A Healer Is Discovered: Galen Comes Home

02/04/2015 05:15 pm ET | Updated Apr 06, 2015

Galen plays with Youbee before his first service dog training class with Guild Assistance Dog Partners (GAP Service Dogs)

This is the ongoing account of living with disability and raising and training a service dog. In time, this account will cover not only my own experiences, but those of others I've met who also have found independence and safety, and a good measure of joy through their service dog partners.

The last two weeks have been very eventful. At long last, I have Galen, a smooth coated, sable Shiloh Shepherd puppy. A friend and I drove to Arizona to pick him up and bring him home to Colorado. We drove home over 2 days, Galen and I bonding the entire time.

Galen is the puppy formerly known as "Bucky," from the most recent litter raised by AZ Shilohs. I named him Galen for two reasons. The first is my admiration for the 2nd century Greek physician, Claudius Galenus. The second is because the name, derived from Galenus, means "Healer." It is my hope that, to some extent, Galen will help in my own healing. I also hope that, once my PTSD is better controlled, I can train him to aid in the healing of others by scenting cancer. Ultimately, I would like to be able to return to medical school, finish my education, and later have my dog working beside me in my medical practice.

Belinda Williams meets Galen for the first time, along with his siblings

I did not choose Galen, but I love him as much as if I had. Galen's selection was based on his Litter Evaluation Report (LER), a thorough physical evaluation, plus a series of tests the puppies go through to determine their temperament and intelligence. Galen has what is known as a "soft," highly trainable temperament, and is incredibly intelligent. He could be seen thinking his way through the puppy maze, and had the fastest time of any puppy. He's not got a prime build for agility work, but he's good at agility just the same. Already I've seen him jump high in the air and grab a small branch on a tree in the back yard. This pup may have a soft temperament, but he's not without spunk. As for intelligence, in a two week period, Galen has learned his name, "come," "sit," "stairs," cross," "go pee," up," and as I write this today, he just mastered "leave it!" Of course he's also learned "no," "good," and a few other terms.

There have been moments of entertainment, and moments of embarrassment. Just last week, Galen began to have an accident while we were in my boss's office. I was suddenly scolding, "Bad pee pee!" right in front of my boss. Galen stopped and finished outside (good pee pee!). I didn't come back in without some laughter (at my expense)... it was all in good fun, though. Then there's the time I was taking a bath, and Galen decided to join me. Suddenly, I had a puppy splashing happily about in the water with me! He apparently likes baths, a good thing, since I said I'd bathe him weekly to help prevent allergy problems in my students. Another bit of amusement involves one of Galen's favorite pastimes when he's bored. He likes to chase his tail, and more often than not, he catches it, falling over in a heap! He also makes me laugh by grabbing the end of his leash and taking himself for walks. He always looks so innocent, and always so goofy when he does that. I swear I've laughed more in the 2 weeks since I've had this pup than I have in the past three years!

Galen likes turkey stock, his toys, cats, and his beds. His favorite game is tug-of-war. He adores being cuddled and gives big wet kisses with his sour puppy breath. He sleeps a lot, but that's understandable. After all, he grew by 20 percent in his first 10 days with me! Steve, my boyfriend, calls him "psycho dog," simply because he's a playful puppy... yet Steve never hesitates to come in and cuddle with him. In spite of his reservations over having a dog, it's obvious Steve has fallen for Galen. In any case, Steve understands that this is, hopefully, a big step forward in my recovery, and I've taken full responsibility for Galen, for as my service dog, Galen is to train respond to and help me. He's to be well mannered, but ultimately, Galen's focus will be only for the person who he helps... me. That is, unless I'm not around. However, I plan to be around, for while the average lifespan for those with the immune deficiency I have is 43 years, I have a great chance of being well on the far side of that number. I have none of the complications associated with it so far.

I've been very fortunate. Most organizations won't train owner raised dogs and puppies. Guild Assistance Dog Partners (GAP Service Dogs) trains both their own dogs as well as owner-raised. After my experience with Rigel, my rescue Shiloh Shepherd I had years ago, I felt that this breed to be a better match for me than most, and didn't want to have to settle for a lab. My dilemma was that I was uncomfortable with the idea of training him to assist me without any guidance. While I've worked with a guide dog puppy before, never have I trained a dog to help with PTSD and spine injuries, and possibly even my immune deficiency. GAP gives me the peace of mind of not doing this alone, and providing the guidance I need.

So far, I'm not disappointed by Galen. Quite the contrary, for Galen is proving to be highly intelligent, and very empathetic. Had I not known Rigel before him, I'd be absolutely stymied by how quickly he's been progressing and how much he's learned in such a short time.

At full grown, Galen will likely be 110-125 lbs, a medium Shiloh, but by no means the largest. Rigel was quite tiny for a Shiloh Shepherd at 85 lbs, but I was aware of that, and am prepared for a very large dog. In spite of their size, Shilohs tend to have a somewhat longer lifespan than that of other giant breeds, with their years more in line with that of their forebears, German Shepherds. Rigel's life span was exceptional at 18 years. Most Shilohs make it 10-14 years.

I'm doing all I can to ensure he has the best health for his entire life. He was found to be in excellent health at his first wellness exam, and has begun his post-weaning vaccinations. I'm keeping Galen on a low calcium, low phosphorus diet in order to maintain slow, steady growth. Galen's genes will dictate his endpoint. I can dictate how fast he gets there. By keeping it on the slower side, I'm protecting his joints. While genetic hip dysplasia has been eliminated in the Shiloh Shepherd breed, they can still get it from injury, or by being permitted to grow too quickly.

While 20 percent growth in 10 days may seem like a lot, many of his siblings have had even greater growth. I try not to make comparisons. Galen's paws are already bigger than those of most grown dogs in his training class, and his ears are huge! Those are a better indicator of how big he'll really be. Already, his paws nearly fit Rigel's old snow booties. This tells me he's going to definitely be larger than Rigel, and more than large enough to help carry and retrieve things for me, assisting with my spine injuries. Galen's sweet disposition, innate temperament traits, instincts, and intelligence all but ensure that he will be successful in his training as a service dog. It absolutely ensures that, were he not training as a service dog, he'd be an exemplary family pet or even therapy dog.

I couldn't be happier with Galen. He's a joy to be around, and easy to care for. I just know we're going to make a great team!

10-weeks-old Galen, all tired out following class, snuggling with his person, Belinda Williams