The thing that saved Taylor Fleming from herself is covered in fur, walks on four legs and goes by the name of Ryder.
Fleming, a University of North Georgia student, went through a rough period in her life from which she didn’t think she could emerge.
“I wasn’t sure why I was here or what my purpose was. I questioned God on a lot of things,” the 19-year-old said.
Her therapist recommended training her puppy Ryder to help her handle anxiety attacks.
“I’m so glad I did...” she said. “Ryder gives me emotional stability, protection and love. He is my best friend, one that I know always has my back.”
Now when she feels an anxiety attack coming on, Ryder is by her side.
“He can always tell, like he senses my personality. When I cry he loves to lick the tears off my face and he whimpers like he’s crying, too,” she said. “It always make me laugh. ... Even in class, (he) will give me a hug and give me kisses on the face.”
So, the Suwanee teen enlisted the help of Pawsitive Practice, an organization based out of Kennesaw that offered in-house training. He learned the basics, like sitting and speaking, and he knows how to pick up his leash and give it to Fleming. Ryder is mostly on voice commands, but still has his puppy play time, since he’s only a year old.
“He knows when he’s on duty and working and when he’s not,” Fleming said.
He got a certification, jacket and card after three months of training in May of 2016. Fleming now carries the cards — one for her and one for Ryder — with her wherever she goes.
Service animals trained to help someone with a disability are not required to have certification, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The teen described an incident at a restaurant in Athens when she forgot the cards and they kicked her out. She also said people sometimes tease her and ask if she just bought the jacket online so she could bring her dog everywhere.
“Some people are rude about it … I don’t look like I have a special need or anxiety or whatever you want to call it, and that really upsets me,” Fleming said.
A service dog is not required to wear a special jacket, and business owners can only ask two questions in determining whether an animal is allowed: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
Service animals are allowed most everywhere, including restaurants.
Fleming said she wants people to know that just because she doesn’t outwardly look like she needs emotional assistance, that’s not the case. Most days she goes without incident, and taking Ryder with her to school at UNG has been one of the more pleasant experiences she’s had.
“I’ve never felt so welcome with him,” she said.
Fleming has noticed two or three other people with dogs at her school, including one guy she says was in the Army and has a Labrador retriever with a camouflage jacket.
Sylvia Carson, communications director for UNG, said they don’t keep track of how many students have dogs.
“We do not track that sort of information, primarily because it is connected with student’s private health information,” she said. “However, generically, I would imagine anywhere from 8 to 15 students across all five campuses make use of them.”
Carson said the students don’t have restrictions on where their animals can go. Students are also not required to register or check in with the school.
“Using a service animal is a civil right. Anyone can bring a service animal to campus without alerting the university,” Carson said.
Most days Fleming packs Ryder up in her Kia Sorento and heads to school. Fleming said Ryder’s hair is everywhere, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. He loves sticking his head out of the window and he’s figured out how to roll the window down himself.
“When it rains I have to lock (the windows),” she said.
Little quirks like these makes Ryder the best dog ever, Fleming said. Since he’s a golden retriever, he loves fetching sticks out of the water, even when it’s 20 degrees outside.
“I have to remember to shut the gate or he’ll immediately go down to the water,” Fleming said.
But that’s not even his favorite.
“He loves giving hugs. He loves people and loves other dogs so much. He’s pretty much a puppy in a big body,” Fleming said.
But Fleming doesn’t want to keep all over Ryder’s love for herself. She’s training him to be a therapy dog for others as well.
“I know his love and care for me is so powerful and meaningful, I want others to experience what I do on an everyday basis, especially someone sick or in pain. I mean who doesn’t love dogs?”