The Journey of Jenna: From Stray to Life-Saving Service Dog

PetMD Editorial
Published: September 21, 2017
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September marks National Service Dog Month, and with it comes countless stories of heroism and love between these incredible canines and the people who rely on them. 

One of those very dogs is Jenna, a 6-year-old medical alert and mobility service dog who lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, with her person, Sarah Sheperd. 

Sheperd, who has been deaf in her left ear since childhood, was involved in a car accident in 2007 that left her with long-term physical issues. But on May 31, 2011, Sheperd's life would change in a whole new, positive way. 

She adopted a then 5-month-old Jenna, who was on a kill-list at a shelter. "She had been a stray when they brought her into the shelter," Sheperd told petMD. "She was sick, which is why she was put on the kill-list, because they couldn't afford to treat her." 

By pure happenstance, Sheperd was at the shelter that day and met Jenna for the first time. An hour later, she was the mama to one very lucky and amazing pup. "I paid $40 for a dog who has saved my life more times than I can count," she said. 

From then on, Sheperd trained Jenna to be her service dog. "I noticed from day one she was wicked smart and deeply driven...[we] bonded instantly," Sheperd recalled. 

After two years of training, "Jenna started attending Purdue University with me as a full-fledged service dog," Sheperd said. "She passed the Public Access Test that summer with flying colors. Having her with me during my second year at Purdue made all of the difference in the world." 

Since that day, Jenna has aided Sheperd in being a “normal” person, from Purdue and into the working world. She guides her through her health issues, such as migraines and other physical limitations. "She senses increases in blood pressure, will alert to unconscious increases in agitation, and hormonal changes that I don't always notice but usually lead up to my migraines," she described. 

Even though Sheperd’s issues are an "ongoing, constantly changing process," she said, Jenna is up to the task and has been able to "learn new things to accommodate new needs as time has gone on."

From waking Sheperd up in the morning to helping her get up and down the stairs, Jenna has made the world an easier and less stressful place for her owner.

"I trust Jenna explicitly to keep me safe physically, so I don't have to stress or worry," Sheperd said. "From an emotional and mental standpoint, I have my best friend with me all of the time. There is a sense of peace and security with that." 

Because of Jenna, Sheperd has made it her mission to educate people about service dogs and the important role they play for people just like her. Sheperd speaks at schools, and even gave a presentation at her own job about the life of a service dog and the different types of people they help. 

"The biggest thing I try to educate people on is about the idea of invisible disabilities," Sheperd says. "Other than the fact that I walk a little funny, most people don't know I am disabled and typically think I am training Jenna for someone else. In addition to the invisible disabilities, [I try] to make people understand that it takes more than for a dog to sit and lay down on command to be a service dog. This is a big misconception I would like to change." 

Jenna, who is now 6 years old and described by Sheperd as having "an old, serious soul," will get to retire from her duties in a couple of years. Sheperd plans to adopt another puppy later this year to begin the training process. "By the time the puppy is ready to go, Jenna will be 9 years old and ready for the couch potato life." 

But even when Jenna transitions to retirement, her efforts as Sheperd's service dog will never be forgotten. "Without Jenna, it would be very difficult for me to do the things that I do,” Sheperd said. “She literally pulls me forward most days and allows me to be independent."

Image courtesy of Sarah Sheperd

Read more: 6 Service Dog Etiquette Tips