Local | Pets

Local woman’s pet proves its dedication as Handi-Dog

Talya Fanger-Vexler trained Sapphire to be a service dog with the help of Handi-Dogs, a Tucson nonprofit organization. (Debe Campbell)

Talya Simha Fanger-Vexler fell in love one day with a fluffy puppy in a pet shop window. It had sparkling blue eyes and a calm, composed demeanor. Talya pictured long hikes and active adventures with the bouncy sable Sheltie at her side. Five years later, the lovable fur ball named Sapphire is indeed by her master’s side, but with a purpose neither one of them could ever have imagined five years ago. Today, Sapphire is a certified service dog, trained locally to work and perform tasks. And her master is an amputee.

In a motorcycle accident in California at age 23, Talya’s right foot was crushed. Fighting through dozens of surgeries over the course of three years to save the foot, Talya finally gave in to the inevitability of amputation, but not until she also was diagnosed, post-trauma, with spinal and head injuries that led to epileptic seizures.

Sapphire was her constant and often only companion while Talya was trying to recover from the trauma and surgeries. That’s when Talya began to notice uncanny behavior in her little canine.  Confined to a second-floor apartment and in constant, excruciating pain, she saw the dog become her intuitive caregiver. She’d wedge herself against Talya’s right leg or lie on it and almost wrap her little legs around it and apply pressure. “It was amazing that she somehow knew what to do and it helped,” recalls Talya.

When the seizures began, Talya had no idea they were happening. She just got sleepy and nauseous and had to sit or lie down before she fell down. As the frequency increased, she began to notice odd behavior in Sapphire about 20 minutes before she herself felt anything at all. “She would get anxious and put her head on my bed and whine,” says Talya. “I told the doctors about the dog and they thought I was crazy. Finally they did a functional magnetic resonance image and electroencephalograph and tried to induce seizures before they found the epileptic activity.”

“Dogs are very sensitive and able to pick up on changes happening in your body—electrical impulses, smells,” says JoAnn Turnbull, president and CEO at Handi-Dogs, a Tucson service dog training center. She is certain Sapphire had been predicting Talya’s seizures as the pup herded her master to a chair or seat for safety.

It wasn’t until Talya moved to Tucson from California two and a half years ago that she agreed to the amputation. “Sapphire knew immediately. She changed her way of being around me,” Talya says. “She had stuck with me through all of those surgeries when I was in bed 24/7.” But as she gained mobility with a prosthesis, the dog began hovering on her right side as if to protect her master from any harm. “She wanted to help me.”

That’s when Talya discovered Handi-Dogs which, fortuitously, is located just blocks from her condominium. Her brother came from China to assist with her post-amputation recovery and together they went to Handi-Dogs to check it out. “We were very nervous,” says Talya of the initial evaluation process.

Turnbull says pets are evaluated to see if they are good candidates to become service dogs. They must have the right temperament, confidence and work ethic. Sapphire showed all the signs she wanted to work, Turnbull recalls. “Everyone wanted to make it work for me and Sapphire,” Talya says, adding that the dog is now calmer. “Having tasks to do makes her happy.” Sapphire smiles up adoringly in agreement.

“It’s like a game. The dog is getting satisfaction from what it’s doing,” Turnbull agrees. “It takes a special small dog to help with mobility.” Sapphire assists daily with retrieving her socks and shoes. She knows a sandal from a tennis shoe, can pull open and close doors, and retrieve keys or the ever necessary tool kit, which Talya uses to adjust the prosthesis. But the prosthetic leg is too heavy for Sapphire to carry.

“She can retrieve things by name or by pointing. She can even throw things in the garbage,” notes Turnbull. “Because we are teaching Talya how to train Sapphire, she finds more applications that she can teach the dog at home. She has to have the skills to teach the dog how to do more. That’s one of the benefits of an owner-trainer rather than matching a person with a trained dog. The training is customized for what you need and with the dog’s ability.” Besides pets, rescue dogs also are often evaluated for service dog training.

After the accident and its aftermath, Talya felt like her identity was gone. “You have to pick up all the pieces of life, rebuild who you are . . . Sapphire was constantly with me all these years. Sapphire loves training and learning. She’s still barky but she is so much more comfortable and confident.”

“We have to be diligent with our students. There are people out there with dogs they call service dogs and they jeopardize it for those who really need service dogs,” says Turnbull.  On a recent flight to California, Talya says, she received extra scrutiny of her personal health documents that the clerk had no right to review. Apparently the airline had experienced an instance with a so-called “service dog” that bit a passenger.

“Certified service dogs must be mannered and behaved,” notes Turnbull. “Without a disability, the law does not allow service certification. But the laws are very ambiguous.” The U.S. Department of Justice defines a service animal as “one trained to take specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability.” Other categories — emotional support and therapy dogs — are not guaranteed public access rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“People abuse the law and think their dogs are wonderful. We don’t have a clear understanding of how other people perceive our dogs. A lot of people drop out of our program because it is too rigorous,” Turnbull says. “Every day is training, that’s a constant in your life now,” says Talya of the commitment.

“We certify through Assistant Dog International, the leading world organization. Certification is valid for a year with recertification annually if the dog is still helping and still healthy to do that,” Turnbull says.

“I can’t believe how lucky I am to have this dog,” says Talya. “She naturally has the urge to help and picked up on the seizures. Humans try to sympathize but she can look at me with those eyes like she really knows what I’m going through. They are so connected to us in a special way,” she says about canine companions. “She brings me peace of mind.”

For more information about the 40-year-old Handi-Dogs nonprofit, contact Turnbull at 326-3412 or www.Handi-Dogs.org or attend the 3rd Annual Furry Film Fest fundraiser of short videos from around the world featuring dogs, Sunday, May 19 at 2 p.m. at The Loft Cinema, 3223 E. Speedway. Online ticket purchase at www.DoggieShorts.org benefits Handi-Dogs and The Loft Cinema.