“When I got a dog I became a human again.”

"Bump!"  Last month at Cincinnati's Everything Pet Expo, Amy Hoh showed how her service dog, Cortez, opens doors for her.

"Bump!" Last month at Cincinnati's Everything Pet Expo, Amy Hoh showed how her service dog, Cortez, opens doors for her.

Amy Hoh, 51, is a Hamilton County employee with a strong voice, a glowing face, and degenerative disk disease that landed her in a wheelchair 5 years ago.

Cortez is a five-year-old German shepherd with bat ears that flicker constantly toward Hoh, waiting for a signal that she needs his help.

As a trained service dog, Cortez opens doors and carries drinks for Hoh, monitors the blood-sugar levels perceptible in her breath, and, in less busy moments, turns his exceptional focus upon learning new tasks and commands.

“He came to me with 43 different commands, and my job was to string them together into tasks I needed,” explained Hoh.

Cortez already knew, for example, that the verbal command “bump” meant “poke with your nose”—a command to which he responds daily, to open the disabled access doors in the buildings where Hoh works. Hoh, who is diabetic, said it took Cortez one night of study to recognize and alert her to the smell of ketoacidosis that her breath carries just before her blood sugar takes a dive. She trained him during one slump—“I’d blow in his face and say bump—“ and the next time her blood sugar began to sink, a poke from Cortez’ delicate nose tipped her off.

It was an inmate at Chillicothe Correctional Institution who taught Cortez his initial repertoire of commands. The dog spent his first two years in and out of Chillicothe after the death of his first human guardian landed him and four littermates at Circle Tail Inc., an organization that quickly saw service dog potential in Cortez and one of his brothers.

Circle Tail, based in Pleasant Plain, OH, provides deaf and disabled humans with prison-trained service dogs at no charge. The group also improves the adoptability of homeless dogs unsuited for service, by pairing them with inmates who teach them basic commands and social graces.

Similar programs have sprung up in most states, as well as in Australia, New Zealand, and several European countries, since a young Californian woman on welfare who later became a Dominican nun, founded the Prison Pet Partnership Program in 1981.

A Seattle Times report on the founder, Sister Pauline Quinn, describes a horrific childhood as a homeless runaway in 1950’s Los Angeles, who only learned to speak to people face-to-face in her 20’s, after joining forces with a German shepherd named Joni:

“Police didn’t stop Quinn when she walked down the street with the dog by her side. Joni became a magnet to people who wanted to talk. As long as their eyes were on the dog, Quinn could respond.”

Hoh is an outgoing woman whose settled marriage and career bear little resemblance to Quinn’s early life, yet she described similar changes after partnering with Cortez.

When Hoh’s chronic pain first led her to navigate public places by wheelchair, she was dismayed by how her social world changed. She saw people avert their eyes when she rolled past, and she heard parents tell their children not to speak to her, for fear of catching a disease. “I became invisible,” she said.

When she found Cortez two years later, that painful period ended. He draws curiosity and attention in spades, and people approach her constantly to ask about him.

“Cortez gave me back the part of my life that I lost to my disability,” said Hoh.

8 thoughts on ““When I got a dog I became a human again.”

  1. Amy I have four dogs and any one of them knows and understands me. I have a total spine envolvement and am in pain all the time. I would love to talk with you sometime. Hubby and I moved into a small home as he is disabled too. He is a heart patient. Our critters make what life we have a good one. I have several ladies and gentlemen on my chronic pain site who have pets and they love them dearly and their pets are their constant companions. Your story is a heart breaking one. My days are spent talking with people in pain and it is so uplifting to find those we can relate to. Being alone is a horrible feeling and being disabled makes life almost unbearable. We call ourselves painers and the world outside ours is the well world. I am beginning to find people in my town who love talking and when they start they can go on for hours. Blessings dear lady. I wish I could give you a hug. Your friend, Billie

  2. Hi Amy,

    What a great article. It looks like Pet Expo might have been a success after all. What a great picture.

    You are my heroine — Cortez rocks!


  3. What a great statement made by Amy, “Cortez gave me back the part of my life I lost to my disability” . I have met her and she is an inspiration to me and she has great vibes.
    I too am someone Circle Tail Inc. helped regain a life lost.
    You rock Amy!
    Thanks for noticing and writing about the life of one inspirational person. Circle Tail has a list of many like her they have helped.


  4. Hooray for Amy & Cortez! Assistance Dogs really do have the potential to transform lives when the right dog is paired with the right person with disabilities. Just ask my service dog Tessa. 😉

    One minor correction – Circle Tail does not train Guide Dogs (aka Seeing-eye Dogs) for the blind, but they have trained and partnered Assistance Dogs for people with an amazingly wide range of physical and mental disabilities.
    There were many wonderful groups that already trained guide dogs, but Circle Tail’s founders saw a real need to provide assistance dogs to mediate other disabilities. Thanks Circle Tail!



  5. Hi Amy and Cortez,

    Reebok my golden retriever and I met you and Cortez at Duke Energy Center last year and spent a couple of hours in Circle Tail Booth volunteering and I have seen you a few times at Circle Tail’s Training Center.

    You and Cortez shared many things that you do together and you are both very awesome. Circle Tail has added enjoyment in my life being involved in with myself and Reebok’s training.

    The folks at Circle Tail are wonderful.


  6. Billie, Jerri, Toni, Glenn, and Laura,

    Thank you for your comments! It is wonderful to know that other people with service dogs–and who know Amy and Cortez–are reading and enjoying the article.

    Just one thing to keep in mind: Amy may be following these comments, but they aren’t sent to her directly. You can reach her through CircleTail, where she’s Secretary, or Hamilton County, where she works as Purchasing Director.

    Also, thanks for the correction, Glenn! I’ll fix that.

    Best regards,

    The Editress.

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