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Girl Smarts: ‘My service animal saved my life’

Yep, you’ve heard the stories about emotional support peacocks on airplanes and probably rolled your eyes. But bonafide whip-smart assistance animals can actually turn women’s lives around.

So what’s the difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal? Only dogs, and in some cases miniature horses-yes, the world’s cutest heroes-legally qualify as service animals, meaning they’ve been trained to aid someone with a disability and are allowed in any public place.

Emotional support animals (companions for people with depression or anxiety) don’t have these rights, but often, with a doctor’s note, you can take them on a plane or in “no pets allowed” apartments.

These three women would be leading very different lives if not for their four-legged companions-their stories speak for themselves:

Madison Stangl, 28 and her diabetic-alert dog, Willy

Girl Smarts: ‘My service animal saved my life’ 1 play (COURTESY MADISON STANGL)

I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as a freshman in college. The disease, while life-changing, felt manageable at first. I kept an eye on my glucose with a monitor, and if I felt any of the warning signs of low blood sugar-such as sweating or dizziness-I’d use a pump to deliver the insulin my body wasn’t producing.

But three years after I was diagnosed, I developed hypoglycemia unawareness, a condition in which I no longer experience any of those medical red flags. I wanted to live alone, but I was terrified that I might fall into a coma in the middle of the night (a dangerous side effect of low blood sugar). So I was thrilled when a family member told me about dogs trained to sniff out a drop or spike in a person’s blood sugar through a unique scent in our breath or sweat that’s undetectable to humans.

I’m not sure I would have woken up at all that night if it weren’t for Willy.

In January 2017, Can Do Canines matched me with Willy, a 2-year- old golden retriever who’s now my 24/7 companion. Even before my glucose monitor detects a drop in blood sugar, Willy will paw at my leg or lie at my feet, so I know I need to grab juice or applesauce to bring the level back up. If I become debilitated from a drop, Willy knows to retrieve the glucose tablets I keep around the house, bring my phone over so I can call 911, and bark or scratch at doors to get help from neighbors.

Once, in the middle of a work meeting, Willy signaled that my blood sugar was dropping. I had tested myself recently and it had seemed fine, but I grabbed my meds just in case. It was good I did. Ten minutes later I had a scary crash.

Another night, while I was tossing and turning in my sleep, Willy roused me. My blood sugar was life-threateningly low. I’m not sure I would have woken up at all that night if it weren’t for Willy.

I used to be so afraid of my disease that I’d stay home, but with Willy around, I have a new sense of safety and confidence. I’m more social. And I’m finally getting my passport so I (and by I, I mean we) can start traveling.

Sam Okhuysen, 22 and her emotional support cat, Cleo

Girl Smarts: ‘My service animal saved my life’ 2 play (COURTESY SAM OKHUYSEN)

My junior year in college, the depression, anxiety attacks, and obsessive compulsive disorder I had battled for years became so debilitating that I had thoughts of harming myself. I decided to apply for an emotional support animal (ESA). I went through a detailed application and interview process with my university’s disability office, and soon after being approved, I visited a shelter. There, I felt an immediate connection with Cleo, a 2-yearold tortoiseshell cat.

Cleo seems to have a sixth sense that helps her tune in to my emotions; if I’m angry, sad, or afraid, she rubs up against me until I pet her, which helps shift my mind away from what’s bugging me. Just knowing I have something to come home to and take care of helps me get through each day. I’ve received some flak from fellow students who think I only applied for an ESA so I could have a pet on campus, but most visitors light up when they see her in my dorm room.

Stacy L. Pearsall, 38, and her service dog, Charlie

Girl Smarts: ‘My service animal saved my life’ 3 play (COURTESY STACY L. PEARSALL)

I was an air force photographer for 10 years before retiring in 2008 due to combat injuries-including trauma to my brain. Back home, I suffered from ongoing physical and emotional pain, PTSD, anxiety, and, later, seizures. I knew other veterans who had benefited from service dogs, but I didn’t want people staring or knowing that I needed help. Then, two years ago, I had a grand mal seizure, which changed my outlook. What if I had another one, this time without my husband around?

If I’m thrashing in my sleep from a PTSD nightmare, Charlie nudges me awake.

Last November, America’s VetDogs paired me with Charlie, now a 2-year-old black Lab, and I don’t leave the house without him. I have some deafness in one ear, and Charlie alerts me when people are coming up behind us, so I’m not startled-a leftover reflex from war. If I lose my balance, he presses up against me to stabilize me. If I’m thrashing in my sleep from a PTSD nightmare, he’ll nudge me awake or pull off the covers and put his head on my lap to be petted until my heart rate comes down. If I were to have a big seizure, he knows to find help if I’m alone and then lie by my side until I come around.

Charlie and I travel the country photographing veterans. His presence in public is a protection in and of itself. If I slur my words or fall, strangers might assume I’m intoxicated, but with Charlie by my side, they know I need help. I used to feel like a burden to loved ones, but now, I feel the shackles have been taken off.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of Women’s Health magazine. For more great advice, pick up a copy on newsstands now!

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