Talking (Service) Dog with Fiona Gilbert

By Lee Harrington, September 2018, Updated January 2021

Back in 2003, Bay Area resident Fiona Gilbert—a biohacker and movement therapist—was diagnosed with a debilitating degenerative neurological disorder. At the time, she was a busy, driven PhD candidate; the prospect of such dramatic physical changes—which included weakness, seizures and, ultimately, life in a wheelchair—made her seriously consider self-euthanasia, which is legal in her birth country of Australia.

Luckily, she discovered the Animal Farm Foundation, a New York-based organization that trains Pit Bulls pulled from animal shelters as service dogs. Thanks to AFF, she was matched up with Koda, who’d been trained to provide her with a unique service: as a brace and mobility support dog.

Lee Harrington: Judging from his backstory, Koda’s had some amazing kismet. A beloved pet in a family with a lot of children, relinquished because the landlord didn’t want a Pit Bull around his cows, adopted from a Craigslist posting by a known animal abuser. Thankfully, a savvy animal control officer got wind of this and brought Koda safely to a local shelter. There, he was discovered by AFF, who’s always on the lookout for shelter Pit Bulls with service-dog potential. Within in a year or so, Koda was a fully trained service dog.
Fiona Gilbert: It seems like such an unlikely story for a dog like him. People see him and their first reaction is to gasp. What they don’t get is how incredible he is.

LH: What was it about Koda that struck you when you first met him two years ago?
FG: I remember seeing him—his eyes. And wanting that dog.


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LH: Intuition is a powerful attractor.
FG: Right! It’s like falling in love with someone for the first time.

LH: So next, Apryl (AFF’s then-trainer) brought Koda to you in California. How were you feeling about going through another adjustment period with another service dog?
FG: There was a part of me that did not want to bond too much with this dog, just in case. But there is no way you can work this closely and not bond immediately.

LH: Did you have preconceived notions of what your life with Koda would be like?
FG: I thought I would be incredibly close with this dog. But Koda’s not affectionate. He is, but he’s not. Having had pets, I got used to them playing, sitting on my lap, being part of my life. Koda is more like an employee. He is an indispensable employee and we have a close connection. But it feels very different than having a pet.

LH: And that comes from him, you think?
FG: Yes. Tonka was a completely different dog. Tonka was high energy, in my face, loved me so much. But my life stressed him out. You could drop a bomb next to Koda and it would not faze him.

LH: I understand that Koda also assists you in your movement therapy work these days.
FG: I always say he is the first dog to practice Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation [PNF, a form of intense stretching in which the practitioner takes on most of the client’s body weight].

LH: Please tell us more.
FG: Apryl had just left. [She spent a week with the new team, helping them acclimate.] It was Koda’s first week with me at work, and I was wondering how he would adjust to that environment. I was also wondering about things like will the noises bother him? Could he be off-leash? I was feeling frail at the time because I was still recovering from surgery [unrelated to the neurological condition]. My client needed PNF and I wasn’t sure I had the strength to actually perform [it] on this person. Then Koda—who is trained to brace me—came up to me and put a paw on my shoulder.

LH: As if to say, “I’ve got this.”
FG: Yes. I asked my client, “Is it okay if Koda helps me?” She said, “Sure, if you think he can do it.” So Koda applied pressure to me so that I could apply pressure to the client. Sometimes he pressed into the client while I also applied pressure. I could control the movement while he applied the pressure.”

LH: Animals are natural healers, aren’t they?
FG: When we go to events or workshops where there are a lot of movement specialists or chiropractors and physical therapists, it’s the ultimate party trick. People ask: “Is it true your dog can do PNF?” They ask him to try it on them. Not that many people actually practice PNF.

LH: Has he shown any other aptitudes in a clinical setting?
FG: When we have patients at our events, he is usually off-leash. If he gets up and goes to a patient, we let it happen. He knows who he needs to go to.

LH: How do you direct him—verbal commands or hand signals?
FG: Both. As we’ve developed a relationship, we’ve actually created our own hand signals between the two of us. I sometimes speak to him in German. I noticed that he had an issue with “down,” so I decided, we’re not going to use “down” anymore; we are going to use runter.

LH: Did Koda need to learn any other skills specific to you after Apryl left—upskilling, as it’s called?
FG: Within the first two weeks, I realized I needed him to work on both sides of my body. But because he was originally trained for somebody else—someone in a wheelchair—he was very determined to stay on my left side. I thought, How will I do this? Apryl talked me through it on Skype.

LH: What’s his downtime like?
FG: Because of his training, he doesn’t have the need to go exercise and play. He is happy just to lie in the sun or in his bed. People have asked me how I delimitate between his working and not-working hours, but the reality is, he is always on duty. He is more relaxed when he is not wearing his jacket because he knows we won’t be going out in public. But there is no moment where, if I drop something, he isn’t going to fetch it for me.

LH: Most dogs, at their core, are always “on duty” if they are really tuned into their humans. They seem to know what we are thinking and feeling.
FG: Right. Koda is always within two feet of me. I used to have constant seizures. He could always tell two hours before a seizure.

LH: How would he alert you?
FG: When he feels I am medically not sound, he will not get out of my face. He will start vocalizing. He’s not a chatty dog, he’s not a barker, so if he starts talking at me, I know. If I try to get up off the couch, he will pin me down.

LH: I understand one cannot train dogs for seizure detection. They either have the capability or they don’t. I also understand that a strong bond is essential.
FG: I had my first seizure within 10 days of Koda moving in with me, and he picked it up. I’m doing well now, but still, at 5:45 every morning, Koda does the sniff test to make sure that I am okay.

LH: Do you have to stay still for the sniff test? How long does it take?
FG: A couple [of] minutes. I literally get a full body scan every morning.

LH: Is he sniffing for biochemical changes that would indicate a seizure?
FG: I’m guessing. He was not specifically trained for the sniff test. It’s just something that he decided he was going to do. And so, once I figured out what he was doing, I let him do it. It’s interesting because I was the type of person who would never kiss a dog. But with Koda, it’s part of his process. Every morning, I get a tongue in my face.

LH: You and Koda have been a team for two years now. Are you still accosted by strangers every time you go outside
FG: We attract attention. That has not changed. What has changed is that it no longer bothers me.

LH: What’s your response to those who think you and Koda are frauds?
FG: I usually just hand out my business card. I have another card for Koda. The kids love the one for Koda. There’s a picture of him on the front and on the back, information about how to learn more about us.

LH: That’s brilliant. It cuts out entering into a dynamic in which you feel you have to defend yourself.
FG: Right. And when I am traveling, this is the last thing I have energy for. I’m trying to live my life.

LH: I’m sure you have pleasant encounters, too. Could you share some stories about sweet responses to Koda?
FG: Lots of people come up to me and say they have never touched a Pit Bull before. They ask if they can pet him. I always say of course. Then he gives them a kiss and gets back to working. If this helps change the stereotype about a Pit Bull—absolutely we have time for that.

LH: You began your journey with your neurological condition by wanting to euthanize yourself. At what point did you set that aside?
FG: When I started seeing that I could make a change in people’s lives. That for me was the big shift because I went into it [movement therapy] trying to help myself. My story is not unique. That experience of feeling that your world is coming to an end—that’s not unique. The difference is that I am now in a position where I can help effect change. And to be able to be an advocate for Pit Bulls and shelter dogs … it’s my way of saying thank you for Koda. I cannot imagine my life without him.

To learn more about Fiona and Koda (who recently launched his own line of bioenergetic pet products called Kodacare) visit Fiona’s website.

Lee Harrington, author of the critically acclaimed memoir Rex and the City: The Rescue Dog Who Rescued a Relationship, is a long-time The Bark contributor; her serial columns, “Rex in the City” and “The Chloe Chronicles,” were reader favorites.