UACCB student does not let health issues dampen desire for learning

A photo of Shelby Gottschalk and her service dog, Luna

Like many college students, Shelby Gottschalk can be seen on a regular basis walking to class with her best friend. Unlike her classmates, however, Gottschalk’s best friend happens to have four paws and is trained to save her life.

Luna, a poodle/Australian shepherd mix, is Gottschalk’s service dog and is trained in a variety of techniques to alert and assist Gottschalk in the event of medical emergency. Gottschalk has multiple health issues including a heart condition, an immune deficiency and is hypoglycemic, meaning her blood sugar can suddenly drop to dangerously low levels. She travels to specialists in Mississippi and Virginia regularly for treatments. 

“Luna is scent trained to alert me when I’m having a sugar crash, and she intuitively knows when my heart rhythm is off,” Gottschalk said. Luna is also trained to perform tasks such as fetching Gottschalk’s medication, finding a person to provide help in an emergency, or pushing a button on an emergency device that will text Gottschalk’s family members when she needs help. Luna can also open doors and cabinets or fetch water from the refrigerator.

In spite of Gottschalk’s health concerns, the 23-year-old has not allowed that to stop her pursuit of an education. She is currently a student at the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville working toward her associate degree in general education. She plans to transfer to a four-year university after graduation and possibly seek a degree in criminology.

“I’m a crime junkie,” Gottschalk said. “I’m fascinated by the psychology of the criminal mind and what would make a person do something like that. My goal right now is to learn as much as I can. There’s so much to learn in life, and that’s one thing I can control. Even though my body may be kind of falling apart, my mind is very active, so I want to focus on expanding my mind. You can take your education with you anywhere you go.”

Gottschalk moved to Arkansas from Florida. Because her father Dr. Doug Gottschalk was in the military, she attended the American School, an online distance learning school. She graduated with her high school diploma when she was 16. After high school, Gottschalk attended a trade school and earned her license and certification to become an aesthetician. She worked on movie and television series sets as a make-up assistant, including working on the set of Free State of Jones with Matthew McConaughey, The Originals, and Finding Carter. 

When Gottschalk turned 20, her health began to spiral downward. “I was in and out of the hospital. I had to move back home to be closer to my family so I could have help. I had to take a serious look at career choices because I couldn’t physically keep up with the work I was doing on the sets.”

In addition to taking classes, Gottschalk works part-time teaching English to Chinese students online ranging in age from 3-15 years old through an organization called Qkids. “Teaching ESL online is really a big hub. I got involved after my sister started doing it first. You don’t have to speak Chinese to be able to do it. The children are required to speak English, so they don’t want you to speak Chinese to them during the lessons. The lessons are provided for you, and I can pick my own schedule. It’s very flexible, so it works out well for me while I’m taking classes,” she said.

Gottschalk also volunteers with the organization that provides Luna’s training, Starfleet Service Dogs, doing training sessions online. The organization is based in Maryland, but Gottschalk said Luna does training sessions once a week with a remote trainer via Skype. Gottschalk has been working with Luna since she was a puppy and said Luna will graduate the program when she’s about 2 years old. Gottschalk is also actively involved on UACCB’s campus. She’s a member of TRIO and was recently elected to the position of freshman senator with the Student Government Association. “I want to have a voice in things and to be a voice for other with disabilities,” Gottschalk said.

Naturally, being in public with Luna draws a lot of attention, and Gottschalk likes to take the opportunity to educate others about how to appropriately interact with those who utilize service dogs. 

“The best thing to do is to simply leave the dog alone. It’s perfectly ok to ask if you may pet the dog. She has a release command that lets her know it’s ok for her to greet people. But the reason it’s important not to distract a service dog while they are working is because if they are paying attention to you while you pet them, then they are not paying attention to the person that needs them. So, for example, if she is distracted, she might miss that I’m having a sugar crash, which could potentially be life-threatening. Think of it like a wheelchair. You wouldn’t ask to borrow someone’s wheelchair.”

Gottschalk said that although Luna is all business when it’s time to go to work, she does have her “off duty” moments.

“She has time at home to play and exercise and just be a dog, but she knows when we’re getting ready that it’s time to go to work,” Gottschalk said.

Gottschalk added that while any dog has the potential to be a service dog, it takes a special animal to fill the role. “Most dogs can pick up a scent change in your chemistry like she can, but they just don’t know how to respond to alert you. But it really takes a special dog to be a service dog. They have to have that drive and motivation to do the work,” she said.