Local school psychologist's service dog helps her children, students and herself
By Sue Wambolt, Contributing Writer
Northborough/Southborough – In January, Annmarie Choque, school psychologist at Algonquin Regional High School (ARHS), became the owner of Brandy, a hearing service dog. Born with severe to profound sensorineural hearing loss, Choque began wearing hearing aids at age 3.
However, it was not until she and her husband separated, leaving her with two small children to care for, that she realized she needed help.
“The major problem I needed to solve was how to be alert and responsive to my kids 24/7 without having to wear hearing aids 24/7, because that was just too much,” she said. “Hearing aids are great but they are not a perfect fix and can be exhausting after a while. So that is when I made the decision and started the process with NEADS.”
NEADS/Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans, located in Princeton, is a nonprofit organization that offers a wide spectrum of assistance dog services for those who are deaf or hearing impaired, combat veterans, the physically disabled, classrooms, therapy and ministry, and children with a disability or on the autism spectrum. They have placed over 1,500 service dogs, giving their handlers freedom, physical autonomy, and relief from social isolation.
Choque submitted an application for a hearing dog in July of 2012 and was paired with Brandy, a one-and-a-half year-old yellow Labrador retriever who originally came from the breeding program at Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Pennsylvania. NEADS purchased her from them and placed her in the Prison Pup Partnership, pairing Brandy with an inmate for training during the week and with volunteers on weekends.
Today, Brandy can be found by Choque's side morning, noon and night. She has become a daily fixture at ARHS where students and faculty have accepted her as one of their own.
“I was prepared for some students and parents to be uncomfortable having a dog around, but that has not been the case at all. If anything, I think she puts most people at ease,” Choque said. “I think many students find me easier to relate to and connect with, as if being a person with a dog makes me more human or more like a regular person somehow. More students smile at me and make friendly conversation that would not normally think to stop and chat with a psychologist at school.”
Having a service dog, said Choque, has allowed her an opportunity to start the conversation (about disability) and explore those issues in a relaxed way.
“There is an important realization that I take away from this experience, and which I try to pass along to students with disabilities and their families,” Choque offered. “Disabilities don’t go away. The impact of your disability in your daily life changes over time, as your circumstances and life demands change. And you have to be prepared to adapt and change the way that you cope with that disability in order to keep your life in balance and keep moving forward. My work is all about helping adolescents and their families along that same path of navigating life with a disability.”
At home, Brandy has become good friends with Choque's children, Lilianna, 6, and Vinny, 3. Her presence means freedom, independence, and peace of mind for Choque – allowing her time each day to unplug from all that noise and have quiet time to herself to recharge. This, said Choque, makes her a kinder, gentler, more patient mother.
“When Brandy is not “working,” she is truly a lovely family dog,” Choque added. “She is patient and gentle with all children, not just my own. She is friendly and playful without overpowering people with unbridled doggy excitement. And I cannot deny the mental health benefits that we all enjoy from having her around.”
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