A Helping Paw

BV West's social worker, Katie Harris and her service dog, Moxie, share their adventure together

Natalie Lindmark and Rae Zimmerli

Katie Harris, the school social worker, already has one crucial job. A school social worker helps students with any sort of struggle that may occur in or out of school. Harris prides  herself on loving her job and the students of BV West, but it is certainly a special case in the way she can connect with the students.

Harris was diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos, a connective tissue disorder making it difficult and nearly impossible to have control of her joints thus creating issues with her organs, causing Harris to spend her time in a wheelchair. In the beginning of her diagnosis, Harris had decided to get a goldendoodle puppy, Moxie, not realizing the impact Moxie would have on her life. With all of Harris’ family living in St Louis, Moxie seemed to be necessary addition into her family.

Harris and service dog Moxies story into an intense journey together.

“I was never planning on having a service dog, I never thought I would need to,” Harris said. “Even when we were getting her, it wasn’t intentionally to get a service dog, it was just because I wanted a dog. Then my health started going bad.”

Some may say the timing was meant to be with Moxie. Although having and training a service dog hasn’t been all fun and games.

“It’s been difficult, because the timing was not ideal because I was not just adjusting with Moxie, I was adjusting with a wheelchair,” Harris said. “I didn’t get the wheelchair until this past summer, and so that is when my whole life truly changed. Things just declined so fast, so I was trying to manage my health, plus work, plus a puppy.”

Moxie soon began training to become a service dog after Harris’ health problems worsened.

“Moxie learns very quickly and she loves to work,” Moxie’s trainer Susanne Schenberg said. “It’s very rewarding and exciting for me to see what she has learned at such a young age and in such a short period of time.”

Harris feels her personality is a perfect fit for her.

“Her temperament is perfect because she’s very stubborn, she’s very determined. She’s smart but she’s independent but not to the point to being too independent, but she’s stubborn. She’s one of the most determined dogs I have seen.”

“I named her Moxie because it means to overcome obstacles with spirit and courage which I thought was really appropriate,” Harris said “I like to think I’m a determined, stubborn person as well that neither of us are going to give up with something. So, it’s a good match.”

As for getting adjusted to her new job, Moxie seems to have gotten the hang of it, to say the least. Moxie went through service dog training and continues to train as a therapy dog. She helps Harris with simple commands such as opening wheelchair accessible doors, picking up any dropped items, and to be on alert if any red flags arise with Harris’s health.

“She’s also in the process of being trained for a canine phone. It’s a little phone with a little button, and she’ll call 911 if she pushes the button.” Harris said.

For Harris, a moment when Moxie started making noticeable progress in her training has stuck with her.

“My wheelchair died outside the school in the freezing cold once and I was stuck and waving my hands trying to get a student to look out the window and see the social worker stuck in the wheelchair out there,” Harris said. “Moxie’s water bottle like flew off because of the wind, so did my keys. It was just a mess. Moxie went around and picked my items up for me and brought them to me. She ran to the door and tried to knock on it because she wanted to go in. That was the first time I was like, ‘you did it, that was real life stuff,’ as opposed to being in a training mode and constantly giving treats.”

Moxie has not only been able to light up Harris’ world, but the people she has met along the way.

“I’ve seen a difference in kids when they interact with Moxie as opposed to just talking with me,” Harris said. “When they’re talking, they’re able to open up a lot more when Moxie’s next to them. She’s gotten on student’s laps as they’ve talked about some pretty intense stuff and they just smile and pet her. That stuff I love.”

Even outside of school, Moxie helps those who may need it.

“I met a little girl with Down Syndrome there. She bought a little stuffed dog there and her and Moxie really connected. They spent about 45 minutes as her parents were eating and just of hanging out.”

“Later on, the girl’s parents found me on Moxie’s Facebook page Adventures with Moxie and sent a message saying how much it meant to the girl and that she was having a tough day and seeing Moxie just turned things around. She even named her stuffed animal Moxie. I love those types of connections and seeing her bring joy to people, it’s huge.”

Currently, Moxie and Harris are continuing to train with some bigger, brighter plans down the road. Harris plans to host a fundraiser to help those pay for the cost of service dogs and the hefty training that goes with them.

“A lot of people are so severe, they need a dog that’s fully trained immediately. Those are a lot more money, like $20,000 to $30,000, so we are very fortunate that I got her for not for that much money and the people working on her training are doing special things to try and help with the financing.

“We’re going to do a huge fundraiser in a couple months, I’m not quite sure exact date, yet to fully fund a service dog for an individual and keep paying it forward so we can see how many service dogs we can get funded for people.”

Moxie and Harris’ have had a large impact on the school and on each other. They continue to learn more about each other and their personalities and help each in any way they can.

Rachel Zimmerli
Practice makes perfect. Social worker Katie Harris and her service do, Moxie, practice healing in the 200 Hall on Feb. 25. Harris’ wheelchair created unique commands for Moxie
Rachel Zimmerli
One paw or two. Perfecting her ability to open the door for owner Katie Harris, Moxie fails when using just one paw but is successful on her next attempt when using two paws.
Rachel Zimmerli

“With this diagnosis, and the physical complications have been really really tough and she is giving me a different focus and more of a passion and purpose. Moxie helps emotionally just as much as she does physically with it” Harris said.