Hi, I’m Ashley Nunnelly, a guide dog mobility instructor at Leader Dog.
I have been involved in the service dog industry for over 10 years. I have worked with countless guide dog clients. I have talked with clients with PTSD, anxiety, hearing impairment, mobility support issues, etc. who are service dog users, and I have listened to them explain how special their dogs are and how much they do for them each day.”
I always considered myself an empathetic human, and I have always loved the gift of partnership that I have given to others when I have trained and placed them with a guide dog. I suppose that from an intellectual standpoint, I have always understood what a dog can do for another person as a service dog and what the bond must be like. But I realize now that I have never fully empathized. Until recently.
In my adolescence, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and PTSD. My childhood was not the most normal of upbringings, and through a lot of self-reflection and therapy I have realized now that my coping skills are not the most normal. Even through therapy I have a lot to learn!
I am lucky. I have an extremely supportive partner who works to understand me and my background and history. And I’ve always been surrounded by dogs. For the last 10 years I’ve had a dog at my left side. We all know that science has proven that petting a dog will reduce your blood pressure. Petting a dog can ground you, help social anxiety and so on.
Not long ago I served as a long-term “rehome” (providing a home-away-from-home for a dog housed in the canine center) for one of the dogs who was raised in a correctional facility through Leader Dog’s Prison Puppies.
Due to COVID-19, many of the prison programs had to have dogs evacuated from the facilities at short notice. Due to the fact that my heart lies with the prison programs as well as with German shepherds (GSD), I ended up falling prey to the large, desperate eyes of a member of the puppy development team saying, “Ashley! He is half GSD, half Labrador. And he needs you!”
Of course he did. I went home and gave my boyfriend the same giant eyes. “But Tommy! He NEEDS us!”
And suddenly I ended up with a fourth dog in the house. A 50-50 Labrador/GSD cross.
Dear readers, I’m going to be honest with you. When I first heard about this breed cross—me being a pointy-ear snob—thought, “Ugh. Really?”
When I first laid eyes on Kyber, he was giant, black and had floppy ears. I rolled my eyes and said, “At least his FACE looks like a shepherd.”
I brought him home. He was so immediately lovely. He relaxed in the massively unfamiliar situation that I put him in—getting him from the kennel, somehow fitting his 81 lbs. in my Honda and walking him into my tiny house with three dogs and a cat. I was a complete stranger to him! And he was a nice enough boy to think, “Ok. I can do this.”
What a thing to put into human perspective. I had taken him from his “home” (the canine center) and put him through multiple new situations (including ignoring my own advice and taking him to a pet store to get his own collar and Nunnelly ID tag) and then put him into a place with strange dogs and a strange, tiny, all-white cat beastie who has no fear and rubbed all over him, even though Kyber didn’t even know what species he (the cat) was.
What a lovely boy. If I put myself in that situation with all the anxiety, I surely wouldn’t have adapted so well.
Well. Months go by. Kyber went to work at Leader Dog every day with me. He fell in love with the other instructors on my training team. Seriously, every time he saw Guide Dog Mobility Instructor Emily R., he would grab a toy and do a happy moan talk and ruuuuuuub himself against her. He NEVER did that for me! I was so jealous. What a flirt.
I took him everywhere with me. Grocery shopping, work, side training, etc.
Then one day, he showed me just what the service dog/human bond can be like.
Occasionally, I have full-on panic attacks. I can’t breathe. My heart pounds. My mind doesn’t work. Sometimes I truly think that I will die.
I own three dogs. I feel as though they all love me. And I know all of them very well. I feel very connected to all of them.
However, I have never felt a connection to any dog like I feel to Kyber now.
I had a panic attack. Even though my lovely boyfriend was there with me rubbing my back, I was unable to ground myself. I ended up sliding off the chair I was in and ended up on the floor.
All my dogs were sort of swarming around me, but all of them are dogs that value their own personal bubble, as many of us do. So, though they were around and concerned, none of them could effectively intervene. None of them actually like hugs—as most dogs naturally do not enjoy hugs.
Kyber, however, came to me and laid on my lap. He put all of his 81 lbs. across my lap and chest. He allowed and welcomed me to wrap my arms around him and squeeze him tight. He refused to leave me even when my boyfriend tried to shoo him away.
As I put my hands up to my face to gasp, he would naturally and gently put his nose to my hands and knock them away to intervene. He grounded me to his breathing and his weight until the panic had passed.
I have trained service dogs for 10 years. I have never truly understood what it was like to have a service dog. I have never seen the amazement of what a dog can do for me.I did not train that dog to do any of that. The inmate who raised Kyber did not train him to do any of that. What I experienced that day was a true, magical experience of a deep connection. And a true understanding of what a dog can do for us.
I own three lovely dogs that are my loves. But Kyber is special. Kyber was born with some sort of intuitiveness that I cannot define. I didn’t ask for him and he came to me in ways that I couldn’t even know I needed. Kyber gave me a special gift of being able to actually understand a fraction of what my guide dog clients feel for their dogs.
I gave Kyber up several months ago to go in for training. My heart aches and I am lucky to have coworkers who care for me enough to put up with me going, “HEY! HAVE YOU SEEN MY BOY?! HE’S PERFECT. HE’S GONNA MAKE IT, RIGHT?!”
I know Kyber is so special that he is a gift I must share. He will be a very special guide dog for someone one day. There are dogs that are born for this work with an undefinable gift.
I am so glad that I opened my home and heart to this kid. He has given me a great gift along the way. I will be a better instructor thanks to him.
Go make me and your puppy raiser proud, my love. Knock ‘em dead in training. You’re going to change someone else’s life one day just like you changed mine.