Walking through Disneyworld with her husband, James, by her side, Dawn Taylor was feeling the magic thanks not to a talking mouse, but to a Pug. Eight-year-old Pia Pia is the reason the couple can enjoy a theme park, or even trip to Target. Before this shelter dog turned service animal entered their lives, James — who served in Iraq — was retreating from public life, and from Dawn.
The couple’s previous trip to Disneyworld seven years ago ended abruptly, with Dawn running after James as he fled the Great Movie Ride.
“It took a few minutes for me to catch up with him, and I asked him what was wrong. He said, ‘I can’t do it anymore with the crowds.’ He couldn’t hear anyone. He kind of flipped out, ” she recalls.
Dawn knew James had struggled with his hearing loss ever since an improvised explosive device blasted him into a wall in Iraq, but she says the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) snuck up on them both. It didn’t become obvious until the flurry of activity surrounding his retirement and the couple’s move to Vero Beach, Florida, ended.
“We never stopped to realize the effects of anything until we actually got settled,” Dawn explains. “He just stopped going out. In reality, he was homebound.”
Dawn felt like her family was falling apart, but a nearly blind Pug was about to bring James back to her. Two months after the incident at Disneyworld (during what was a rare outing for James), the couple agreed to help deliver donated dog food to H.A.L.O. Rescue No-Kill Shelter in Sebastian, Florida.
When the kibble was unloaded, James and Dawn peeked around a corner and saw Pia Pia, then known as Princess. The 6-month-old Pug had been surrendered a day earlier by her breeders, who were losing their home. The last of her litter, Pia Pia’s eyes were damaged during her human assisted birth.
“They were trying to sell her, but they’d never fixed her eyes,” Dawn explains. “They weren’t able to shut and she was actually going blind.”
After hearing her story from shelter staff, Dawn and James both wanted to adopt Pia Pia, but were told they couldn’t take custody for two weeks as a home visit was required and Pia Pia still needed to get spayed. The couple used that time to make an appointment with a dog ophthalmologist in Miami. Shortly after her adoption, Pia Pia saw that doctor, who suggested it was possible to save her eyesight with surgery — but she would need to grow a bit first.
In the meantime, Dawn and James enrolled Pia Pia in obedience classes. The course got James out of the house, and Pia Pia proved to be an excellent student, even with her limited vision.
When she was 10 months old, Pia Pia finally had surgery to straighten her eyes and allow her to blink. When the doctor unwrapped her bandages two weeks later, she looked up at Dawn and James and tilted her head in typical Pug fashion.
“You could just tell she was seeing things — seeing us — for the first time,” Dawn recalls.
With her eyesight saved, Pia Pia would become James’ second set of ears, running to him and alerting him if Dawn called his name. Pia Pia’s obedience trainer noticed her potential and introduced the family to Dogs For Life, a non-profit dedicated to training assistance and service dogs for veterans.
Pia Pia finished advanced obedience before spending more than a year in service dog training. She learned to alert James to the doorbell and the fire alarm, and was trained to use a special 911 phone for service dogs. When James fell in the shower while Dawn was out, Pia Pia successfully called first responders, who she then led to an upstairs bathroom.
Dawn believes Pia Pia’s impact on the family’s life outside the home is even more impressive. She says the Pug provides emotional support to James in public spaces and alerts him with a bark when he’s getting overwhelmed, giving him a chance to to take a breather.
“She turned our lives around to the point that we can spend the whole day out and he’ll be fine,” says Dawn, who wrote a children’s book about James and Pia Pia’s mutual rescue. “She has just done wonders for our family.”