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Dog Supports Owner With Chronic Illness

Service dogs are commonly trained to assist people who already have a disability or illness. The ability to detect illness, however, is much more rare.

“You can train a dog to take on the cues Justice has, but most dogs have to be trained,” said Fallin Turner, a 17-year old volunteer with Animal People, Inc.

Justice, a Great Dane, was rescued from a woman who had placed an ad on Craigslist. Fallin said the dog was found abandoned at four months. The ad explained that in exchange for dog food, the woman would relinquish the animal.

This gentle giant, still a puppy at one and a half years old, has the capability to detect distress and illnesses in humans and animals, according to Fallin.

Fallin has scleroderma and systemic juvenile idiopathic arthritis, both autoimmune diseases. She also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Symptoms of scleroderma include hardening of the skin, numbness in fingers or toes and emotional distress, according to the Mayo Clinic. Fallin said symptoms are typically only active in the body for eight years, but she has not yet experienced relief.

“At 13, her life shifted so much, and over almost five years now,” said Wendy Turner, vice president on the board of directors for Animal People Inc., and Fallin's mother. “I’ve watched my beautiful, strong child be strong in other ways that I wish she shouldn’t have ever known.”

If Fallin started to fall, all she had to do was call Justice's name, and he would act as a support. The canine would even help her by nudging spots, like her hip or shoulder, where she experienced pain.

“He nudged me whenever I got dizzy," Fallin said.  "He would take his nose and poke me.”

The year Fallin and her mother came on board with Animal People, Inc., they worked with service dogs every Saturday. A year later, Justice unexpectedly became part of the Turner's life.

“There was no way we could know that there would be a service dog in our future,” Wendy said. “It is fate or God’s plan. I can see very clearly where he steered her and me.”

Fallin currently volunteers with PetSmart adoption days every week, helping people find rescue dogs that are suitable for them, just as the Great Dane is for her. Justice always accompanies her.

“I tell people if I go to college, he is coming with me because he is my emotional support animal and anxiety attacks leave me pretty down,” she said.

Fallin intends to get Justice certified before she goes to college in the hopes that she will not miss any more schooling with him by her side.

Because of the American Disabilities Act (ADA), Wendy feels more at ease about her daughter deciding to move out for college one day.

“Luckily the ADA protects her in so many beautiful ways that she will never have to explain anything to anyone,” Wendy said. “Not many laws give people that much freedom without explanation, without fighting, without having to struggle.”

The act, passed in 1990, stops discrimination and allows for people with disabilities to have the same opportunities as their peers, according to the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. 

Fallin plans to attend Santa Fe Community College and transfer to the University of Florida later. The University Environmental Health and Safety page references the ADA and its allowance of those with disabilities to use service animals. 

Kenneth J. Osfield, EdD., is the policy director for the UF ADA Compliance Office. The compliance office makes it easier for students to have their service animals on campus without feeling pressured to answer questions, Osfield said.

Osfield said the university understands that students and faculty have needs that an animal can provide. The compliance office seeks to interpret and protect their rights.

“Her life’s been enough of a struggle,” Wendy said. "To know now that we’ve taken a part of that away -- that she can go anywhere and do anything everybody else can do pretty much -- because she has this big beautiful boy [Justice] by her is wonderful.”

Nakaela is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.