Northfield Center After a rough beginning in life, Asha, a blind, deaf Australian Shepherd has found her purpose in life as a therapy dog.
As with most Australian Shepherds, Asha is a working dog. She routinely visits patients and happily greets staff at Aultman Hospital in Canton.
Her owner, Tracy Bryant, who lives in Northfield Center, lived in Oregon when she and her husband, Trevor, adopted Asha from the local Humane Society. The Bryants already had a couple of dogs, and cats who she says Asha gets along well with, but she said life hasn't always been rosy for the 6-year-old girl.
"We adopted her at 5 months old and about two weeks after started having seizures and has never really been the same since," she said.
Asha is epileptic and takes medication for the condition. She also suffers from severe anxiety and Bryant said that was a huge challenge.
"She could never calm down," Bryant said. "In a 24-hour period she would sleep maybe 20 minutes at a time ... We got her in July and by October I was sleeping on the bathroom floor with her because she would wake up in the middle of the night, jump up, spin and bark and bark and if you didn't touch her it would just escalate."
Bryant said she and her husband did a lot of research on Asha's condition, but had a difficult time finding helpful information because dogs like Asha don't typically survive. Asha was bred as a double merle, which is the common term for dogs with two copies of the merle gene. In double merle, dogs' deafness and blindness is common as is loss of pigmentation. Bryant said epilepsy is also genetic.
"She is the product of bad breeding," Bryant said, adding Asha was almost killed by her breeder, who was in the midst of drowning her litter mates when his wife came home, saved Asha and took her to the shelter.
While searching for answers, Bryant said Asha's anxiety worsened to the point where the couple discussed returning Asha to the shelter. Bryant said she immediately knew she didn't want that, because special needs dogs are difficult to find homes for. She added she would not have been able to live with herself if they took her back.
After that, the Bryants took Asha to a vet who prescribed anxiety medication, but they felt it didn't quite work well enough so continued to search for answers. She said they tried everything for Asha including acupuncture, a Chinese medicine vet, who prescribed special food and herbs, and even an animal psychic. The Bryants finally found a behavioral vet, who after several different attempts found the right medication to control Asha's anxiety. Asha was around 8 months old.
"The one thing that was consistent her whole life was that she loved people," Bryant said. "So I would take her on three walks a day to try to tire her out. Then the rainy season came so I started to take her to a PetSmart by our house and I would walk her up and down the aisles. There was always somebody new to meet, new smells, so it was more mentally exhausting for her instead of just walking around our neighborhood."
She said the routine was one Asha loved and would be excited when they climbed in the car and get there. Bryant said store staff came to know here and would be excited to see her as well.
"She would walk into that store like she owned it," Bryant said. "If I hadn't gotten to see her experience that kind of joy and happiness, if her life had only been that manic craziness she had at home, I don't think she would have survived. At a certain point you have to determine what kind of quality of life is that but I saw that and thought there is hope she can have peace and happiness."
Bryant said training Asha was not as challenging as one might think.
"Everything we do is through touch, so it is very similar to training a normal dog you just have to figure out the right command," Bryant said. "The hard part is coming up with a touch command that is separate enough from another command."
She said instead of saying 'sit' she touches the top of her head, to tell Asha to lay down they touch her on her chin. She said they did have a trainer help them in the beginning when Asha was a puppy, but mostly it comes down to finding the right cues.
"She's so smart, she picks things up really quick," Bryant said. "The hardest thing was we couldn't tell her 'no.' she could see us to know we were unhappy, she couldn't hear you to hear you say no, and if you touched her, she was happy you were home."
She said they finally came by a way of telling her no one day when Asha was jumping on the counter to try to get something, and Trevor thumb jabbed her in the armpit. She said Asha pouted the rest of the day and so that became the cue for 'no.'
Becoming a therapy dog
Bryant said Asha was loved by the staff and volunteers at the Humane Society she was adopted from and it was a board member who was involved with therapy dogs at the time who suggested the Bryants make Asha a therapy dog. Bryant said she looked into it but the timing was never right then Asha became very ill and was in the intensive care unit where Bryant stayed on the floor with her because she couldn't be crated or left alone.
"I had a lot of time to think and I really thought what would I regret if she doesn't make it?" Bryant said. "One of the things that came right to my mind was I would be sorry that we never at least attempted the therapy dog thing. So I promised myself when she was all better I would actually do it."
A year and a half later when Asha got off all her medications and the Bryants moved to Northfield Center, she said they met a new behavioral vet who again told them Asha would make a great therapy dog.
Bryant said in February 2016 she and Asha completed the training and testing through Pet Partners. According to their website, Pet Partners is "the nation's largest and most prestigious nonprofit registering handlers of multiple species as volunteer teams providing animal-assisted interventions."
Bryant said they went through the program at Aultman Hospital, because at the time it was the closest available. The first time around Asha failed the test because she wouldn't lay down; however she tested a second time and passed with flying colors. Now Asha walks into Aultman Hospital like she owns it. Bryant said it usually takes them a half an hour to get from the car to the volunteer sign in area because so many people stop them to greet Asha along the way. Once they get checked in at the office, Bryant said Asha likes to visit certain areas of the hospital including the family waiting room, the chemotherapy waiting room and the neurology floor.
"She seems to have a really strong connection to people who aren't able to speak or move," Bryant said. "She will just go and sit and lean into them. It's the craziest thing to watch."
Bryant said her favorite visit so far was seeing a man who had suffered a stroke and couldn't move anything but his fingers, pet Asha's head while repeating "I love you," to the dog. She said Asha sat there for 15 minutes with him, not moving as she usually does much quicker to greet more people.
Bryant also volunteers at the Humane Society of Summit County in Twinsburg leading dog training classes for other volunteers. Trevor also volunteers at the shelter too. She credits Asha with their volunteerism.
"She is the reason we are involved in animal rescue, because once we found out how she came to be at the shelter that really started our focus on that kind of stuff," Bryant said. "She had a really great foster dad when she was at the shelter and that got us fostering because we knew she never would have survived in the shelter.
Bryant added "Asha has easily been the biggest challenge of my life, but easily the best thing I have ever done."
Briana Barker: 330-541-9432