For the past week, we were in Charleston, South Carolina. We were at a convention called “Top Dog”, which is a convention for guide dog users. And why, you might ask, would a psychiatric service dog attend such a convention? Well, we were presenting and trying to make headway in reducing stigma and increasing solidarity within the service dog community.
We arrived a couple days early and saw some sights in Charleston. Our friends Jenine and Kent, with their guides Roger and Linus, went out with us. Kent’s sister was with us, too!
My favorite sight we saw was the Angel Oak tree. We had intended to stop by this 500 year old tree for a half hour or so on our way to the tea plantation. But it was INCREDIBLE! It is a live oak, which means it is evergreen and grows year round. The base of the tree was probably 12 feet in diameter, and the branches covered an area 17x larger than our house! As live oaks do, this one had many branches that had gotten so heavy that they drooped onto the ground, where they rooted and then grew back up into the sky. It was awesome. Amazing, awe inspiring. We ended up staying there for a little over an hour, just seeing this one tree.
My second favorite thing we did was visit the Charleston Museum. We had arranged a private tour with the education coordinator, something they don’t normally do. But they were very interested in giving us a tour in an accessible way. The woman giving the tour brought artifacts for us to feel, and directed us to the most interesting exhibits. I was having a high pain day, so I used my manual chair and hung onto Brad’s power chair to go around in the museum.
When we first arrived at the Top Dog hotel location, we parked in one of two available accessible spaces. The other two accessible spaces were taken up by a dog relief area. It was a big tarp on the ground with mulch. It was kinda annoying that the person who set it up used the accessible spaces! We had to double park in the hotel lot quite frequently to be able to get Brad in and out of the van, which is not safe because Brad’s not very visible to drivers when he goes across a parking lot.
There were about 90 guide dogs at Top Dog. At first Hestia loved the potty area, but as the days went on and it got more and more heavily used, she started to hate it. Luckily Jenine discovered some grass on the other side of the hotel that we were able to use for pottying!
The convention was so fun, and Hestia was nearly perfect! We tried to introduce ourselves to as many people as possible. I was forever going up to people and saying “Hi, I’m Veronica and I have a tiny 8 lb service dog named Hestia”. Most people were curious, so I described how she looked (googley eyes, smushed nose, racquetball head) and let people feel Hestia’s body and head to see what she was like. Hestia wasn’t thrilled about this (she is a momma’s girl), but she tolerated it like a good service dog should.
When we were in crowded areas, I held Hestia because I didn’t want her to get accidentally stepped on, and I was unsure if the guides would be calm around her since she is such an unusual breed in the context. I put her down on the floor more as the days went on, and she met more and more dogs. By the end of the convention she was on the floor about half the time we were walking around.
Guide dog culture is very different than psychiatric service dog culture. The biggest difference is in greeting other dogs. At the PSDP conventions, we expect everyone to keep 3 feet between dogs without prior verbal authorization to approach. We expect our dogs to ignore other dogs. Most of the guides went up to and greeted the dogs as they went by. It was a little disconcerting at first, but Hestia got used to it.
Since there were about 90 teams in a very small space (about the same space that we hold our PSDP conventions in with just 20 people!), dogs were all over each other! Sure there were a few “conversations” that dogs had with each other, but overall every pup was good with being smushed in spaces with multiple other dogs.
Eventually it was time for our presentation. Toni Eames went first with some history of the service dog movement. Ed Crane went second, talking about his seizure alert and mobility dog. Then I stood up and talked about my history with psychiatric service dogs. I started with my Sabrina story, then went through Ollie and Hestia, how I trained them, what it looked like when they helped, etc. I also talked a bit about hallucination discernment. When I was done, it was Brad’s turn.
I was feeling very thankful that I got through my part of the presentation without a panic attack, but as Brad started talking, Hestia started intently licking my hands, and eventually she crawled up on my chest and started licking me on my face. Yes, I was having a bad panic attack. With Hestia’s help, the panic only lasted about 10 min, and I was able to stay grounded in reality the whole time. I just closed my eyes and focused on Hestia. After Brad talked about the need for solidarity when fighting for disability rights, I explained what Hestia had been doing.
The presentation went very well, and several people said that we had changed their minds about psychiatric service dogs! It was great! We accomplished our goal of stigma busting and solidarity within the service dog community as a whole. And we had a fun time doing it!
The convention went until Sunday morning, and we had planned to stay through till Monday to recover a bit before the 3 hour drive home. Unfortunately I got sick Sunday night. Really sick. At one point I was passed out on the floor of the bathroom and Hestia came in to lick my hands and face and I was able to get up shortly after.
Monday we drove home, and my stomach started really hurting. It felt like I had knives in my stomach. The pain was bad, 5-6 on the pain scale. I couldn’t sleep with the pain, and considered going to the hospital. But eventually around 2 or 3 AM I fell asleep. Now today it mostly feels like I have chopsticks in my stomach poking me. And for some reason I have a very sore neck. Hoping it goes away soon!
So anyway, Top Dog was a success. Thanks to everyone who helped put it together, and to everyone who met us with open minds.
Brad will get pictures done sometime soon, but not today. So I will make another post when we get pictures ready to share. Hestia rocked the job of ambassadog, and I think she is yearning for more!