By Marni McEntee
Nicole Meadowcroft remembers that one of the first times she saw a German shepherd, which she’d always wanted to have as a pet, it was working as a seeing eye dog.
Her mom had told her that having a dog just wasn’t in the cards, so when she saw the guide dog, she told her mom, “I hope I go blind someday so I can have a German shepherd,” Meadowcroft recalls. “She said ‘be careful what you wish for.’”
It would be a fateful childhood wish. By age 17, Meadowcroft was having increasing difficulty seeing, especially at night. When she saw an ophthalmologist, the doctor determined she had retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic disorder that slowly erodes vision.
The diagnosis turned Meadowcroft’s world upside down, eventually dashing her plans to become a veterinarian.
But Meadowcroft couldn’t shake her dream of working with dogs and, eventually, she found a way around her disability. When she got older, she bred and showed German shepherds and, in 2004, was introduced to a guide dog training team.
That sparked the idea for Custom Canines Service Dog Academy, Meadowcroft’s all-volunteer nonprofit launched in 2009. An innovative service dog organization, Custom Canines provides dogs to those with autism, military veterans, and those who are blind, in a wheelchair or who have medical issues such as seizures.
“I use a service dog every day, so I just have a desire to want everybody who has a disability to have that enhancement and feel some exhilaration of independence and hope,” says Meadowcroft, who currently has about 2 percent of her central vision left. Snickers, an amiable black Labrador Retriever mix, is her third guide dog.
The need for high-quality service dogs is enormous. Custom Canines currently has 46 dogs in training and a list of 236 people qualified to receive a dog.
In 2013, the organization started its post-traumatic stress service dog initiative for veterans. One beneficiary is Joshua Webster, who served four tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, where a roadside bomb nearly killed him.
The post-traumatic stress kept Webster unable to venture out in public for nearly a year when he returned home. He finally reached out to Custom Canines and received his dog, Atlas, with Meadowcroft’s help, in late 2017.
“She saved my life,” Webster says.
Webster says Atlas gives him confidence to interact with others, knowing the dog will help calm him when needed. He recently was able to attend his 11-year-old daughter’s school theater performance for the first time, taking a seat that for years had been left empty, in the front row, with his name on it.
“My daughter told me one day that Atlas ‘gave her her daddy back,’ Webster says. He now volunteers for Custom Canines. This year, Meadowcroft is looking forward to finishing renovation of a massive, donated building on Madison’s North Side, being completed mostly by volunteers. Custom Canines’ programs will increase to include, among many other things, training opportunities for average dog owners.
And it hopes to increase by 20 the number of service dogs it can make available for those who need them.
It’s a visceral kind of work for Meadowcroft.
“Imagine how much you love your pet,” Meadowcroft says. “What if you relied on that pet every day to keep you alive, or keep you safe, or help you get from point A to point B, independently. There’s really no words for what that feels like.”