By Michael Yu, Oct. 5, 2021

Dogs are known to be man’s best friend, but to Cal Poly Pomona history major Kaley Daniels they are much more. Ever since she was diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, CRPS, Daniels and her service dog Sonny have relied on each other to stay safe.

Sonny is a 1 1/2-year-old Belgian Malinois mix trained to help make Daniels’ disability more manageable for her. He is trained in defined tasks such as medical alerts, medical response and light mobility.

“Sonny was trained to detect when my heart rate or blood pressure changes really sharply through scent and give me a heads up before it happens so I can either take my medication or sit down. He will stand up and put his chin on my knee if my heart rate is really high or low,” shared Daniels. “If it is really fluctuating, he will stand up and put his paws on my lap, putting pressure on my body to help get my heart rate more stable.”

Daniels shared she was involved in a car crash in 2018 which caused severe whiplash to her neck. This injury did not heal correctly and ultimately led to her contracting CRPS, an invisible and painful disorder of the nervous system.  Due to the injury being localized to the neck, Daniels can feel its effects throughout her body.

One of Daniels biggest struggles while managing her disability is how other people view Sonny and service dogs in general. She shared that service dogs aren’t simply pets to be admired, but rather medical equipment to help people with disabilities.

“There are times where some people won’t let me into a store because of a no-dog policy and don’t understand that service dogs are exempt from that under federal law,” said Daniels.  

Daniels has laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act to help her. This act says that any task-trained service dogs are allowed wherever their handler is, and people who don’t respect this law are liable to be sued.

When Daniels was new to the CPP campus, she received guidance from the campus Disability Resource Center with Autism Specialist and Support Care Coordinator Christian Abson.

“We looked specifically at laws and questions people can and cannot ask you in regard to your service animal,” said Abson. “She learned more about her rights on campus, and we worked together to help her develop .”

Daniels shared that buying an already fully-trained service dog would have been too expensive, so she decided to train one herself. However, she added the process to train Sonny was not an easy one.

“It is a hard process to train a service dog. It feels like a full-time job or like having a child. You are training him every second of the day, not just on how to sit or stay, but also shaping his behavior and mindset,” shared Daniels. “I will give him a treat if he just looks at me because it is important that he knows to keep his attention on me, to make sure I’m okay.”

Sonny is trained to help make Daniels’ disability more manageable for her. (Courtesy of Kaley Daniels)

According to professional dog trainer Deborah Norman training dogs can be a very challenging yet gratifying process. Norman shared her experiences with training dogs at It’s A Dogs World K-9 Academy, based in Chino, California.

“It can be difficult to tailor to every person’s needs and to make the dog accept the training, but the end result of being to help people with disabilities live a better life makes it worth it,” said Norman.

When looking to the future, Daniels has plans for both her and Sonny past college. Daniels shared she plans to start teaching history at a high school after college while also continuing to train Sonny, and eventually trying out dog sports like agility training and dock diving with him.

“Having this disability is like walking around with every bone in my body fractured, and it’s really hard to do things sometimes. I wouldn’t be able to get through college without Sonny at my side,” said Daniels.

To learn more about service animals and their roles on campus, visit the Access and Disability Alliance website.

Featured image courtesy of Kaley Daniels. 

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