Lotus is one of five 2022 AKC Awards for Canine Excellence recipients, winning the Service Dog category. This category recognizes task-trained service dogs that enrich the lives of owners with physical or mental disabilities. Including but not limited to guide dogs for the blind, seizure-alert dogs, hearing dogs, and balance dogs.
It was only seven years ago that Asia Duhamel was admittedly a “mess and contemplating suicide.” She was an active duty Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton, California.
Although she is cleared through the Veterans Administration now, any declaration of disability had to wait until after she left the military. On active duty, she attended intensive outpatient therapy, which included numerous group classes, physical therapy, and recreational activities but art, yoga, or salsa dancing didn’t interest her.
But when she saw two working service dogs at the Wounded Warrior Battalion nearby, it intrigued her.
“Watching them at work, I recognized that a dog might help turn my life around,” she says. “I saw the unspoken connection the owners had with their dogs and visualized how a dog might give me purpose again.”
After obtaining a letter from her physician recommending a service dog partner to mitigate her disabilities, she began exploring local options in Southern California while finishing her four-year hitch in the Marine Corps.
Duhamel could not leave her home in Oceanside, California without being afraid. “I always felt like everyone was watching me and hated me as much as I hated myself,” she says. ‘There were places in my own town that I would never go, even if it that meant taking the long way around. Simple things like going through a checkout line could put me in a panic. I would avoid going to an unfamiliar place without someone else, which really limited where and how often I would go out.
“I hated being alone because I was scared, but, at the same time, my PTSD was isolating me from everyone else.”
Duhamel chose a GSD because she has always loved the breed. “It is a loyal [breed] with the just right amount of affection and aloofness to others on or off-duty,” she says. “They are versatile in multiple forms of work, quick and eager to learn and their drive prompts a dedication to work, confidence, and mental stability.”
“There were pills, continued doctor visits, and therapy sessions six hours four days a week,” Duhamel says. “I was a wreck, but she helped turn my life around gradually. I was able to wean off the amount of treatment I required. Getting Lotus was the best decision I ever made.”
Lotus is a psychiatric/mobility (retired from mobility except for retrievals) service dog, meaning she disrupts anxious, repetitive behavior (picking, shaking, fidgeting), responds to increased breathing (panic attacks, night terrors by deep pressure), and does crowd control (creates space by circling, posting to watch behind Duhamel).
“If I continue to ignore her, she has been taught to be persistent and put her body on my lap, moving my hands out of my face and licking me on my back, if possible,” Duhamel says. “Then she lays on my body with her chin on my chest until I recover.”
But the 27-year-old’s story has another key ingredient – her now-husband, Jules Duhamel, a volunteer instructor whom she met at the organization from which she obtained Lotus. At the time he had a Boxer service dog to assist with his military-related disabilities. “He has been my support system and guide through every step of my service dog journey,” she says. “He helped me start owner training and let me take off from there on my own. He has supported every decision I have made in regard to building a solid bond with Lotus.”
Training Service Dogs
In the process, Dumahel started her training apprenticeship with Next Step Service Dogs in Escondido, California, after becoming Assistance Dogs International (ADI)-accredited through the organization. Since then, she take several training workshops and seminars, read training books, and worked in a specialty veterinary hospital during a NAVTA (National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America)-approved Veterinary Assistant Course.
She is now the lead trainer at a non-profit organization called Canine Support Teams in Murrieta, California, that trains service dogs.
Lotus accompanies Duhamel on most daily outings – VA appointments, restaurants, stores, recreational activities, and out-of-town trips. “The only times I consider leaving her at home is for her safety, if she will be more comfortable with my husband, or if I have a trusted person with me as a ‘service human.’”
Their partnership goes beyond service and Duhamel has gotten Lotus involved in a wide variety of AKC sports. They compete in Dock Diving, Barn Hunt, Trick Dog, Scent Work, and AKC Rally, and Lotus has earned her Canine Good Citizen (CGC) title.
The sports-work balance offers Lotus fun realistic goals along with physical and mental enrichment. “In the process, they enable her to just be a dog,” says Duhamel. “I want to have no doubt she has the best life a dog could have. She’s given me that and I would regret if I could not provide the same for her.”
But as Lotus ages, Duhamel is tapping the brakes with the sports and will probably retire her within a year.
This union of soulmates and storm of passion is packed with a few life lessons, too.
“Lotus has taught me that love comes in all shapes and sizes,” Duhamel says. “The human-dog bond can be an incredible healing source, but that’s only half the battle. A service animal is not just a dog; it is trained to someone’s specific medical needs. While it is not a cure, it is just as important as any medical aid/equipment suggested by a physician.
“She saved me from myself. She taught me that I’ve been the only one holding myself back from my full potential. She’s given me purpose in life and now my passion is sharing that with other veterans in need of a furry friend. She needed me as much as I needed her. So you might say, I owe my life to her.”
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