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Jessica McCormick has a health condition that causes her to pass out. As an alert dog, Koda has given the young woman her life back.
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Young people and pets share a common vulnerability: They both depend on others to keep them safe and housed. When that doesn’t happen, either can easily end up homeless and facing all of the challenges that label brings. But as Jessica McCormick and her dog, Koda, are proving, a past in a shelter doesn’t prevent a future in service.
McCormick, 23, recently began her post-college life at a nonprofit organization working to end homelessness in Washington, D.C. It’s an enormous challenge, but one made a little easier by Koda, who is also McCormick’s service dog.
“Before I met Koda, I spent time in wheelchairs, I had a doctor tell me that I would have to wear a helmet — it was just really limiting. It was very oppressive,” explains McCormick, who was diagnosed with dysautonomia while still in college. The autonomic nerve-system condition causes her blood pressure to suddenly bottom out, which means she loses consciousness a lot.
“I also have a condition that co-occurs in maybe half of the people who have dysautonomia, which is called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, where [my joints] come out of the socket,” McCormick says.
“Campus safety would find me sometimes once a week, just passed out somewhere,” she recalls. “Between January and June, I had five or six concussions from falling and getting hurt.”
At the suggestion of an emergency room doctor, McCormick began researching organizations that could help her find a service dog. With her college graduation drawing closer, the sociology and community leadership major hoped to find a dog who could help her be safer as she began the next chapter of her life.
After researching several organizations, McCormick eventually decided to adopt through Refurbished Pets of Southern Michigan (RPSM). The nonprofit organization pulls abandoned and unwanted dogs from shelters, saving them from euthanasia.
“I chose RPSM because I really, really liked their mission,” says McCormick, whose health issues weren’t the only challenge she faced as a student. “I was homeless through high school and college, so I liked the idea of adopting a dog from a shelter.”
McCormick first became homeless at the age of 16 after a series of issues forced her from her home and separated her from her family.
The next few years were difficult for McCormick, who was told she was too old for foster care. She struggled with her health issues and housing concerns even after being accepted into college and moving into the dorms. Unfortunately, she couldn’t stay in the dorms during breaks in the school year. When she had nowhere else to go, she stayed on campus and slept outside.
This background made McCormick especially empathetic to Koda when the two were matched through RPSM.
Like McCormick, Koda had been through a lot for someone so young. She’d been adopted out of the Elkhart Humane Society in Elkhart, Indiana, twice — but both times the families returned her to the shelter, citing behavioral problems.
When the folks from RPSM met Koda, they didn’t see her as a dog with behavior problems — they just saw a sweet-tempered pup with a lot of potential. So Koda was pulled from the shelter and screened for temperament and trainability. The young Staffordshire/Lab mix was selected for RPSM’s Correctional Companion Program, which sees prison inmates train former shelter dogs within the confines of the Coldwater Prison Complex. When the inmate trainers began sending glowing reports back to RPSM, the organization matched Koda with McCormick, who would still have to wait several months for her prison-trained pup.
On June 3, 2015, McCormick met 3-year-old Koda for the first time, and within 24 hours the dog was proving just how invaluable she would be in helping McCormick. Not only could Koda act as a brace and seek help for McCormick after a fall, she could also help prevent the falls in the first place.
“We were walking down the sidewalk, and she just started nosing into my legs over and over and over,” McCormick remembers. “A few feet later, I just got really dizzy and I just kind of had this ah-ha moment.”
On the advice of RPSM’s trainers, McCormick reinforced Koda’s natural ability to alert to her human’s dropping blood pressure. Each time McCormick felt symptomatic, she would give Koda a touch command.
“I think that was just something she knew, and even if she couldn’t tell something was wrong, she could tell something was changing,” says McCormick. “She usually gives me between a five- and 10-minute alert that my blood pressure is dropping, so that I can sit down or lie down.”
In addition to Koda’s talent for alerting, she’s also trained to support McCormick physically, help her once she’s fallen, and bring her her phone and keys. Thanks to Koda, McCormick has not had a concussion since the day they met, and Koda’s prison training prepared her to assist even when McCormick isn’t conscious.
“If I’m ever in a situation where I do need help, if I either ask her [to] ‘go seek’ or if I am passed out, she will go and find assistance.”
Because of Koda, McCormick is able to work, live independently, and advocate to end homelessness.
“I feel like I can go places, I feel like I can do things,” she says. “I think it’s a whole new way of life for both of us.”
McCormick hopes Koda’s story will change the public perception of both shelter dogs and service dogs, and help to people realize that a dog doesn’t need to be purebred to be a perfect match.
“We both kind of share a quiet appreciation for some little things. We both appreciate that we have each other. We are a small family, but we are a family.”
Top photo: Koda poses in front of Washington, D.C.’s most famous buildings. (Photo courtesy Jessica McCormick)
Heather is a wife, new mom, and former TV journalist in Alberta, Canada. Her beloved Ghost Cat was once her only animal, but the addition of a second cat, Specter, and the dog duo of GhostBuster and Marshmallow make her fur family complete. You can follow Heather on Twitter and Google+.
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