St. David’s social worker’s best friend at the office is her service dog

Sometimes — too often — the trajectories of lives can be irrevocably altered in a moment of inattention, no longer than the blink of an eye.

So it was for Monica Johnson one night in November 1999. She was coming back from the beach near Corpus Christi where she and friends had been watching a meteor shower. A driver missed his turn, tried to make it anyway and crashed.

Johnson, then 25 and waiting tables as an on-again, off-again college student, suffered a crushed spine. She’s been using a wheelchair ever since.

She got Avalon the Wonder Dog about a month ago, and in many ways things have never been better.

After roughly a year of positive-reinforcement training for her animal at the nonprofit Service Dogs Inc. in Dripping Springs — not to mention a lengthy and laborious application process — Johnson, now 40, brought Avalon home.

Avalon is a not-quite-2-year-old shelter rescue said to be a flat-coated retriever. For the past few weeks, Johnson has brought the dog to her job at St. David’s Rehabilitation Hospital in Central Austin on East 32nd Street, where Johnson once was a patient. She now works long days there as a licensed clinical social worker.

Sometimes these things just have a way of working themselves out.

Before trying out a lot of colleges and majors — “I’d been every single major from marine biology to English,” Johnson said — she wound up at Texas State University in San Marcos where, after initially thinking she’d be a physical therapist, she majored in psychology and social work.

After a couple of internships and going to work for Aetna as a social worker, she knew she’d taken a rewarding path.

Then she developed a wound that wouldn’t heal. It was almost septic. She spent much of 2013 in bed and spent time as a patient at St. David’s.

“I was here for three weeks, and I loved it,” she said. “I enjoyed being in the hospital.”

Her doctor told her the social worker on staff was leaving — the same social worker who helped Johnson start the dog acquisition process that included essays, interviews and a wait list.

Getting a service dog from SDI requires $45,000 in gifts to sponsor and train each dog and person. Recipients get them for free, but the training is ongoing. In fact, Johnson said, if she mistreats Avalon or lets her get fat, SDI can take the animal back, although that’s a last resort.

To see the two of them together is to get the sense that, even after just a few weeks, a lasting bond has already been established.

“The dog’s changed my life in a month. I didn’t pick her,” Johnson said of Avalon. “She picked me. I picked another dog that flunked out.”

A lot of what Avalon does is pick up things Johnson has dropped. That doesn’t go for treats.

When Johnson spilled some in a fourth-floor hallway at St. David’s, Avalon — as a result of her training — didn’t go for them. Would your dog do that?

Avalon also opens doors, pulls Johnson around a target and can retrieve her chair if she falls out of it. “Which happens a lot, because I don’t use my brakes,” Johnson said.

While Johnson is thrilled to have Avalon in her life, not everyone in her house is exactly carried away at having a dog around.

“I have a cat that’s 13 years old that Avalon tries to play with,” Johnson said. “It’s not going well.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated from a previous version that gave an incorrect name of the service dog provider. The name of the company is Service Dogs Inc.

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