It’s difficult for Steve Truesdale to explain the relationship he and Athena, a chocolate Lab mix, have had for 13 years. Trained as an assistance dog, she has picked up dropped items, helped him do chores and provided self-confidence.
Athena also has developed an uncanny ability to understand what Truesdale needs, from a cuddle to a walk, and has filled his life with her unconditional love and a few touches of mischief.
“I can’t even begin to tell you how having Athena has helped me,” says Truesdale, who was born with cerebral palsy and uses an electric wheelchair. He lives in Buffalo. “I definitely identify her as family. My home feels full with her, where it felt empty without her.”
But at age 13, Athena no longer has the stamina an assistance dog needs to spend eight or nine hours at a time on the job. So Truesdale has loosened the leash a bit for his now-senior companion.
“She is happy to get up and put the work clothes on and go to work, but after an hour or so she reverts to play mode,” he says. “If we come to a good lawn, she wants to roll on it. I let her break a bunch of rules, but if she’s in her work clothes I can’t have her be out in public and break the rules. It’s not fair to the other people who travel with professional dogs. Sometimes I feel a little guilty about that, but the feeling passes.”
So Athena is semi-retiring. That means she will have the choice of whether to accompany Truesdale when he goes out, and he will reduce her longer days.
“None of the people in my neighborhood would allow me to get away without bringing her out,” he says with a chuckle. “They pretty much put up with me because I come attached to the other end of her leash!”
Truesdale grew up with a family dog – “one of my chores was feeding the dog,” he says. He decided to get a puppy in the summer of 1999 after two years of unemployment, when he realized that his life “consisted mainly of rejected resumes, hot coffee and memorizing syndicated episodes of ‘Law & Order.’ ”
Because he was not able to easily navigate people’s stairs, Truesdale was happy to find a man in Rochester who was able to deliver puppies to buyers. In July, the man brought Athena, a chocolate Labrador retriever pup he said was mixed with golden retriever, to Truesdale’s home. Because the puppy looked far too young to be away from her mother, Truesdale asked the man to take the puppy back for three more weeks. “I was kind of petrified to have such a tiny puppy when I was in an electric wheelchair. I told him I would pay his gas for the trip. I gave him a check and put a collar on her. He called me 10 days later and said, ‘I’m coming to Buffalo and I’m either going to bring you your puppy or rip up your check.’ ”
Truesdale agreed to take Athena, and asked the seller for photos of her parents and documentation of her birth date. “After he dropped off the dog, he said, ‘I’ve got the things you want out in my car,’ but he got into his car and drove away. This guy was a great guy, he brought the dog to my house from Rochester twice, but I don’t know what the problem was.”
Three weeks after she arrived, Truesdale brought Athena to the vet, who estimated that she was just 8 or 9 weeks old. (Puppies generally stay with their mothers until they are 10 or 12 weeks old.)
“I think he wanted to get the dogs out of his care before they needed their first shots,” says Truesdale. “Maybe he thought he was taking advantage of me with the price, but as I have often said to people, if I had known what a good dog he was dropping off, I would have paid probably twice or three times what he was asking.”
Being together from so early in Athena’s life, Truesdale says, helped them bond. And between housetraining and exercising the active young pup, Truesdale was forced to get out and be more active. Life improved as he began to “wake up every morning with a dog nose in my mouth, belly laugh at least 20 times a day and breathe a little easier.”
When Athena was 4 months old, Truesdale returned to work, and was faced with the challenge of dealing with an active puppy who had been confined to one room all day. He eventually decided to have Athena trained as an assistance dog. She spent three months at a facility in Niagara County, where he was also taught for a few weeks.
In the years since then, Athena and Truesdale have seldom been parted. She functions as a “mobility tool,” like a wheelchair or crutches. They have traveled to eight cities on planes and trains, and visited parts of Canada and Puerto Rico. Besides alerting a traveling companion that Truesdale was stuck in a restroom at a train station, Athena also has helped him show others how to interact with people who have service animals. “The dog is supposed to blend into the woodwork – that’s the dog’s job,” he says.
Having Athena by his side gives Truesdale a sense of competence and confidence, he says. For example, “If I were in a mall and dropped my credit card, I would have to rely on a stranger to pick that up. Most people, especially here in Buffalo, are very nice and would be delighted to do it, but it makes me more independent to have the dog with me, in a psychological sense and a physical sense.”
Athena has often picked up dropped eyeglasses, saving them from being smashed, he says. But one incident stands out in his mind.
“When I worked at UB, I had taken my wallet out and it got knocked onto the floor. My wheelchair was parked on top of it, and when I realized it was gone, I was patting my pockets and desk and getting more and more worried. When Athena noticed I was getting upset, she got up, looked around, saw it under my wheelchair, picked it up and brought it to me. She knew that I was upset and figured out why.”
Their close bond and ability to understand what each other needs intrigues Truesdale. “I would love to have a good solid knowledge of what goes on inside her head,” he says. “Dogs seem, in some way, to be able to read the minds of humans. She shows every day that she can communicate with me in a completely nonverbal way.”
Athena reads his moods, he says, and “knows instantly when I’m in a bad way, either physically or mentally, and seeks me out to let me know she’s there.” As a result of his closeness with Athena, he says, “I’m twice as mellow as I have any right to be at my age.”
Truesdale says he is grateful for people in restaurants, airports and public buildings who have accepted Athena’s presence without comment.
“As people in public have often heard me say, I also firmly believe that Athena is a blessing given directly to me by God,” Truesdale says. “And as many of you have noted to me when you see us out in public, her love for me and mine for her shines out of both our faces.”