Christmas is a laid-back affair for Scout, involving nothing more than three long walks, several naps, and the unexplained appearance of a new stuffed toy. Perhaps most unusual is what she doesn’t do: don her official bright-orange work vest. ¶ Not that she minds her job. As a service dog, Scout has entrée to points usually off-limits to the furry: the transit system, department stores, restaurants. The 35-pound shepherd mix has had nary a lonely moment since she was certified to help her master, Celia Holm, more than six years ago. And her journey from the pound— where Holm found her malnourished and quaking in a corner cage—has meant an almost immeasurable step up in quality of life.
Holm, who has straight brown hair and clear, green eyes that she tends to cast downward, says little about Scout’s history, except that it was clearly traumatic and that her former owners gave her up when they became homeless. The 37-year-old librarian is similarly circumspect about her own past. “I got teased a lot growing up,” she explains matter-of-factly. “I was a different sort of child. I guess a lot of people are. But some of us get better and some of us just muddle through. I’ve just always muddled through.”
Psychologists have a variety of technical terms for Holm’s current condition: severe anxiety, clinical depression, agoraphobia (a fear of being in public places). But, despite the distant and authoritative sound of these diagnoses, her own description of her feelings evokes an alienation many people have experienced, if in a less severe form.
“I’ve always felt really out of place,” she says, sitting in her Inwood apartment decorated with inflated candy canes and felt Christmas stockings. The sense of not belonging has often kept her from leaving her home, which can involve potentially frightening social interactions.
“Some people just seem born to know how to behave. You have that sense that they’ve found the rule book somewhere and they’re able to just follow it,” she says. “I don’t know where the rules come from exactly.”
Scout—a creature who is besotted with a fuzzy, pink slipper and enjoys taking the heads off dolls—seems an unlikely guide to human deportment. Yet her presence has made Holm feel comfortable with people. On the chaotic streets of New York, she now focuses her attention on the dog, rather than on the debilitating fear that strangers are staring at her.
The irony of acquiring an attention-drawing animal as a way of escaping notice is not lost on Holm. “Now, with Scout, everybody really does look at me,” she laughs. “I stick out like a sore thumb.” Indeed. As a registered service dog who’s been trained to behave politely around people, Scout is legally entitled to go everywhere she goes. But, since Holm is neither blind nor physically disabled in any obvious way, the two often encounter quizzical looks on their way into restaurants or onto the bus.
Then there are the frequently asked questions: Why do you need Scout? and What exactly does she do for you? Rather than get into the whole troubling—and for Holm,embarrassing—matter of mental illness, she will often respond with a friendly but firm “That’s personal.” Mostly the inquisitive will leave it there, perhaps giving Scout a friendly pat on the head before going on their way.
Sometimes it’s more complicated, however. Once a subway conductor saw her getting on his train and broadcast a “no dogs allowed” announcement over his p.a. system, drawing all eyes on the train toward Holm and Scout. “I just thought, I’m going to die, I’m going to die, I’m going to die,” she remembers. In the end, though, “I thought, ‘If he feels very strongly about this, he can get out of his little cubicle and walk over here and talk to me about it.’ He didn’t. So I took the train and got off at my stop.”
This kind of traumatic but ultimately bearable event may have been just what her psychologist had in mind when she suggested Holm get a dog. That was back when she was rarely getting out of bed and her emotional discomfort had given rise to full-body tremors. “I didn’t want to wake up in the mornings,” recalls Holm.
Now, of course, staying in bed is not an option. The dog needs her early morning walk in Inwood Park, which can last as long as 45 minutes. Then she has to be fed. And then, after the vest goes on, both have work to do—Celia at a circulation desk of the New York Public Library and Scout under that same desk.
There are still days when she would rather not get out of bed. She just doesn’t give in to it. “What would she do without me?” asks Holm, gazing over to Scout, who gazes back.