Service dog gets diploma for helping owner graduate
LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) — Much like other young yellow Labradors, Shawnee of Idalou craves time with her owner, loves playing fetch and cringes when anyone comes near her with nail clippers.
But unlike her furry, four-legged counterparts, Shawnee has a high school diploma.
As a service dog, Shawnee attended classes at Roosevelt High School for three years with her owner, Jessica Hayes, who has epilepsy. Though Shawnee wasn’t always attentive — Hayes said she was known to snore loudly while napping at Hayes’ feet — the dog became the honorary 58th member of the senior class, joining them on field trips and in group pictures.
Shawnee, 4, and Hayes, 19, donned caps and gowns June 4 and walked across the stage together to get their tassels turned and receive their diplomas. Shawnee’s came with a treat and a certificate for “outstanding service, loyalty and companionship” to Hayes.
Hayes said she knew Shawnee would join her on stage, but the diploma and tassel were a surprise orchestrated by staff members and Hayes’ best friend Alyssa Davis — one Shawnee tried to rush by shaking her head so hard the tassel turned itself before the appropriate time.
“She couldn’t wait,” Hayes joked to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.
Graduation wasn’t the first time Shawnee sported an outfit. The Hayeses have a cabinet full of dog-sized costumes at their house, including Shawnee’s red and black prom dress and the sheet she wore for a Halloween Pac-Man theme.
She’s become well known and loved at the school — part of the reason Hayes’ parents decided to keep her in the Roosevelt Independent School District even after the family moved to Idalou.
Hayes started getting seizures when she was a freshman in high school, and before Shawnee, she was having two a week at times.
Though not life-threatening, the seizures have caused a few black eyes and damage to Hayes’ shoulders, resulting in 30 dislocations and four surgeries.
Because they came on so unexpectedly, Hayes was no longer allowed to be home alone or do other simple things like take baths or go swimming.
“Just little things you enjoy. You really don’t know how much you enjoy that until it’s taken away from you,” Hayes said.
She and Shawnee were matched at Canine Partners for Life, a Pennsylvania-based service dog training facility, in 2011, and since then have been attached at the hip. Literally.
Hayes leads Shawnee by a leash connected to a belt around her waist where she also carries treats to reward the dog for good behavior. Shawnee can sense the seizures 10 to 15 minutes before they happen, and she sounds the alarm by jumping, glaring and disobeying commands, Hayes said. This gives her time to call her parents and find a place to sit or lie down to prepare for what’s coming.
Getting Shawnee meant Hayes was able to regain her independence. The family said good riddance to the night-time baby monitor in her room, and her younger brother, Josh, no longer had to act as her baby sitter.
As long as Hayes checks in with Shawnee every seven to eight minutes, she is able to participate in just about anything.
“I started doing things I couldn’t do that seizures took away from me,” she said.
Both Rejohn Hayes, father of Jessica Hayes, and Davis said they’ve noticed a big difference in Hayes since she got Shawnee — the most noticeable being a boost in a self-confidence and a sparkle in her eyes.
Hayes has been seizure-free for 10 months, and Rejohn Hayes attributes her daughter’s good health to medication and Shawnee’s presence.
“We’re not going to change anything,” she said.
Shawnee wears a harness asking people not to pet her while she’s working. It also has additional instructions: “If my owner has a seizure, do not separate us, do not call an ambulance unless the seizure lasts more than five minutes or injury has occurred.”
Having Shawnee around has helped Jessica Hayes raise awareness that service dogs can act as more than just guide dogs for the blind — a common misconception she faces while out in public.
She has a good sense of humor, however. Often when someone stares at her, whispering, “Look at that dog with the blind girl,” to a friend, Hayes leans down toward Shawnee and says, “My dog thinks your red shirt is cute.”
The attention makes Davis madder than it does Hayes, but the two have learned to make the best of the situation — even going as far as to “play blind” to avoid a salesman.
Shawnee is truly “man’s best friend,” Hayes said, and in the Hayes family, she’s more like a third child.
“She’s the smart blonde between the two of us,” Hayes said, pointing at her brother.
They all know Hayes’ life would be a lot different without Shawnee.
Rejohn Hayes admitted she would have wanted her daughter to attend a local college while living at home. Instead, the pair will be off to Wayland Baptist University in the fall to study nursing, and Shawnee will stay with Hayes in the dorms.