Our colleagues at PRA are a smart, diverse, hard-working team...and one of our colleagues has four legs. She's a boxer named Quinn, a service dog for our Billy DeWalt, an Army veteran and senior IT project manager in our Raleigh office. Although they're a smoothly working team today, it wasn't an easy path to get here. Billy explains:
Note from Billy:
If anyone reading this wants to jump in on the Tobacco Road Marathon, feel free! The course is great for beginners to seasoned runners and is also walker and ruck friendly. If you want to join, please use my discount code “billydrunners,” which will get you $20 off your registration, while also donating a portion of your registration to MVRC and K9s Serving Vets. Look forward to seeing you on the Tobacco Trail!
What are some of the challenges getting a service animal?
I see this as a two-part question: the challenges in getting a service animal and then the challenges of being a handler team. The challenges of getting a service animal are in understanding the process, financial aspects, and training. First, under ADA law, a service animal has to perform a task or series of tasks to help mitigate a disability.
Really, step one is working with your physician or healthcare team to determine what task(s) a service animal can take on to help mitigate the disability. Once you determine the task(s), it’s finding either a dog or an organization to help pair you with the dog. Under ADA law, you can train your own animal, but then the burden is fully on you.
There are a ton of organizations out there to help, but that touches on education and understanding the process piece as well. To qualify as a service animal, the dog must be at least one year old, have lived with the handler for one year, be fully public access trained and be trained to perform a task(s). As you can see, there are a lot of time-based items that slow down the implementation of the handler team, but for good reason.
The true tests start once you are through meeting all the requirements. Honestly, being a handler team sounds great to most dog owners; the reality is far different. Everyone you encounter in performing your daily routine can now impact your day. Did you know that service animals aren’t classified as pets and that they are seen as medical equipment (or should be)? So far, as of today, I have never seen anyone talk to someone’s wheelchair, try to pet their oxygen tank or make kissy sounds at their cane. The interactions the public initiates toward a service animal increases both the anxiety of the handler and also the animal itself. You kind of end up feeling like a walking circus most days, just because every encounter is stressful, and people fail to understand the dog is working.
I tell people all the time that my dog, Quinn, knows the difference between being at home and working, though she is always really working. When I pull her vest out, her entire demeanor shifts, and she understands the importance of that job. Most of the time, at home without her vest on, she is beta to our other boxer and she lets him set the mood for the pack. When that vest goes on, though, she is quick to remind him that he is the house pet and his “setting the mood” is over for the time being.
Daily living with the service animal is where the real struggle is. Also, understanding that these animals have a finite lifespan and you may need multiple dogs over your own life weighs heavily as well. The bond we form is so strong that those losses hurt more than other pets, in my opinion.
What was it like when you first met Quinn? How has your life changed since?
Quinn was originally purchased to be a friend for my other boxer, Harley, who was in training to be my service animal. Harley failed, though, due to his issues with food, water, and toys, and he couldn’t be worked in public access. Quinn was feisty from day one and always in trouble. I first saw her when I picked her up at the airport and she was barking at the airport worker who was handling her crate. Four hours later, we were at the emergency vet because she got herself caught on her crate and I had to cut it apart.
When Harley failed being a service animal, I went through a lot of emotions since I had a sizeable amount of time and money invested in him. I recall having a seizure, and Quinn was acting funny before it happened. The next one she alerted before it occurred – and I knew then I had found my compatible partner. We started her training and, in the end, the Military and Veteran Resource Coalition (MVRC) helped me with her last bit of training since at the time I was between work assignments.
It’s hard to quantify how Quinn has changed my life. Before Quinn, it was hard to go to dinner at a restaurant with my family, drive to work and maintain a good attendance record or just be normal overall. In public, I always found myself hypervigilant, worried about my seizures, or dealing with crowds and my severe anxiety.
With Quinn, she mitigates those things for me so I can be present for my kids and wife and what interests them. Being in crowds or public is a lot better, as she keeps watch for me and allows me to focus on my family, unless she alerts. My focus and ability to work is greatly enhanced as well. She takes care of me, so I can do my job and I get to remove that constant worry.
Tell us about your typical day at work with Quinn – what’s it like having a service dog in an office environment? Challenges? How have your co-workers here at PRA responded?
Coming to work at PRA was exactly what we needed. Before, we had some very bad experiences being in a professional capacity and from other peoples’ opinions on mental and physical health; quite honestly, I was feeling very defeated. I asked other handler teams and made a conscious decision to not bring Quinn on my interview to help remove the bias, but secretly I was nervous. I mean, what if PRA wanted to hire me, then decided against it when Quinn was brought into the picture? I was so impressed with how PRA as a whole handled Quinn, and I feel that this became the gold standard.
Quinn is so quiet at work that most everyone forgets she’s even here, honestly. The office is a varied environment and Quinn manages it well between meetings and sitting at the desk, with the only issue really so far being a fire alarm. That one alarm has so far been our only challenge here, which feels so great. Everyone in my office and on my project team has been great. The response from everyone has been what this should look like everywhere and should be a model for other companies. From the bottom of both our hearts, we thank PRA for the compassion, empathy and understanding that has been extended to us as a team, and we look forward to a long relationship with PRA.
You’ll be the featured runner for the second time in the Tobacco Road Marathon. What charities will you be supporting and why?
In 2016, I ran for Military and Veterans Resource Coalition. In 2019, I am running for MVRC again and also for K9s Serving Vets. I sit on MVRC’s board as the fundraising chair and really believe in our mission of connecting veterans and their families to local resources. We are that middle person who knows the partners available in the Triangle and how to connect those in need of those services. You can learn more about MVRC and what we are doing at https://mymvrc.org.
I recently found K9s Serving Vets quite by accident. They were talking to local veteran owned businesses who connected me with them. Obtaining a service animal is a complicated process that honestly is rather annoying. There are so many organizations claiming to help, but as I have come to find out, very few are actually helping. K9s Serving Vets is working to help eliminate the gap by education and assisting the veterans in need. You can learn more about what K9s Serving Vets is doing at http://www.k9sservingvets.org.
I also have to give a big shout out to the board and race director of the Tobacco Road Half and Full Marathon. This event is sponsored by Allscripts for the full marathon and Feetures for the half marathon. This event, since conception nine years ago, has donated a million dollars to both local and national charities. When you think about how many lives that money has improved, it’s phenomenal what they’ve accomplished. I am truly honored to be a featured runner again and to bring some attention to the charities I directly support.
What would you say to other vets who were in your shoes prior to getting a service dog?
Seriously weigh the pros and cons of being a team, and then select a dog that fits your needs but also allows for a normal lifestyle as well. It seems like a great idea to use a Great Dane, until that first time you have to fly and realize that the dog won’t fit at your feet. There are so many considerations to take into account before selecting, and I would really recommend speaking to other established teams for guidance and lessons learned. You also need a plan in place for how to deal with everyday things like work, interviewing for jobs, going to the store, being out in public, etc. Once you become a team, some of the interactions you have will be easier if you have a plan in mind beforehand. Again, speak to other established teams and get their help making this plan.
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