“We think you need to consider a career other than veterinary services,” a college professor gently told Nicole Meadowcroft. “We just don’t think it’s safe with your eyesight.”
Nicole could barely lift herself out of her chair, her heart was so heavy. All her life, she’d dreamed of becoming a vet. Growing up in Madison, Wisconsin, her family trained dogs, and she’d decided early on that she wanted to be a healer of the animals she loved.
In high school, Nicole began to lose her eyesight and was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare, degenerative eye disease — but she remained focused on her dream. I can keep this under control, she told herself with determination. She even got her driver’s license and would tell friends she was just a klutz when she bumped into furniture or doors.
But at 19, Nicole gave up driving, acknowledging it was too dangerous. And now she was being told she needed to give up her greatest dream too. Her heart breaking, she wondered, What now?
But as she made her way home, Nicole knew she had two choices: crawl into bed and feel sorry for herself or turn to a new direction. And suddenly, it hit her: I don’t have to be a vet to help animals!
A Bright Future
After some thought, Nicole decided she would start her own doggie daycare and switched her major to small business. The determined animal lover got her degree and soon began welcoming pooches. But as her business flourished, her eyesight diminished.
In time, Nicole used a cane to get around. Feeling vulnerable, her world grew smaller and smaller. Then in 2004, she was introduced to a working guide dog team and discovered the independence a guide dog could give a person with vision loss. “I’m going to get one,” Nicole excitedly told her husband.
With her loyal German shepherd, Admiral, by her side, Nicole was no longer dependent on her husband or friends to get around. Her confidence and self-esteem soared, and she found herself wanting to share the benefits of guide dogs with others. And in 2009, she opened her own guide dog training camp, Custom Canines Service Dog Academy in Madison.
Freedom and Hope
Nicole got busy hiring trainers and recruiting volunteers to foster the puppies until they were ready to be placed with a companion, which would take about a year. She planned to train dogs mainly for people with sight impairments, but when a friend asked if she could train a pup to help her son who had autism, Nicole expanded her program to include developmental and mobility issues and PTSD.
Lisa Simmelink, a Desert Storm veteran who also has retinitis pigmentosa, was struggling to get out and about both physically and emotionally because of PTSD. Then she happened to meet Nicole’s cousin, who told her about Custom Canines.
Nicole knew it would take a special dog to be able to help with two issues, and when a tiny golden doodle named Cordan ran into Lisa’s arms, Nicole knew he was just right for the job. He trained for months and now seldom leaves Lisa’s side. He places his head or paw on her lap when he senses she’s getting anxious. He guides her up and down sidewalks and has given her the confidence she needs to get off the couch and out of the house. “You have given me my life back,” Lisa thanked Nicole. Nicole has been told that countless times in the past 11 years.
Wanting to make sure everyone who needs a dog can get one, other than a $75 application fee, Custom Canines does not charge clients for their service dogs. The nonprofit has training centers in both Wisconsin and California and helps people throughout the U.S. It is so popular, there is now a waiting list.
“My life did not turn out the way I had originally planned, but I couldn’t be happier. I’m making a difference in a way I never could have imagined,” Nicole says. “I am helping animals and people to live full, joyful lives. There’s really no words for what that feels like.”
This article originally appeared in our print magazine.