How a special service dog enables a 23-year Army veteran with a Traumatic Brain Injury to enjoy triumph over tragedy

Photos by Jerry and Lois Photography

By Ranny Green

“There is no better feeling than knowing someone’s got your back regardless of the situation or the circumstances,” says Shanda Taylor-Boyd, of Sammamish, a 23-year military veteran whose biggest life challenges have come since leaving the Army.

A single mother of three grown daughters, her back – and front, for that matter – is always covered by her ebullient 10-year-old golden retriever service dog Ranger. And likewise, she and her circle of friends had his when he was about 1½ years old and began suffering from masseter muscle myositis, an auto-immune inflammation of the muscles that work the jaw, causing swelling and making it hard for him to chew or even open his mouth.

Shanda Taylor-Boyd, of Sammamish, poses with her service dog Ranger on Queen Anne Hill with the city backdrop.
Shanda Taylor-Boyd, of Sammamish, poses with her service dog Ranger on Queen Anne Hill with the city backdrop.

Taylor-Boyd’s life was in major turmoil at the time and a friend, Joan Myers, volunteered to care for Ranger for what was initially supposed to be a week and grew to about 1½ years. “I was going through the darkest and deepest valley,” Taylor-Boyd recalls, “and was completely unaware of what was happening around me. The Traumatic Brain Injury {then undiagnosed} had me in a vacuum.”

Ranger returned to Taylor-Boyd’s side in 2006 and has been her Velcro partner since.

“He has saved my psyche and enables me to get up each morning with a mission in life,” she says, after a “dream marriage and a beautiful family life” were suddenly shattered by an auto accident in May 2004.

After a full day’s work as a nurse at Madigan Army Medical Center near Tacoma, she was driving home on Highway 520 near Bellevue when another vehicle hydroplaned at a high rate of speed and smashed into her Volvo station wagon, totaling it. She awoke later in the hospital, totally confused but was released to her husband’s care.

“It’s really a miracle I survived,” she beams. “I was unconscious for a while and when I woke up I was unaware of a Traumatic Brain Injury. The only thing I wanted to do was to get back to work. I was bent on going to the dry cleaner, picking up my uniform and reporting for duty to a medical meeting in the morning.”

Post-accident complications manifested themselves immediately, and after 72 hours of suffering from a relentless migraine headache and working during that span, she found herself at her doctor’s office. Several days later she was rushed back to the Overlake Hospital Emergency Room in Bellevue for treatment of chest and back pain along with a “terrible headache.” The following day she fell “deathly ill” at home and was unable to feed herself. A 911 call resulted in another trip to the Emergency Room, hospitalization and three weeks of a home health visiting nurse.

Her physical and psychological downward spiral accelerated thereafter under the guise of an unknown injury. “I didn’t know I had a Traumatic Brain Injury,” she explains. She developed fibromyalgia and was experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from the accident and was placed on the Army temporary disability retirement list in 2005. She was then medically retired in December 2006 because of “a poor prognosis for recovery.” It wasn’t until 2008 that Taylor-Boyd was diagnosed with a Traumatic Brain Injury.

Taylor-Boyd and Ranger take a break at home after several minutes of playtime.
Taylor-Boyd and Ranger take a break at home after several minutes of playtime.

“For four years no one knew what was going on, not even me, and I was a nurse. But after Ranger returned to me he sensed something was wrong. Once at a bookstore he refused to sit down and kept nudging me. I was having a mild seizure and didn’t know it. I had headaches, neck aches, couldn’t sleep and was disoriented. It was scary.”

She required speech pathology, attended a TBI group for three years and became easily distracted. “I couldn’t do a lot of the things that came naturally for me,” she explains, “and had to ask people to repeat questions or remarks so I could grasp what they were saying. It was frustrating and Ranger knew it. He would come over and sit alongside me, allow me to pet him and calm down.”

Her life continued to unravel even more after leaving the Army. A divorce following 17 years of marriage and daily bouts of depression tested her resolve but Ranger, who she purchased in June 2004 as a puppy, became her physical and psychological crutch as a self-taught service dog.

Ranger began alerting Taylor-Boyd prior to seizures (sensing her blood sugar was low), cuing her to eat and assisting her with mobility issues stemming from knee injuries sustained in the accident, which eventually resulted in a need to wear knee braces. “When my knees didn’t want to work In the middle of a walk and going up a hill, he had no problem pulling and supporting my weight.

“He worked miracles calming my daughters through the stress surrounding the divorce, loss of friends moving and the death of several family members, along with fraud ID and credit-card theft. They also witnessed their former step father strike Ranger in the face.”

What's better than a smooch between two best friends.
What’s better than a smooch between two best friends.

For Taylor-Boyd, now 52, life became an oh, wow, what now roller coaster of emotions. “I woke up each morning wondering how I would get through the day,” she recalls, “but when I looked into Rangy’s eyes and saw that pleading look signaling let’s get with it, I was inspired to get moving.”

With a boost from Ranger and plenty of help from the Disabled American Veterans and the Seattle Veterans Hospital Women’s Trauma and Recovery Center, Taylor-Boyd says, “It took years to understand that TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) does not define me. That PTSD does not define me. And thanks to Ranger and these two incredible organizations I have a new and stronger life.”

While Ranger has provided an inspirational pathway for Taylor-Boyd to navigate a field of psychological land mines since 2004, he has also served as an ambassador for the incredible versatility of service dogs.

“It turns out that every single event in which Ranger has accompanied me has become a Service Dog Saves Lives platform,” she says. This includes a wide mix of national meetings and conventions, fundraisers, 2014 Seafair Ball and the World Team Sports 2014 Face of America Pentagon to Gettysburg 110-mile Bike Ride.

“Everywhere we go people are drawn to him,” she adds. “And when he’s not with me, friends ask immediately, ‘Where is Ranger?’ “

Taylor-Boyd and Ranger have a special bond whether the dog is working or during playtime like this tug-of-war.
Taylor-Boyd and Ranger have a special bond whether the dog is working or during playtime like this tug-of-war.

“These dogs give us so much, but we have to ask ourselves, what do we give back to them,” says Pawsabilities trainer Dana Babb, of Fife. In Taylor-Boyd’s case it is daily neighborhood walks, monthly trips to the Marymoor Park off-leash dog exercise park and plenty of interaction with others. “I try to always keep him stimulated yet I need to recognize that he needs breaks, too,” says the owner.

Taylor-Boyd sees Ranger as the key player in her tragedy to triumph adventure that essentially has been a fight for survival akin to what soldiers are trained to do. “It’s all about how a dog became my springboard to a second chance at life and enabled me to soldier on.”

Back to Ranger’s serious lockjaw ailment in 2005, which his veterinarian, Dr. Michael Salewski, of Snohomish and now Carlton, Ore., treated with acupuncture. “It had all the hallmarks of severe blood stagnation,” he recalls. “This can be approached by just treating the obstructions for pain relief, but in this case I thought we could also clear up the root cause.

“Ranger’s history showed a great deal – in my opinion, excess – of immunizations. Looked at through Chinese medicine, these vaccines are considered heat toxin. In small, proper amounts they are extremely beneficial, but in excess that heat toxin can lodge in the meridians, damage the blood and cause the disease he had.

Taylor-Boyd and Ranger were big hits at the Disabled American Veterans national convention this year in Las Vegas in August. “Not only is he my Velcro dog but he’s my identity,” she says.
Taylor-Boyd and Ranger were big hits at the Disabled American Veterans national convention this year in Las Vegas in August. “Not only is he my Velcro dog but he’s my identity,” she says.

“For treatment, we used two herbal formulas: one that is specifically designed to clear blood stagnation in the head, the other to remove heat toxins from the body. Fortunately, Ranger responded quickly and we were able to avoid a lifetime of steroid administration.”

Today, Taylor-Boyd and Ranger’s high visibility at national events is designed, she says, “to serve as an inspiration to others to never give up and recognize that a service dog can be a lifesaver.”

The 67-pound bundle of empowerment loved Taylor-Boyd when she was incapable of loving herself and provided her hope when things around her seemed hopeless. “He saved my life and has had my back more times than I can count,” she smiles. “Isn’t that the definition of a best friend?”

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