Pets: Belle, the therapy dog, gives young woman independence and sense of purpose
Photo courtesy of Jessica Gutierrez
“People think I am different because I talk slow and I’m in a wheelchair,” says Jessica in her book, "Belle & Me," which is about her therapy dog and the difference Belle has made in her life.
“Having my service dog gives me the courage to try new things. I feel comfortable and safe when Belle is with me.”
Despite her limitations, Jessica considers herself an “ambassador” to help people understand the role assistant animals play in the lives of people like her. When she’s out in public with Belle, she welcomes questions from people who come up to say hello, and she appreciates when people respect her space and understand her dog is working, and that it’s not okay to simply come up and pet Belle.
In her book, Jessica lists how Belle takes care of her by helping to pick up items she drops, keeping her calm in public, protecting her, staying nearby her wheelchair being a great listener and companion who is quick to cheer her up when she’s sad. Belle also accompanies Jessica to the doctor or dentist.
“Belle keeps my anxiety down,” says Jessica. “Belle gives me her paw so I keep calm.”
Photo courtesy of Ann Arbor Animal Hospital
In turn, Jessica takes care of Belle, and this, says her mother Kim, has made a great difference in her life and given Jessica a sense of purpose she didn’t have before.
Every day, Jessica brushes Belle’s coat and teeth, feeds her and makes sure she has water. Jessica also rewards Belle with baby carrots and other treats when she practices Belle’s commands to sit, stand, jump, or lay down next to Jessica’s wheelchair.
And of course, when Belle needs to visit the animal doctor, Jessica is there to keep her anxiety down by holding Belle’s paw.
According to Jessica’s mother Kim, the Gutierrez family had never even had a pet before Belle.
“I started to research about service dogs in 2007. Jessica had been asking about a dog, which could help her with small tasks as well as being her companion, when she was out in the community. I discovered Assistance Dog of America in Swanton, Ohio. I started the process of sending in an application. There were several steps involved in the process that took two and a half to three years. During this timeframe, the Assistance Dogs of America made many home visits. These home visits were for the ADAI to get to know our family as well as our daughter's specific needs. What exactly would a service dog be doing to help improve our daughter’s quality of life? The ADAI work very hard to match their service dogs to their clients’ needs. Before we could bring our service dog home, our family had to attend a week-long training session. We learned how to take care of Belle. We learned how to do her commands. The ADAI continued to do home visits to help us with the transition period. There is a lifelong commitment from ADAI to each of their clients and families to stay in touch for any future concerns and/or questions that may arise.”
Jessica says she wrote the book because she wanted to share her experiences about how her life has improved since Belle has joined her family. She also wanted to write the book as a tribute to Assistant Dogs of America for giving her a new outlook on life and to thank her parents (Ray and Kim Gutierrez) for believing in her.
“They always celebrate the things that I can do and never tell me what I can’t do,” says Jessica.David Caddell is hospital director of Ann Arbor Animal Hospital.