Florida based non-profit provides a new 'leash' on life for people with disabilities
Shoshana Tanner founded Topaz Assistance Dogs knowing what it’s like to live with a disability.
The nonprofit was named after the state gem of Texas, the topaz, where Tanner was living when she founded the organization in 2016. She relocated to Naples in 2018 and the volunteer-driven group still provides dogs to both Florida and Texas. The nonprofit trains primarily Labrador retrievers for disabilities including mobility issues, autism, seizures and diabetes.
“The dog is such a critical lifeline for me, you know, to be able to take care of my daughter, independently, without having to rely on my husband constantly,” she said.
Tanner is profoundly deaf and has a seizure disorder, though a cochlear implant has restored some of her hearing.
Before the Golden Gate Estates resident had an assistance dog of her own, she might have dropped something without realizing it. Sirens from emergency vehicles didn’t reach her. A stranger trying to talk to Tanner would have thought her rude when she didn’t answer.
The reality was that she just could not hear them.
“Before, there was a lot of anxiety. There was a lot of things I knew I was missing that I was very oblivious to,” she said. She was hyper-vigilant, trying to compensate for the signals her body didn't give her. While her peers were thinking about how they’d decorate their dorm rooms, she said, “I’m thinking, ‘How am I going to wake up if there’s a fire?’”
Now, she lives with two retired assistance dogs, Macy and Milo, and two younger, trained hounds: Callie and Luna, Callie being Tanner's primary assistance dog.
Clients of Topaz Assistance Dogs have found the same sort of relief Tanner did. Jan Echols, who lives in Arlington, Texas, partnered with Blessing, a yellow lab, four years ago.
Echols, a Type 1 diabetic, said she is hypoglycemic unaware, meaning she can’t tell when her blood sugar drops, so she would pass out with no warning. When that caused a car accident, she stopped driving for eight years.
“Now I can drive because (Blessing) lets me know before I have a problem that something’s going to happen,” she said. “His whole life’s goal is to make sure I’m OK. He’s right by my side 24 hours a day.”
Blessing will place his chin on Echol’s knee to let her know there’s an issue and sometimes will wake her in the night. He’s trained to retrieve apple juice from a basket next to her fridge, and occasionally retrieves the juice without a command at all.
“It’s a total turnaround. He gives me freedom,” she said.
Blessing's blessings don't stop at Echols: He's popular among the neighbors, too.
The mission of Topaz Assistance Dogs, according to the nonprofit’s website topazcanine.org, is: “To empower individuals with disabilities by providing safety and independence through partnership with skilled Assistance Dogs.”
That mission attracts volunteers like Naples resident Janine Shea. She volunteers as a handler, so she takes instructions from a trainer and works with a dog at home to help it learn and progress.
The dogs, Shea said, teach her as much as she teaches them.
Among the lessons she’s learned: “How to open your heart to just about everything. How to live in the moment, because dogs are notorious for living in the moment. To be unconditional as possible,” Shea said.
It’s not easy to say goodbye to a dog she’s spent so long with, and she said she cries happy tears for a whole week when they leave.
“They’re going to a greater purpose and they’re doing their job, and they know they’re doing their job, and that’s what’s so cool about it,” Shea said.
Both Echols and Shea spoke highly of Tanner.
“She has an empathy that most founders of these organizations don’t have because she’s lived that life, so she knows what these recipients feel like," Shea said. "She’s just got a huge, huge heart."
Andrew Atkins is a Naples Daily News features reporter. Contact him via email email@example.com. To support work like Andrew's, please consider subscribing:https://cm.naplesnews.com/specialoffer/
This article originally appeared on Naples Daily News: Topaz Assistance Dogs provides a new 'leash' on life for people with disabilities