Dani and Dezal: Chippewa National Forest Submission
Dani Swantic arrived from the Shawnee National Forest (Illinois) in February to fill in temporarily for the lands and recreation specialist at the Chippewa National Forest Supervisor’s Office in Cass Lake, Minn.
Forest staff were happy to meet Swantic and her service dog, Dezal, a big, friendly, black lab/German shepard mix.
Swantic picked Dezal as a puppy years ago, but a number of life-changing events put Swantic and Dezal on a new path. Swantic underwent the first of three surgeries, starting with the repair of a torn ACL in her knee in March 2012.
Swantic taught Dezal how to provide extra balance and support for her when walking up and downstairs during her recovery. Soon, her rehabilitation for the knee surgery was canceled due to a back injury that kept Swantic from doing her recovery exercises.
Swantic had back surgery in April 2012, and her recovery was going well until she and Dezal were involved in a car accident. During the accident, the airbag in Swantic’s vehicle went off and caused her liver to rupture and crack the pancreas. The impact also broke her foot and hand.
“I was unable to open any of the doors, so I crawled over to the passenger side of the car and rolled out the window, not realizing I was on the side of a hill,” said Swantic. “I slid down the hill about 30 feet and lodged against a tree. I knew I could not get up the hill by myself, so I called for Dezal.”
Dezal was in the bed of the truck within a camper shell. Swantic said she is sure the impact knocked him unconscious, because she had to call to him several times before he started moving. He managed to squeeze through the little window from the bed of the truck into the cab, jumped out the window and came to her side. She was intermittently blacking out when she heard someone calling from the road. Dezal heard the voices too and went to the top of the hill to lead rescuers to her location.
“He has been a very faithful companion and helped save my life,” said Swantic.
The recovery was long, and Swantic was unable to walk without some sort of assistance for about six months, and even then, she fell down often.
Swantic said that Dezal seemed to understand that she needed help and stayed by her side. When she fell, she used him for support to get back up. Dezal was always there. As time went by, Swantic regained her mobility and did not need Dezal’s help as much. She took Dezal to a trainer who worked to certify the gentle lab as a service dog, since assistance work seemed so natural for him.
Swantic and Dezal have since visited several fire camps, supporting wildland firefighters both in main fire camp and out in spike camp. Dezal attends the morning and evening briefings and the firefighters get a chance to throw the ball and relax with Dezal. Swantic and Dezal would make regular visits each day around the camp where he enjoyed meeting people, fetching the ball or just giving some puppy love.
On one incident, a young Hispanic firefighter on a hotshot crew learned his new wife had passed away, while he was working on the fire line.
His wife had suffered from diabetes and though he did not want to leave her at home, she had insisted he stay with the hotshots. His only request before he spoke to his crew and went home was ten minutes alone with Dezal. Swantic let the firefighter and Dezal have the room to themselves.
“That was probably the saddest ten minutes I have experienced,” said Swantic. “We could hear him crying and sharing his pain with Dezal. Even though it was all in Spanish, Dezal did his job and listened and gave him lots of love. When the young man came out, he gave me and Dezal a big hug and said something in Spanish to Dezal, who responded by kissing him on the cheek. I was never so proud of him.”
Swantic and Dezal work with groups that support people with disabilities, including volunteering with Horses Unlimited, an equine therapy group. Dezal provides love and play time with the others waiting their turn, while participants ride horses. The team also volunteered with the Christine Church group in the southwest. Swantic recalled Dezal walking all over the desert site with a little girl who was deaf, just giving love back.
Swantic and Dezal find new friends wherever they go. Dezal is so very gentle with people who are elderly, and they love to spend time with him. He happily sits as long as they want to pat his big, soft head.
Dezal and Swantic have worked together for five years, and continue to bring smiles and good feelings, now this winter to the employees on the Chippewa National Forest.