On a stormy winter day in March, Bill Sullivan was hiking along the Kenai Beach when he stumbled upon an interesting ice formation, something he thought may have been washed out of the Kenai River and added on to by sea ice. Sullivan is an experienced mountaineer and has climbed ice before, which fueled his curiosity of the formation.
Before he knew it, the ice gave way and Sullivan suffered a fractured ankle. With the wind howling, he decided his best bet would be to crawl the 250 or 300 yards to a high point to call for help.
“The fracture happened while I was hiking on the beach,” Sullivan said. “There wasn’t anybody around. I waved to the houses up on the bluff on the outside chance somebody could hear me.”
Little did he know that his calls would be heard, not by a neighbor, but by a male sable German shepherd service dog named Sasha. Sasha alerted his owner, Betsy Arbelovsky, to Sullivan’s situation, and Arbelovsky walked outside and was able to communicate with Sullivan after Sasha guided her to the window.
“He kept looking in the one direction, although he couldn’t see anything, and looking at me and barking,” Arbelovsky said. “I said ‘Sasha, there’s nothing out there why are you barking?’”
Arbelovsky kept looking in the area, and she was able to spot Sullivan.
“I looked out and there was just a head, all I could see was a head,” she said. “I was like ‘Oh My God’, and I went out and yelled.”
Sullivan said he thinks Sasha was able to hear his calls, instead of seeing him.
“I yelled ‘Help’ three times in relatively close sequence and I waited about 30 seconds and I did it again, that’s what the dog picked up on,” Sullivan said. “The fact that the dog picked up on that, I like that — that really impresses me.
“That dog and I are buddies, he’s going to get a Milk Bone as soon as I can get one to him and maybe more. I’ve had a life-long fascination and respect for German shepherds and I’m real eager to meet this guy.”
The bond between Arbelovsky and Sasha was formed on Oct. 1, 2010, as Arbelovsky patiently waited beside Sasha’s kennel until the dog was approved for adoption.
When the dog was deemed eligible, Arbelovsky promptly took him for a walk, signed him commands which he followed precisely. She was told he had the right personality and characteristics, not just for a family pet, but to serve a much greater purpose: a service dog.
“A service dog has to have a super soft personality, they have to be completely mellow, but they have to be assertive enough to disobey you if they need to,” the Kenai resident said. “They have to substitute their judgement for yours, which is a pretty tricky character balance.”
It is for those reasons Arbelovsky, 55, said that dogs that were previously trained to be police or security dogs can not function as a service dog.
“They’re trained to follow orders,” she said. “This dog gives orders ... if he tells me to sit, I sit.”
Training Sasha was no easy task. Betsy and her husband Steve enlisted the help of Faith Hays, who is a professional dog trainer and a certified nursing assitant. Hays was tasked with not only training Sasha, but Betsy and Steve also.
“I’m sure she has a much harder time training me than the dog,” Betsy said.
Hays said Betsy has been a great pupil.
“Betsy’s a star student, and the dog has a lot to do with it,” Hays said.
Betsy and Hays have developed a system that allows Betsy to tell Hays what skills Sasha needs.
“She tells me what she needs the dog to do and I can arrive at how to teach the dog to do it,” Hays said. “I think every service dog needs different behaviors to customize it for the person that needs the service.”
Since she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2008, Arbelovsky had issues with falling, a complication of the disease. After doing some research, she concluded that having a service dog would make her life easier.
“The theory I have is whatever it is, it is,” she said. “You don’t get to choose the hand you’re dealt medically, especially with something like this. But what I can do is I can keep myself in the best possible health and stack the odds in my favor.
“Sasha stacks the odds in my favor.”
Arbelovsky said Sasha stops her from falling when she walks, he is constantly checking to see if she has a command to give him. Often times, Sasha can sense if there is going to be a fall, and will tell Arbelovsky to sit down before continuing.
It is for that reason that Sasha goes everywhere with Betsy — the store, movie theater, restaurants and even airplanes.
“He’ll lay under a seat at a restaurant and sit there for three hours,” Betsy said. “And getting on the airplane — he’s the boss of that stuff. He’ll climb up the stairs, turn around and sits and watches me come up.”
There have been a few occasions where Sasha’s commands went unheeded, but Betsy has sworn an oath to not ignore him.
“I’ve fallen a couple times since I’ve got him and twice it was because I ignored him, I thought he was being bad,” she said. “So now when he gives me the command to sit, I do what he says. Even if I’m in line at TSA, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing or where I am, if he tells me to sit I sit.”
It took a while, Betsy said, but Steve is now able to tell when Sasha is worried about Betsy and won’t leave her side.
“Some days (Sasha) wouldn’t want to go to the bathroom until 2:30 p.m., he would stick right with me,” she said.
Knowing when Sasha is worried has allowed Betsy to spend more time baby-sitting her grandchildren, an activity she cherishes.
“It’s really super good because now I can baby-sit,” Betsy said. “If Sasha is fine with being in the other room or whatever, then it’s no problem. If he’s sticking to me like glue and won’t let me get away from him, then I don’t baby-sit.”
Betsy said to classify as a “frequent faller,” two or more falls in one year take place. If she can make it to May 1 without another fall she said, she will have only had one fall in one year.
“Which is pretty good,” she said.
In the past four years since her diagnosis, Betsy has been able to maintain a positive outlook.
“My life has exceeded my expectations a thousand times over,” she said. “I never thought I’d get to travel, it never occurred to me that I’d get to have such a wonderful, fabulous life.
“You know, marry my best friend and everybody’s healthy in my family. There’s a whole lot worse things than Parkinson’s — I just think I’m still incredibly lucky.”