Canine Assistants: How a Service Dog Changed Ericka's Life
Ericka Sutton, from Alpharetta, Georgia, was born with a form of muscular dystrophy known as Charcot-Marie-Tooth Type X. She was matched with her Canine Assistants dog, Paisley, in May 2011 and the pair has been together every day since. Because of Paisley, people look beyond Ericka’s disability and her wheelchair. They see a woman and a dog with an extra special bond. We caught up with Ericka and Paisley at Canine Assistants headquarters in Milton, Georgia, to find out how an extraordinary dog has changed the life of an extraordinary woman.
What does Paisley help you with?
Paisley’s there to help me with daily tasks and to be my companion. Everyone thinks that service dogs are 24/7 working dogs, that they go pick up stuff, turn the lights on and off, open doors and all that—she does all that, but mostly she’s my dog, you know? She’s my protector. She knows if there’s something wrong, like if I feel ill or sad. She’ll come and sit next to me to help me relax, and with her around, I don’t feel alone.
How were you and Paisley paired?
I found out about Canine Assistants through another recipient who I played power soccer with. Her dog was called Bogey, and they went everywhere together. I thought, I gotta get me one of those! Then I called Canine Assistants every six months, even though they told me they had a long waiting list. In the end, it took seven years before I got to the top of the waiting list and got the call. During that matching session, I was in a room with a bunch of the dogs and their teachers. First I met Sam, a huge goldendoodle. He was friendly, but way too tall for me! Next, I met a black Lab who sniffed me all over. He was too hyper. Then Jennifer brought Paisley over. Sweet Paisley sat next to me and then lay down, just looking at me—and that was it! We were bonded for life!
How has Paisley changed your day-to-day life?
She’s changed the conversation for me. I always used to get people asking, “What’s wrong with you?” and, “Why are you in that thing?” Now the conversation starts with, “Oh my gosh, she’s so beautiful! What’s her name?” I’m not worried about having to explain my disability to everyone anymore. I can just tell people about Paisley instead and spread the word about the good things dogs like her do for people.
Ericka is an advocate for people with and without disabilities and is President of a Georgia-based nonprofit called the Emosah Foundation whose mission is to encourage social independence in people of all ages with disabilities through disabled sports and education programs.
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