Local teen hopes to increase awareness of service dogs
Becca Hart is young, smart, kind and pretty — all qualities that are easy to see. On the surface, she’s exactly what you would expect the reigning Miss High Point Teen USA to be.
What you don’t immediately see when you meet this amiable 17-year-old, though, are the bumps in the road that have shaped — and continue to shape — so much of her life:
• Heart surgery at age 12, and residual heart issues that continue to this day.
• Lupus, an unpredictable, often misdiagnosed and misunderstood autoimmune disease.
• Obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, an anxiety disorder that can be characterized by irrational fears and, in some cases, repetitive behaviors such as hand-washing to avoid contamination from germs. Becca, for example, takes a daily two-hour shower. She knows it’s irrational, but she can’t help it — that’s what OCD is.
“My OCD is so severe that just getting through a day can be nearly impossible,” she says.
Bridging the gap between what you see in Becca and what you don’t see is her constant companion, Mike, a 9-year-old brindled greyhound that acts as her service dog.
Mike can sense when Becca’s heart rhythm changes, when she’s experiencing — or about to experience — a panic attack, and when she’s in pain. If she needs assistance, he can provide it or go get someone who can.
“He really is an amazing dog,” Becca says, glancing over at Mike as he rests on his dog bed in a corner of the Hart living room.
Like many greyhounds you see around here, Mike is a rescue, retired from a career of racing in Florida. Truth be told, though, Becca’s family didn’t just rescue Mike.
He’s rescued them, too.
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Becca’s journey with Mike began a couple of years ago, when she was diagnosed with lupus and OCD, which is considered a byproduct of the lupus.
In addition to irregular heart rhythms she’s had since her surgery at age 12, and the joint pain and fatigue associated with her lupus, Becca struggles mightily with the symptoms of her OCD. Obsession with germs is only one facet of the disease for her; she also experiences irrational anxiety triggered by certain types of floor textures, extreme cold, and even the touch of paper.
“You don’t realize how much a day that you touch paper,” Becca says. “Even something as simple as going to get the mail is an issue. OCD is a very real thing — it’s the 10th most debilitating disease in the world. A lot of people discount it, but it’s definitely real.”
Becca’s OCD doctor, who owns greyhounds, suggested their calm, gentle demeanor might them a complementary companion that could help ease some of her anxiety.
“She suggested a greyhound for distraction techniques and to kind of be therapeutic for me,” Becca explains. “We got Mike, and he was learning everything we needed, but what we didn’t realize when we got him was that he can actually detect when my heart doesn’t beat correctly.”
At first, Becca’s cardiologist didn’t believe Mike could sense her irregular heart rhythm, but he’s seen it happen enough times now that he’s a believer, according to Becca’s mom, Tonya Hart.
Now, Mike is also learning to get help for Becca when she’s on the verge of a panic attack.
“When I feel panic coming on,” she explains, “I’ll say a certain word to him, and he will be trained to either go find my parents or push a button to call them, and then if they don’t answer, it will call 911.”
The Harts say Mike can also sense Becca’s pain and will touch the source of her pain — for example, her leg or her stomach — when he senses it.
Trained by Elite Canine of Winston-Salem, Mike is a certified service dog, which is unusual for greyhounds. He’s registered with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, and he wears a vest indicating he’s a service dog.
Still, there were skeptics.
“Some people didn’t believe he was a service dog, because I wasn’t in a wheelchair or wasn’t blind or didn’t have any kind of physical symptoms that they could see,” Becca says. “That’s why we started Harts 2 Paws.”
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Harts 2 Paws is a nonprofit foundation, established by Becca and her family, “to change the perception of what somebody’s service dog should look like, and to educate about the laws related to service dogs,” Becca says.
Tonya Hart says the foundation grew out of their frustration.
“Because (Becca’s) challenges are not as visible as someone that may be sight-impaired, she has encountered many situations in public that have led to her — and us — being very frustrated,” Tonya says.
“So we had two choices — get angry, and nothing would change, or we could educate the public on seeing people’s challenges and service animals from a different perspective.”
To that end, Becca has begun speaking at schools, churches, civic group meetings and other gatherings to talk about the Americans with Disabilities Act as it relates to service dogs, and the importance of the proper etiquette when encountering a service dog.
Becca’s also writing a children’s book about service dogs, and she has chosen Harts 2 Paws as her official platform when she competes in the Miss North Carolina Teen USA Pageant in High Point this fall.
Despite her anxiety issues, Becca says she’s not nervous about competing in the pageant.
“I’m more nervous about doing well to get my cause out there, because it’s something I have a real heart for,” she says. “So I guess I’m nervous only because I care so much about Harts 2 Paws.”
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For more information about the Harts 2 Paws nonprofit foundation, visit the website at www.harts2paws.org or on Facebook at Harts2Paws.
To book a speaking engagement for Becca Hart (and her service dog, Mike), call Tonya Hart at (336) 995-3138 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.