Retired GISD teacher finds friendship and independence with service dog
“I can’t believe someone gave her up—she’s so gorgeous and well-behaved,” says Sheila English, scratching Noelle, her seven-year-old service dog, a Labrador-shepherd mix, under the chin. “But sometimes a gift has to exchange hands.”
Diagnosed at birth with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder caused by a brain injury or malformation that inhibits body movement and muscle coordination, Sheila has spent all of her life trying to catch her balance.
When Sheila was a child, her parents encouraged her to believe that she could succeed at anything she wanted to accomplish. This lesson led her to exceed expectations throughout her life. Doctors said she wouldn’t live the week, but she grew stronger. They said she would never walk, yet she toddled across a room to her father’s arms.
She went on to live an ordinary life. She attended graduate college, got married, adopted her son, Joey, who is now 14, and built a 29-year career fulfilling her calling as a special education teacher in Texas public schools, fighting each day to inspire and equip her students for life outside the classroom.
However, despite her lifetime of resolve, Sheila still faces many physical challenges stemming from CP. Walking down a long school hallway can be brutal, placing strain on Sheila’s muscles and joints, causing fatigue and pain. Navigating steps or bending down to pick up fallen objects can be downright dangerous because it’s easy for her to lose her balance and fall.
In 2012, as Sheila prepared to receive foot drop braces to stabilize her feet and ankles, she began looking into the possibility of getting a service dog. “I always thought, ‘I can manage by myself or with help,’ and I did that for a long time, but as you get older, things get harder,” she says. “I wanted a balance dog that could replace my walker and cane and go to school with me.”
In 2012, she submitted an application to Service Dogs, Inc. (SDI), a nonprofit service dog organization founded in 1988 by former lawyer Sheri Soltes. Headquartered in Dripping Springs, SDI adopts dogs from animal shelters across Texas, uses positive reinforcement to train them as service dogs and provides them to clients at no cost, thanks to donations. “I wanted to devote my life to saving animals and helping people,” says Sheri, SDI’s president. “Even I am surprised and profoundly humbled by how SDI has escalated to touch and heal so many lives.”
Rebecca Robinson, an animal behavior specialist at the Williamson County Regional Animal Shelter (WCRAS), where SDI often adopts service dog candidates, has seen the impact of this vision firsthand. “Having rescue partners take in animals from our shelter is part of what makes our no-kill goal a reality,” she says.
SDI accepted Sheila into their program but cautioned her that it could take a while to find the perfect dog for her. The right canine candidate would not only need to possess a calm, trainable disposition, but he or she would also need to be highly trusting and large enough to steady Sheila. “If someone distracts her or she gets scared and she pulls away, I could fall—maybe even on her,” Sheila explains.
Sheila applied to several other programs during the waiting period, but in mid-2013, SDI found Noelle at the Fort Worth animal shelter. In the first week of July, they invited Sheila to come by to meet her and several additional candidates.
The instant love between Sheila and Noelle provided a solid foundation for training. Noelle moved in with Sheila on July 22, 2013, and the team immediately began a 13-week in-home training program with SDI trainer Elizabeth Morgan, who has been with the organization since 2007.
“My goal was to take her with me on the first day of school,” says Sheila. “We really pushed during those 13 weeks, but by the time school started, Noelle was ready, and for four years after that until I retired in 2016, she came with me to school every day.”
Noelle not only helped Sheila better handle the physical demands of teaching, but she also had a distinct therapeutic effect on Sheila’s students. “My kids had some pretty severe test anxiety,” she says. “Noelle would recognize that and go stand next to them or lay her head on their lap to see if she could calm them down a little bit. They were all much calmer when she was there.”
At home and on the go, Noelle helps Sheila retrieve objects, move from place to place, get into and out of her vehicle, walk up ramps and steps, shop for groceries, open drawers, doors and cabinets, and even fetch the laundry. Thanks to Noelle, Sheila can also easily attend events, such as The Mighty Texas Dog Walk, an annual event benefitting SDI that Sheila’s family now supports, plus weekly Girl Scouts meetings and choir practice.
“She’s a confidence booster,” Sheila says. “I used to be a really shy person, but when you’re wandering around Target or CVS with a 75-pound dog who looks like Noelle does, everybody wants to come up and talk about her or their dog.”
“Independence has been a big thing for me, too,” she continues, describing the process of getting to and from her favorite reading nook beneath the oak tree in her backyard. Before Noelle, such a journey would have been impossible without the aid of another person. With Noelle at her side, Sheila can select a book and head outside whenever she likes.
During a recent family vacation to the beach, Sheila didn’t need human help to walk across the sand with Noelle by her side. “That was a big moment for us,” she says.
And then there are the “bad days” when Sheila experiences debilitating back spasms or extreme fatigue. “Noelle will actually climb into bed with me and lie there with her feet on my arm so that even if she falls asleep, she’ll know if I try to get up” Sheila says.
“She’s just always there, and she is the most compassionate, caring, gentle soul,” Sheila concludes, smiling at Noelle, who is lying at her feet and gazing up at her. “She’s my angel.”
Ask Before You Pet
You should always ask before petting or talking to a service dog. Certified service dogs are trained not to become distracted by strangers or overly excited by attention, but dogs can make mistakes, just as people do. Depending on the dog’s role helping its human, you could cause hardship and even danger for the human by causing a fuss, so remain calm and be considerate—no matter how cute the dog is!