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Thursday, 17 October 2013 15:16

Local woman teaching her own service dog, with plan to extend canine comfort to others

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Nancy Welch holds Cooper, her Bernese mountain dog puppy. Welch, who suffers from an anxiety disorder and occasional seizures, is training Cooper as her service dog. That training, which will require multiple trips to a dog training specialist in Missouri, could take up to two years. Nancy Welch holds Cooper, her Bernese mountain dog puppy. Welch, who suffers from an anxiety disorder and occasional seizures, is training Cooper as her service dog. That training, which will require multiple trips to a dog training specialist in Missouri, could take up to two years. Terry Mayer/staff

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- Nancy Welch was at her lowest point, and doctors had not come up with enough answers as to why she was suffering from non-epileptic seizures or how to proceed medically.

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But a chance encounter with a four-legged passerby while lying in a hospital bed changed Welch’s outlook, and eventually her life.

“I was in the hospital and feeling quite hopeless,” Welch recalled. “I always have been an animal lover, and I heard that a therapy dog was coming through. I thought, with a name like Trixie, that it would be a Chihuahua or something small like that. But I wanted to see this dog. She turned out to be a Bernese mountain dog … it was a happy moment for me.”

Welch sometimes suffers from extreme anxiety disorder.

“It’s difficult for me to be in certain social situations (agoraphobia), and that’s why this cause is so important to me,” Welch said.

That cause is called Paws for Unseen Disabilities, an organization she created to help herself, and with more time and donations, she wants to provide the financial resources so others in the same or similar circumstances can buy service/therapy dogs.

To that end, Welch purchased Cooper, a lovable Bernese who is 12 weeks old today (Oct. 20).

She and her new best friend will head to Independence, Mo., for their first training session Oct. 29 with Susan Bass of Canine Specialties Training. Welch said she anticipates making monthly trips south, at least at the beginning, during a process that could take 18 to 24 months.

“I wanted to take the most affordable way, and I’m lucky because my sister-in-law lives 20 minutes from the facility, but I want to have an active role in the training process, and Susan has come highly recommended and has an unbelievable background.”

Welch understands there are no guarantees. However, she is optimistic and has faith that Cooper is the answer for her, and that others in need could benefit.

“A lot depends on Cooper and on me,” she said. “We’ll be down there about a week, but there will be only about a day’s worth of training the first time because puppies don’t have the aptitude to work that long and learn a number of commands. So we’ll come home and work on them and then go back for more instruction.

“It’s best to start with a younger dog before they learn other habits that aren’t good for service dogs,” Welch added. “You have to stay focused. The dogs are working for you.”

Welch also has received help from a supportive family: husband, Mark; daughters, Emily, a senior at Butler University in Indiana, and Jessica, a junior at Elkhorn Area High School; and brother, Kevin Kimball.

The latter spearheaded a Sept. 21 fundraiser at First Baptist Church in Delavan that took in about $3,450 for his sister’s efforts, $1,800 of which went to buying Cooper.

That was a vital first step for a woman whose life appeared to be complete. But as with many such disorders, there was no rhyme or reason for its onset.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says that about 6 million American adults experience panic disorder in a given year, and they typically develop it in early adulthood. Women are twice as likely as men to suffer from panic disorder.

Welch began working with Walworth County in 1992, starting as a nursing assistant at Lakeland Hospital for a few years before transferring to the land use department as a receptionist. In 1997, she moved to the zoning office and remained there until August 2012.

“That was the turning point in my life … the stress of the job and perhaps my genetic makeup, but I had started showing outward signs of the stress getting to me that I could no longer ignore,” Welch said. “Such as psychogenic non-epileptic seizures (PNES). I thought I was having a stroke when the right side of my face began to droop and I started to twitch uncontrollably. I had seizures after any stressful events.”

She underwent a battery of tests. Various medications have helped but not eliminated the problem.

“All of the doctors said they didn’t have much more they could do medically, and I asked them, ‘So, this is as good as it’s gonna get?’” Welch said. “And they said, ‘Yes, we believe it is.’ So as of June this year, I had to ask myself, ‘Where am I at?’ But I’m not a quitter.”

It still was painful coming to grips with what had become of her life.

“I had been a zoning officer, helped raise two daughters and earned summa cum laude in communications and business administration from Ottawa University,” she said. “So, I had gone from a highly functioning person to a hardly functioning one, somebody who was a multitasker to having to do one thing at a time.

“But one day I decided I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in this house, afraid to leave,” she said. “I’m a fighter, and I remembered that day I saw Trixie. I figured it was a way to help myself and help others.”

Kimball organized the Paws fundraiser to get the ball rolling, while Welch and Emily worked on an application to get tax-exempt status from the federal government to carry on the mission.

In the meantime, Welch bought Cooper from Copeland’s Berners in Libertyville, Ill.

“These are working dogs, and Cooper probably will get to be 120 pounds, but they are mellow and that creates a calming presence,” Welch said. “I looked at the breed, the size and the personalities. I don’t fall over all of the time, but I occasionally struggle with dizziness and picking things up, so Cooper can grab them and will be big enough that I can reach them.”

Welch already has seen benefits of having a puppy around.

“Having to potty train him, which I haven’t done with an animal for 11 years, has forced me to get up and get moving and we walk around the yard,” she said.

Welch is tackling basic obedience tasks with Cooper, but training is a big unknown until they start.

“Susan said it’s completely possible for a Bernese to become a service dog,” Welch said. “The training will be based on what I need, so I’m pretty much the guinea pig in this whole process. She will show us certain techniques and we’ll come back and work on them. I anticipate going down once a month ... depending on how Cooper masters the commands.

“It may be where Susan and her staff have to do some of the training themselves, but that also depends on how well Cooper and I do.”

Welch is hopeful that the time and energy will be well spent.

“I believe that once we have that first experience, it’s all downhill from there,” she said. “I’m a little nervous, but I’m more excited about what’s to come.

“I determined after meeting Trixie that this would be my work, and through this organization the hope is that it goes way beyond my scope of possibilities. That’s why I’m hoping that our tax-exempt status comes through so we can see where Paws can go, because all profits will go to helping others.”

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