CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Almost four years ago, Taylor Dearman met Skittles, a medical alert service dog. A meeting, she says, that “changed her life.”
“At my last university, I started experiencing anxiety, severe depression and seizures,” shared Dearman. “It was so bad that I had to quit school and take a year off. I ended up moving to Georgia, and that is where I met Skittles.”
Since then, Skittles, a small black and white dog with large “bat-like” ears, has stayed by Dearman’s side through every single one of her classes at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. Dearman is also excited that Skittles will be by her side when she walks across the commencement stage on Saturday, Dec. 16, to receive her Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary EC-6 Reading Generalist.
Not only has Skittles attended Dearman’s classes on campus but she also accompanied her during her student teaching courses at Oak Park Elementary, a school in the Corpus Christi Independent School District. Initially, Dearman was worried she would have to leave Skittles at home while student teaching but her professor, Dr. Robin Johnson, Assistant Professor, School-University Partnership Coordinator and Program Director for Barrio Writers at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, encouraged to pursue this new teaching opportunity.
“I didn’t realize teaching was something I wanted to pursue until I met Skittles. Since I met her, everything just fell into place,” said Dearman.
As a medical alert service dog, Skittles recognizes when Dearman, or even the people around her, experience increased blood pressure, elevated cortisol levels, low blood sugar or emotional distress. Skittles also helps the children of Oak Park Elementary learn how to read as well as understand the responsibility of owning and interacting with a service dog.
“The students know that when she sits in her spot, they leave her alone – unless she comes up to them, which usually means she’s trying to comfort them or she knows they are not feeling well,” she explained. “For example, one of our student’s parents passed away last year and Skittles stayed by that student’s side for a whole week. She’s actually been a great behavioral tool in the classroom.”
With Dearman’s guidance, the children now know that service dogs are much more than a pet and they have a better understanding of those with disabilities.
“I get to teach my students that you don’t need to be in a wheelchair to have a service dog; it’s much more complicated than that,” she shared. “It was hard having Skittles at first because people would say to me, ‘Why do you have a service dog? You’re fine.’ It’s like they don’t understand.”
Over the four years Dearman has had Skittles, she says the reaction to service dogs has changed. She recalls times in the past when she had to convince restaurant owners to let Skittles accompany her for dinner – a scary situation for someone dealing with anxiety. She also meets many people who don’t realize that Skittles is more than a companion and “when she is wearing her service vest, she is there to work.” But Dearman says it all mostly due to peoples’ lack of experience with a service dog, and she often takes each of these interactions as an opportunity to help educate.
“When someone tries to talk to Skittles or whistles at her, the teacher in me comes out and I take a moment to explain how important of a job Skittles has,” said Dearman. “Now, most people I meet, on and off campus, are more open-minded in learning about her.”
Both Dearman and Skittles are looking forward to starting their new job as fifth-grade Reading Teachers for Kostoryz Elementary on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018.
“As an educator, I’m more willing to tell everyone that just because you can’t see a disability doesn’t mean it’s not there,” shared Dearman. “I think that’s where Skittles has helped me the most. I know I’m different but together as a team, we’ve come so far and have accomplished so many great things.”