How My Service Dog JJ Demonstrates Excellence

Editor’s note: Chris has submitted a 500 word version of this essay to the American Kennel Club for its Award of Canine Excellence in the Service Dog category. We think he’s already won!

My name is Chris Hyatt. I am a forty-two year old quadriplegic from Austin, Texas. I was injured in a diving accident in 1981 at the age of fourteen. I have lived the last twenty-eight years confined to a wheelchair. I have tried to not let my injury define me as a person, nor let it detract me from living an active life. In 1990, I became a fourth generation Hyatt to graduate from the University of Texas. After receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in English/Economics, I worked directly or indirectly for the Texas Senate for the next eleven years. In 2001, I took disability retirement due to complications related to my quadriplegia. I am an accomplished scuba diver, the original President and a founding member of Eels on Wheels, an Austin-based adaptive scuba club that promotes diving to the physically challenged. I grew up in New Orleans and return every year for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. I never miss the Austin City Limits Music Festival. I truly love live music and the outdoors and try to play outside as often as possible.

“JJ was literally one sick puppy when the THSD training staff rescued him. He was severely emaciated and had tested positive for heartworms. ”

JJ is my 4 year old Labrador Retriever Service Dog. JJ was adopted by Texas Hearing and Service Dogs (THSD) when he was just about one year old. He was one of the few dogs rescued from the San Antonio dog shelter. That particular shelter has one of the very highest euthanasia rates in the United States. Further, black dogs are statistically the least likely color of animal adopted by people from shelters.

JJ was literally one sick puppy when the THSD training staff rescued him. He was severely emaciated and had tested positive for heartworms. The THSD trainers took a great risk by adopting a dog that had everything going against him — except that JJ had a spark of intelligence, a sweet temperament and a loving disposition that ingratiated him to anyone who met him. How anyone let JJ end up in such a place is a tragedy I cannot fully comprehend. But, miracles do happen and JJ became my Service Dog on January 22, 2008 — a day I will never forget.

My spinal cord injury (SCI) left me paralyzed in an unusual way. I am able to use my right hand to do most of my upper extremity movement and I am lucky to retain the ability to bear weight on my legs for transfers and exercise. So, I’m imbalanced from right to left and from top to bottom.

JJ was specially trained to assist me with my specific physical deficits.

JJ was specially trained to assist me with my specific physical deficits. The THSD trainers knew my physical limitations and trained JJ to compensate for my lack of movement. JJ retrieves anything that drops from the table or from my lap. In fact, he watches for opportunities to help retrieve dropped items. I once dropped my wallet in front of the counter at the bank. As my wallet hit the ground, two different people in line behind me said in unison, “I’ll get that!”

JJ does the majority of his tasks without me even having to ask.

Not to be deprived of his glory, JJ scrambled around me, sliding on the marble floor furiously, to do his job and retrieved the wallet and placed it on my lap. The people in line just applauded and some were awestruck. JJ displayed his proud pose after performing this task, perking his ears up, puffing out his chest and wagging his tail in contentment. He is always such the “happy dog!”

Retrieving items are what Labradors are known for — but JJ is a specialist. Whereas, most Labs retrieve sticks and tennis balls instinctively, JJ retrieves items most dogs would destroy. JJ picks up individual pieces of paper (a little damp/wrinkled), pencils (unbroken), cell phones, remote controls, sodas, clothing, medicine bottles and my computer mouse — all with great care.

JJ does the majority of his tasks without me even having to ask. As I approach my apartment door to leave, JJ knows to tug the small cord tied to the door handle to open the door. Once we’re out in the hall, JJ knows to close the apartment door by tugging it closed with another cord on the outside handle. At the elevator, JJ can push the button. JJ knows that the building doors are opened by him hitting the electric door “open” button and, again, he doesn’t need prompting to know his job. All I do is position my wheelchair in the usual spot for exiting the building and he does the rest. If for some reason he is distracted for a moment, I’ve learned that my eye movement is all the cue he needs.

JJ turns the light switches in my apartment on and off. He is always waiting patiently at my left side. JJ will wait patiently while I am otherwise occupied in an appointment, an interview, at a speaking engagement or eating at a restaurant. People comment frequently that JJ is so amazing because of his ability to sit at my side, staying focused on me until I need him. His public demeanor, his enthusiasm and watchful attention to me is tremendously rewarding. It is always a pleasure to share JJ with children, other disabled people and the general public.

Prior to receiving JJ last year, I spent quite a bit of time hospitalized. I would get resistant infections or have orthopedic surgery to correct muscle contractions in my hands or feet. Sometimes I would have three or four hospital stays in the space of one year. Since receiving JJ last year, I have had only one hospital stay, a throat surgery related to sleep apnea. JJ has inspired me to keep moving, exercising both of our bodies and to keep fit. Having a high energy dog means that I need to move every two hours or so. JJ reminds me when I’ve kept still (on the computer or watching TV) by nudging my right elbow (the one that controls the computer mouse and the TV remote) with his cool, wet nose. Most everyone who lives in downtown Austin has seen JJ and I traversing our way to the gym or trotting down the Town Lake hike and bike trail. Because of the Austin summertime heat, JJ and I use an unusual strategy for staying cool. Our method includes “bunny hopping” from one Starbuck’s to the next Starbuck’s as we cross downtown. I’m feeling much better and stronger because of our daily workouts. My physical abilities have improved to the point that I’m walking for exercise again. I had lost the ability to walk in 2002 due to a spinal cord cyst that took that ability away from me. My new life with JJ has brought that function back into my life and has kept me out of surgery and away from infection.

“I’m fully convinced that 75% of these people don’t know my name or only know my name because I’m JJ’s daddy.”
I live in an apartment building with 250 residents, named after LBJ’s mother, Rebecca (RBJ Building). This building was built to house people on a fixed income, particularly the elderly and the disabled. If you qualify for Medicare, you qualify to live in the building. The RBJ Building does not allow pets in the building. Because JJ is a Service Dog, he is the only dog in the building. He is also easily the building’s favorite resident. It seems that every time we come out of the elevator, we are greeted to a chorus of “JJ!” I’m fully convinced that 75% of these people don’t know my name or only know my name because I’m JJ’s daddy.

I’ve taught (or tried to teach) all of the residents to ask permission (and wait for him to “sit” or go to a “down” position) before petting or approaching JJ. I wish that I could report that all of the residents obey this rule. It turns out that many residents feel that age has its privileges and that since JJ loves their attention, it’s okay to pet him.

So, I’m known generically as the guy with JJ. That’s just fine for me. I have the privilege of getting to share JJ with residents who have severe medical conditions, depression or loneliness. Some residents cry when they pet JJ, remembering a favorite dog from the past. Some people leave treats or bones hanging from my apartment door handle. They all seem to be mesmerized when JJ opens the automatic door whether I’m coming or going. Some residents bring family members by my apartment, just to meet JJ.

JJ loves everyone. That includes babies, whose feet, hands and faces he licks while they giggle uncontrollably. JJ loves other dogs, getting along with all types. I’m never nervous bringing JJ anywhere. I know that he will behave on or off leash, around other dogs, babies, cats and children.

“Having JJ puts the focus of my thoughts towards the needs of my dog and away from the problems which persist in my life. His happy example is easy to follow and he gives me someone to love.”
I often remark that having JJ is the best icebreaker in the world — even better than beer! Anyone can read JJ’s posture and playful smile and know that he is one sweet, loving soul. People who might otherwise feel uncomfortable talking to a wheelchair-bound, disabled person find it easy to approach me just because of JJ. Of course, everyone loves talking about their dog — and I’m never at a loss for words when it comes to my baby JJ.

Having JJ is better than Prozac. It isn’t easy to be a “bowl of sunshine” each and every day. The physical limitations placed upon me can be depressing. With JJ, I’m forced to think of his needs first. He’s the first thing I think about in the morning and the last thing I think about at night. Having JJ puts the focus of my thoughts towards the needs of my dog and away from the problems which persist in my life. His happy example is easy to follow and he gives me someone to love. I’ve heard that happiness is as simple as having something to look forward to being with and having someone to love. With JJ, I always have someone to love.

Somehow, and I can’t really explain how, JJ has helped me open up emotionally. Maybe because I know JJ would never hurt me emotionally. Anyway, I’ve changed since January of 2008. I’ve become less cynical and less guarded. I’ve found myself with increased patience and more aware and open to the possibilities of a relationship and perhaps love. JJ wants to be with me 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. His desire for my constant companionship has opened my heart and changed my life.

I love having a Service Dog and use every opportunity to show people both JJ and the THSD program, using many different formats. JJ and I filmed a Public Service Announcement (PSA) which is shown throughout Texas. JJ shows some of his various skills (picking out a tie, operating the light switch, closing the door, retrieving a dropped pen).

JJ and I were also honored as Grand Marshalls of the 2008 Mighty Texas Dog Walk – a winner of two Guinness World Records for “Largest Dog Walk”. We also appeared this year before the City of Austin City Council in support of future Mighty Texas Dog Walks. Twice, I’ve been asked to provide impromptu lessons to elementary school children who swamped JJ and I at the Capitol and at the State of Texas History Museum. We’ve addressed an audience of over 200 at the University of Texas’ LAMP program, a program for mature people to continue learning and discuss various topics of interest. JJ and I also have volunteered for THSD luncheons and at THSD booths at several Home & Garden Shows, two different fairs for the Deaf or Hearing Impaired, the local Farmers’ Market, American Heroes Weekend at Austin’s Camp Mabry and at Polo 4 Puppies, a THSD fundraiser. JJ also kissed Celebrity Rachel Ray right in the face during a book signing event, making his daddy both proud and jealous. At Ms. Ray’s invitation, of course. The bookstore staff told us JJ was the only guest out of 300 whom she came out from behind the table to greet.

One of my favorite things about JJ is the fact that he has his own line of Celebrity Doggy Dolls. The whole world can share a little piece of my amazing dog by donating $20 and choosing the JJ replica from the THSD website (www.servicedogs.org) or at one of their events. Even better, the JJ doll is the best seller out of eight toy dogs modeled after THSD graduates! That’s no coincidence, however. Once you meet my amazing dog, you’ll want a reminder of him too. The doll includes his amazing biography and a pitiful picture of me. THSD offers the JJ doll as a way to finance their Service Dog program.

I really don’t remember life without JJ — yet I’ve not yet had him for even 18 months. He’s touched my life in every way conceivable. You can’t really explain the way JJ lovingly looks at me, or how he wags his whole rear end and tail when I sing (awfully) to him. Our relationship has exceptional value — a synergism that is greater than its component parts. I’m a better person because of JJ — and that’s really the best way to describe how JJ demonstrates excellence.