A Helping Paw: Helper Dog Harlow

A Helping Paw: Helper Dog Harlow

by Taylor DuVall
Introduction by Leah Fishman

I enter her home through the phone. As we talk, I hear the soft sounds of mixing, pouring. I hear a man’s voice in the background, and that all-too familiar patter of puppy paws gliding like a shadow across the floor. It’s only 10am, but I can almost feel the heat seep through the phone and bite my cheek. It’s summertime in Florida, and she’s making pancakes.

“We found this great website,” she says laughing. “These pancakes are so fluffy. That’s all we’ve been eating lately.”

Somehow, we lose our place and wander aimlessly into a delicious breakfast daydream. There’s a moment of comfortable silence. I make a mental note to ask her for the recipe.

We’ve been chatting for two minutes, but I can’t help but feel a sense of familiarity that is refreshing. I suppose that I’m at an advantage; I know her boyfriend’s name, her favorite place, favorite color (Judd, Disney World, and pink). You see, for months I’ve been following her on Instagram. I watched her reunite with Judd after his deployment. I’ve followed her journey while training her service dog, Harlow.  She doesn’t know anything about me, but somehow she still embraces my poking, prodding, and questioning with ease.

Her story begins at a crossroads. But if anyone knows what it’s like to pave her own path while faced with constant adversity, it’s Jaquie. Jaquie Blake is a lifelong fighter.  At just 20 years old, Jaquie has experienced more that most. With support from her strong little family, she shared with us how she stubbornly built a life for herself centered around health, happiness, and of course, a helpful Golden Retriever named Harlow.

At first glance, the picture of a young couple cooking up morning pancakes with a puppy at their feet may seem ordinary. Mundane, even. But for Jaquie Blake and her service-puppy-in-training, Harlow, this pancake morning was anything but ordinary.

Jaquie’s story has been one of sheer determination and stubborn positivity. Where did that story start?

“Probably when I was born,” she says, “I guess that’s where everyone’s story starts.”

Before she could walk, Jaquie’s parents noticed that she began to experience muscular spasms. By age 12, her entire life began to change. First it was the narcolepsy. Then came the sudden seizures, epilepsy, and asthma. At the crucial time when young women are getting a taste of independence – adolescence accompanied with the beloved learner’s permit – Jaquie was starting to feel the bitter frustration of disability and dependence.

“When you’re a 15-year-old girl, you don’t want to say ‘Hey, mom, dad, when are you free so you can sit outside the door while I take a shower?’” Jaquie remembers. “The one time I tried to do anything by myself is when I tried to go across the street to Publix, and I passed out and ended up in the hospital, so it was just not a fun time. I wanted to be independent.”

Unwilling to accept anything less than a full life, Jaquie turned to her first service dog. Unfortunately, Jaquie was scammed by an illegitimate service dog program that claimed to provide fully-trained service dogs within a matter of weeks. No follow-ups, no waitlist. It was one of those “too good to be true” sort of schemes, and a young Jaquie found herself with an inexpensive, yet entirely untrained and aggressive German Shepherd, whom she had to give back to the program.

Jaquie’s glimpse at getting her life back on track may have been momentarily crushed, but her determination was not. Instead of giving up on the idea of a service dog altogether, Jaquie got creative and decided to take matters into her own hands. Maybe a trained service dog wasn’t for her. But could she train her own dog? You bet.

Enter Harlow, the sweetest service puppy around. Harlow the Golden Retriever puppy came from EagleRidge Golden Retrievers. From the moment Jaquie brought Harlow home, she was determined to do all of the pup’s service training herself. Starting with puppy classes for basic socialization, Harlow was then given age-appropriate lessons in incremental steps to learn how to be the best partner for Jaquie.

A Helping Paw: Helper Dog Harlow

Today, Harlow is one year old, and her training is far from complete.

“In the morning, I wake up and take her out, feed her, and then we run through all of her drills. So those healing drills that you see me put on Instagram a lot – our task work, retrieving, place – we run through those each morning. And then just throughout the day we practice. Every time we go out, it’s a training exercise at this age. It’s pretty much a constant thing.”

Harlow is currently working on her public access skills, paying attention to Jaquie in the midst of distracting public places. She is also working on specific tasks. Harlow can get water from the fridge when Jaquie is not able to get off the couch due to dizziness. Jaquie’s pills alarm will go off, Harlow will come over, and Jaquie can tell her, “Good girl, go get me water.” In time, these tasks will expand in complexity.

A Helping Paw: Helper Dog Harlow

Jaquie is also incredibly cautious of respecting Harlow’s mental and physical development along the way. She knows a lot of other people will, as she puts it, “push their service dogs into training until they burn out.” Jaquie is careful to give Harlow plenty of time to play and relax at home. As Harlow takes care of Jaquie, Jaquie returns that love and care.

A Helping Paw: Helper Dog Harlow

The feat of training her own service dog is completely rewarding for Jaquie, and also entirely exhausting. When you see Jaquie, it’s easy to completely miss the fact that she suffers from multiple debilitating illnesses. Harlow exemplifies the awareness of invisible illness in a special way, learning each day to see and be aware of what is really going on inside Jaquie’s body. And even at her young age, Harlow’s awareness grows each day.

“The other day, I was exhausted,” Jaquie says. “We had driven up from the Keys, and I wasn’t paying attention as much as I should, and two dogs walked by us, and I was really impressed … [Harlow] didn’t react to the dogs at all, and she was looking at them, but as soon as I asked for her attention she gave it to me and she didn’t pay any more attention to those dogs. And I was really impressed with her.”

A Helping Paw: Helper Dog Harlow

When speaking about Harlow’s success, Jaquie’s pride shines bright.

“I just feel so empowered when I see that,” she said.

While it could be easy to look at this story and crown Harlow as the hero-in-training (and she totally is!), Jaquie is the real hero of her own story. Jaquie is rocking it, and she’s doing so right alongside her young Golden, as well as her boyfriend of 5 years. Judd met Jaquie two months before she got sick, and Jaquie credits Judd as her main support system.

She jokingly laughs, “He hasn’t left yet!”

Her new Instagram family has been an unexpected support system as well.

“I definitely didn’t expect any of [our success]. And I am so humbled and grateful for it beyond what words can describe.”

With nearly 70,000 followers, Harlow and Jaquie are used to sharing their faces with the world. More importantly, though, they are sharing lessons about service dogs and awareness of invisible illness.

A Helping Paw: Helper Dog Harlow

When speaking about Harlow’s success, Jaquie’s pride shines bright.

“I just feel so empowered when I see that,” she said.

While it could be easy to look at this story and crown Harlow as the hero-in-training (and she totally is!), Jaquie is the real hero of her own story. Jaquie is rocking it, and she’s doing so right alongside her young Golden, as well as her boyfriend of 5 years. Judd met Jaquie two months before she got sick, and Jaquie credits Judd as her main support system.

She jokingly laughs, “He hasn’t left yet!”

Her new Instagram family has been an unexpected support system as well.

“I definitely didn’t expect any of [our success]. And I am so humbled and grateful for it beyond what words can describe.”

With nearly 70,000 followers, Harlow and Jaquie are used to sharing their faces with the world. More importantly, though, they are sharing lessons about service dogs and awareness of invisible illness.

A Helping Paw: Helper Dog Harlow

Credit for all photos: Ferenc Beleznay