This week, Aug. 6 – 12, is recognized as International Assistance Dog Week—acknowledging all the hardworking paws that help men and women live beyond their disability related limitations. These animals are particularly important to Veterans who suffer from service-related injuries and who now rely on service dogs to help them navigate tasks both big and small in their daily lives.
Christina Collins served as a U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman attached to the Fleet Marine Force. While in Alaska on a joint operation, Collins suffered a concussion and traumatic brain injury (TBI). The damage to her brain caused epileptic seizures, leading to the eventual loss of her sight. In 2012, Collins was diagnosed as legally blind.
“It’s hard to explain what I can still see, but it’s something like looking through several layers of wax paper or frosted glass,” said Collins. “I know something is there, and I can see if something is moving, but I can’t tell what I’m looking at.”
These last three years, Collins has had a new partner in her journey—Justice, a female black lab. Through the Charleston VA Medical Center’s Visual Impairment Services Team, Collins attended the Leader Dogs for the Blind School in Rochester Hills, Michigan, one of the top guide programs in the world. It was there where Collins and Justice were paired together. The two spent one month in training, learning hand signals and commands; Collins also learned about proper care for the dog.
“Before going to the school, I had to learn how to use a cane. I had to be proficient.” said Collins. “Lee Stoughton. a former blind rehab outpatient specialist at the Charleston VA, had to film me crossing a four-lane highway by myself to send to the school. That’s how they could see my pace and timing so they knew what dog to pair me with. I also needed an assertive dog because I travel internationally. That’s how I got paired with Justice.”
After the month-long training, Collins and Justice had one final task to complete to graduate from the Leader Dogs school. They, along with the others in their class, where dropped off about a mile and a half from the school. Equipped with just her voice activated GPS and new service dog, she had to make her way back to the school.
“During our training, Justice was also taught to disobey for safety,” explained Collins. “For example, if I’m crossing the street and don’t hear a car because it’s one of those new quiet ones and I command her to cross the street, she’s taught to disobey that command to protect me. After a while the dog knows your habits. It’s a trust thing. I trust her with my life.”
Thanks to Justice, Collins can live alone, go to a grocery store within walking distance and, maybe most importantly to this duo, navigate airports. Since being paired together three years ago, Collins and Justice have traveled the world including more than 30 flights, a cruise and at least seven countries.
“We were able to go from the Charleston airport all the way to Morocco by ourselves,” Collins beamed proudly. “She gives me the confidence I need—the independence and freedom. These dogs become part of you. She’s always on my left arm. She’s always with me.”
To help educate others in the community on the importance of service dogs, Collins volunteers at local schools and Veteran Service Organizations. With Justice in tow, she shares her experience and emphasizes how important these working dogs are for those with physical limitations.
“I wanted to give something back because Justice has given me so much.”