two incidents. One was at an Evanston grocery store, where the manager yelled at her, “You’re not blind. Get that dog out of here!” After the situation was explained to him, he apologized. A more serious confrontation occurred at the Chicago Cultural Center downtown, where Ms. Milne, her husband, Dan, and their two children, Sophia and Aidan, had gone to see an exhibit. When uniformed guards tried to escort her out of the building, she and her husband threatened to call the police. The incident was finally resolved, but Ms. Milne, still furious, emailed the City of Chicago when she got home, and got an apology within hours.

She views it as her mission to educate people about the function and value of working service dogs. “People aren’t used to seeing a service dog with a sighted person,” she explains. “It might appear that I’m perfectly fine and don’t need Hobi. But the problem is you can’t see someone’s pain. It’s called the ‘invisible disability.’  My pain is fairly constant and I never know when it’s going to spike. And in any case, Hobi needs to work and practice.”

Most people have no trouble sensing the special connection between the two of them. On a recent weekday morning, as Ms. Milne was taking coffee outside a south Evanston cafe, a teenage girl approached her to ask about Hobi, who was curled up quietly at her master’s feet. Informed that Hobi was a service dog in training, the girl asked, “Are you training him or is he training you?”

Ms. Milne thought for a second and responded with a big smile, “Both!”

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