Britney Digilio’s full-time caregiver accompanies her everywhere, from school to the mall to the airport, if she’s traveling. You can pick her out in a crowd by her bright pink and neon green vest, personalized patches decorating her shoulder blades warning, “Do Not Pet,” her long pink tongue hanging out of her mouth.
Digilio’s medical companion is actually a service dog named Lola, a 3-year-old golden retriever who provides emotional and medical support around the clock.
“It’s almost like having a furry caregiver,” she says, laughing. “I call her my guardian angel.”
She started The Lola Project Inc. in June 2012 when she was 26 years old. The organization aims to spread awareness of mental illness and service animal etiquette, the bottom line of which is “do not touch.” They place emphasis on the benefits of service dogs for veterans.
Digilio grew up in a family “where you were either a cop or a nurse.” As a child, she was surrounded by horror stories from the field or the hospital, and she remembers her ear pressed to her parents’ bedroom door, dreaming of making a change.
Years later, she met her husband, Mark Digilio, a highly-decorated veteran police officer suffering from PTSD, and her plans for The Lola Project began to form.
“I think Lola was my inspiration to finally pursue my dream of my program, and it just happened to work out so wonderfully that Lola had what it took, and became the face and furry ambassador of The Lola Project,” she said.
Lola is specifically trained to respond to Digilio’s individual needs. In her case, she suffers form bipolar disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) accompanied by severe migraines, which she’s had since she was 12. Lola can anticipate these migraines up to forty minutes before their onset.
Lola began sensing the intense headaches when she was still a puppy, when she would dig her nose into Digilio’s neck.
“I thought she was just being a snuggly puppy…20 minutes later, I was getting a migraine,” she said.
Using a reward system, Digilio reinforced Lola’s behavior and they’ve doubled the time before their onset, giving Digilio the opportunity to prepare for what she describes as “post-stroke” symptoms, including loss of vision, speech impairment, and facial weakening.
Before Lola, she would be hospitalized about four to six times per year for migraines. She’s only had to go to the emergency room once since she got Lola.
Digilio isn’t sure if her ability to sense these migraines is based on smell or some unknown sixth sense, but she does know that only 5 percent to 8 percent of service dogs have the ability.
“They either have it or they don’t…medical-wise, some neurologists say we emit a smell [before migraines],” she said. She believes Lola could also be sensing elevated blood pressure or a rapid pulse.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals are “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities” and do not include providing comfort or emotional support, a point Digilio emphasizes with The Lola Project.
There are service animals and emotional support animals: the former provides a litany of services and the latter provides only emotional support (hence the names). While service animals are free to accompany their owners wherever they go, emotional support animals only give their owner’s the ability to override a landlord’s “No Pets” policy with proper documentation: a formal letter from a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. A note from the family doctor won’t cut it.
Digilio warns against a number of scam websites that claim they’ll register dogs as emotional support animals for a fee.
“These websites are getting out of control,” she warned.
Digilio often comes across animals that have been illegally registered via these online services and there’s always a telltale sign: the dog straining at the leash.
“Lola has a perfect heel. She never leaves my side.”
Digilio claims that she and Lola have been physically attacked by these fake emotional support animals upwards of 10 times. She’s known other service animals that have been attacked so severely that they’re decommissioned, or “washed,” at four years old, when they should’ve been able to provide years of additional service.
This is both a psychological and financial loss for service dog owners. Digilio estimates training costs at about $20,000 annually per dog.
These websites are evidence of a larger problem: the lack of public information on service dogs, a problem Digilio’s organization seeks to eradicate.
The Lola Project currently operates using events and informational brochures, through which Digilio estimates they’ve reached about 100,000 people, but she has plans to expand the organization.
She’s already scheduled a series of sponsored 5K’s and the 3rd annual “Spring on Education” event in May, a fundraiser/promotional event for The Lola Project, which costs about $4,000 annually. She also plans on organizing a “learning luncheon” at Marist college to educate staff and students about interacting with service dogs. Digilio plans on surveying those in attendance then adapting her program for the whole community.
She’s also rallying for teacher’s to include “trigger warnings” on their syllabi for those who’ve experienced traumatic events. For example, if a class covers subjects of sexual assault, Digilio urges educators to put a warning in the course catalogue so sexual assault victims known to avoid it.
“Someone’s gotta start the revolution,” she said. “Might as well be me.”