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My Guardian Greyhound

Handlers brought out one greyhound after another. Some were stately. Some were bouncy. And then came Mike.

Becca Hart and her greyhound, Mike

Evening gowns crowded the rack in the dressing room. I took my sequined formal off its hanger. It was almost time to hit the stage for rehearsal. In a few days I would compete in front of an audience and a panel of judges for the title of Miss North Carolina USA 2015.

My dog, Mike, a lanky, brindle-colored greyhound, pressed against my leg. He’d be wearing his own costume on stage: a sign that said Service Dog. Mike had already helped me title in the Miss High Point Teen USA 2014 pageant. Without him, none of this would ever have been possible.

Up until five years ago, I was a normal, healthy girl. But at the age of 12 something went wrong with my heart. It beat too fast–over 200 beats a minute, the school nurse said.

My parents rushed me to the hospital, where I had emergency surgery to repair damage to tissue in my heart that was interfering with the signals telling it when to beat.

Things were never the same. I got sick all the time–colds, the flu, stuff like that–so my mom homeschooled me. Then I got achy. Every joint in my body hurt. Getting a hug from my mom or dad was plain painful.

Doctors did lots of tests to figure out what was going on, but it was years before I had a name for my problem: lupus. The disease caused my immune system to attack my body. Everything was affected: internal organs, joints, my skin–even my mind.

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I developed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD. Odd things gave me overwhelming anxiety. Like the feel of paper on my skin. Or being touched on my right shoulder. A change in temperature. Every day was full of obstacles.

Mike thumped his tail in approval as I slipped the gown over my head and checked my reflection. The dress was beautiful–but glamour wasn’t a priority. My real reason for competing for Miss North Carolina USA was the greyhound lying at my feet.

I remembered the day the two of us first met. I was 15. The doctor who was counseling me about my OCD explained how there were several ways a service dog could help. To give comfort when I was anxious, or lend balance when I was dizzy.

“You’re talking about Labradors, right?” I said.

“Not always. In fact, greyhounds can be very good.”

“Greyhounds?” said my mom. “Aren’t those the dogs that chase little rabbits around tracks? We’ve got small dogs at home already. I don’t want them to get chased or hurt.”

“Actually, greyhounds like nothing better than to lie around,” the doctor said. “They don’t need as much exercise as some other breeds. That would be good if Becca winds up back in the hospital.” Which was always a possibility.

My parents went on a quest to find just the right dog for me. It took a while, but I finally found myself visiting a greyhound-rescue group. Handlers brought out one greyhound after another. Some were stately. Some were bouncy.

And then came Mike.

He greeted me like a gentleman as his handler told his story. “Mike used to be a racer,” he said. “He’s been adopted twice since retirement because of changing circumstances for the families. They all loved him. I think he’s got what it takes.”

I reached out to stroke Mike’s brindle fur. “Maybe you were just meant to be with me,” I said. Looking at the two of us in the mirror in the dressing room now I knew I’d been right that day.

Mike needed to go through extensive training to become a service dog. The trainer estimated it would take about a year. Mike graduated in three months.

One day early on, Mike and I were sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s with my mom. I was there to have a checkup echocardiogram on my heart. For no reason that I could see, Mike started pacing, like he was upset about something.

“What’s the matter, boy?” I said. We were still getting to know each other.

Mike put his paws on my knees, pressed his nose to my chest and whimpered. “What’s the matter with him?” Mom asked.

My chest suddenly felt a familiar, terrible tightness just where Mike was touching me. “Mom, it’s my heart,” I said.

Mom ran for the doctor. Tests confirmed what Mike had already warned me about. He knew before I did! My heartbeat was irregular, and I was treated immediately.

From then on I trusted Mike to alert me when my heart had a problem. He also knew when I was in pain, pressing his face to the spot that hurt. When I got anxious he snuggled against me to distract me, calm me. He was more than a service dog. He was my guardian angel.

“Ready to go on stage, boy?” I asked, turning from the mirror. Mike jumped to his feet. “All eyes are going to be on us.”

When I first got Mike I couldn’t stand the attention. I hated the stares and questions. I wanted to blend into the crowd, but that was impossible with a big greyhound at my side.

“You don’t look sick,” people would say about my having a service dog. “You don’t have a cane or a wheelchair. Are you blind? Deaf?”

“Becca, you can be angry about it or you can turn it into something good,” my mom said when I confessed my embarrassment over these encounters. Something good? I couldn’t imagine what.

A few weeks later, I was watching a beauty pageant on TV. Mike lay at my feet. One of the contestants talked about wanting to raise awareness for diabetes.

“If I competed in a contest like that I could tell everyone about service dogs and how important they are,” I said to Mike. “There might be other kids like me out there who need one and don’t know how to get one!”

I’d never competed in a beauty pageant in my life. Soon I was the first girl to compete in one with a service dog! I titled as Miss High Point in 2013.

A fall that year kept me from going on to compete in the Miss North Carolina Teen USA 2014 pageant, but by now I was used to little setbacks. Here I was, the very next year, about to take the stage to compete in Miss North Carolina USA 2015.

I checked myself in the mirror one more time: hair, dress, makeup, service dog. What else did I need to face the world? Mike and I left the dressing room and headed for the stage. On the night of the pageant, the theater would be full and we would stand in the spotlight together.

Maybe there was another girl like me out there watching who needed her own guardian angel dog. Mike and I were going to do our best to make sure she got one.

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