Chester Goes To The American Club

by Mary Duggan

The talented team at Destination Kohler Waters Spa are very special friends to the Duggan Sisters: as well as tremendous champions of lifestinks® deodorant and our Don’t Be A Boob Campaign. When they invited us many months ago to speak at their Women’s Wellness Weekend it was an easy yes on our part. For months in advance, I pondered my talk and worked to deepen and expand on our message. I knew I wanted to introduce the concept that health is a space you claim for yourself. The larger the space you claim, the more vibrant the health you experience. This concept has become central to our ongoing message and, as is always the case, a personal struggle for the sisters as well. (Look for a blog entry soon outlining our “Claim a Space for Health©” formula.)

Chester, Mary’s Service Dog

As the wellness weekend drew near, and I was finalizing my talk, I realized my sisters had their own agenda for the weekend and their own input into our wellness message. They were determined that I would claim a bit more space for myself, actually lots more space, and they wanted me to do this within the famed and fancy and Oriental carpeted walls of the American Club. They wanted me to bring Chester, the six-year-old Keeshond/Pomeranian mix that has claimed our hearts as a family pet and my gratitude as a neurological bodyguard. It was time for me to come out of the closet about using a service dog.

Needing a Service Dog in my life has been a very difficult reality for me to admit to and speak about. In the early days of my traumatic brain injury (TBI) I required a wheelchair in airports, and though it was limited in nature and duration, it was a really upsetting and revealing window into the world of the disabled. I was glad when my walking stabilized and I was able to safely navigate crowds and able to leave my wheelchair days behind me, at least for the present. The experience of having a brain injury is the feeling of having suddenly aged overnight. Adapting to no more bike riding, or volleyball playing, or any sports that could possibly jeopardize my brain’s stability contributes to that feeling of being old before my time. But a service dog, a years long relationship and commitment, an appendage of sorts, a visual sign that something is missing with me has been an upset and a challenge that I didn’t see coming. But, my sisters did.

Clare and Annie, as is always the case, have had to provide tremendous leadership while they continue to patiently guide me through this ongoing transition. It has been emotional and confusing, as I have come to terms with a service dog being something I both need and deserve. I have had to alter my stereotype of service dogs being exclusively Labradors or German Shepherds for the visually impaired to include the short, barrel-chested, pom-pom-tailed delight at the end of my leash who has made my world less painful and so much wider as he literally restores vistas for me.

Still the thought of Chester striding the exclusive pathways of the 5-Diamond American Club at Kohler was really scary. What if he has an accident, I said, envisioning those Oriental carpets again? Highly unlikely they said. But we’d clean it up. What if he barks, I asked? Not his usual style they said, but within the range of acceptable behavior for a service animal. You would figure out what he is asking for and provide it. For every anxiety, they had an answer.

Finally our wonderful veterinary specialist, Dr. Kim Curtis, weighed in making all the difference as she explained to me that Chester, in addition to being a family pet, is a working dog. Being deprived of his job assisting me takes a terrible toll on him. Once the relationship had formed I needed to respect his job and not turn him on and off at will or as Oriental carpets dictated. And so “they” won and off we went to The American Club and our Women’s Wellness Weekend with Chester at my side, transforming the seven hours in the car from a neurological hell for all involved into the simple logistical reality of a car trip that it had always been for us before I sustained my TBI.

Brain Injuries Happen to Families

I have to move from “I” language to the more accurate and collective “we” when writing about Chester as a service dog. He is truly a service dog to all three of us because brain injuries happen to families. When Mom or Dad returns brain injured from war, an accident, or in my case a fall down two flights of stairs, the whole family celebrates and suffers as they adjust to the new person in the family, or at least the new personality. A parent, who might have been a rock of emotional strength and stability in the past, now swings between moods ranging from euphoria to dysphoria. A gentle and mild-mannered spouse may now have real difficulties in controlling anger and frustration.

In my case, I am more easily frightened in general. Mysteriously my brain refuses to recognize Thursday, so I have a regularly foreshortened week.  I need more silence, rest, and long uninterrupted expanses of sleep than I used to. Bright lights and harsh sounds cause me to get disoriented; and I don’t mean strobe lights and a rock concert atmosphere. Everyday lights and sounds oftentimes overwhelm my new brain. I cannot rush or be rushed ever for any reason. I need routine and sameness and predictability in every arena of my life. Something as simple as more than one person speaking at once is hard on my brain and can bring on anger, disorientation, and rapid exhaustion. But nothing unravels me like being the passenger in a car. Or more accurately, nothing is worse for everyone in our family than having me as a passenger in the car.

Before I understood my TBI, I continued to drive my car. As I reconciled myself to my new brain and how it processes more slowly, I accepted life as a young woman who would need to be chauffeured almost everywhere. If I think or talk about this for more than a moment I become depressed and frustrated. I choose instead to leave this topic suspended in my consciousness. However, the challenges of being a passenger do not allow for that form of denial. My difficulties with this are so pronounced and affect my sisters so directly that I have been forced to address them.

In essence, there are no near misses in my brain. Where a healthy brain might process a wow that was a close one situation in one quick moment and move on my brain keeps going. It locks onto the near miss and the near catastrophe and fixates. It doesn’t bounce back quickly. In a neurological event that is very close in nature to a seizure, my brain hooks into a neurological loop of Oh my God, we could have been killed and it just won’t let go. During a 45-minute drive to the doctor, this circuit could engage 8 or 10 times, as we live in a big city and travel super busy and for me very “eventful” expressways. It can fill the entire trip.

And it is a very vocal event. My brain expresses an audible, and for the driver, very upsetting OMG, companioned with a strange gasping for air sort of hiccup style of breathing. I’m exhausted and rattled and so are my sisters. Every year this has gotten worse. Sitting in the back seat helps very little; so for the most part I have to close my eyes as a passenger and this is really creepy and strange when I am not tired and a wonderful world is within my view but just too much for my brain. Unless Chester is sitting beside me because then none of this happens. I am a passenger, conversation ensues, and gazing out the window becomes a source of distraction and/or pleasure. Just like the old days – pre TBI.

How Chester accomplishes this remains mysterious to me. I can only explain that he behaves differently than any dog I have ever had in my car. There is no pacing and panting, no head out the window to catch the wind, no interacting with any one in the car but me – he does not even look out the window. What he does is enter the back seat once I am settled, whereupon he rests forward facing and dignified beside me with one paw resting gently on my left thigh. If I feel nervous at all I pet him: nothing too unusual there; much the same as anyone enjoying the comfort of a furry companion. Here’s where Chester differs from the average pet. Chester is able to anticipate the kinds of events and near misses that trigger an episode for me. He will suddenly and very deliberately turn towards me, place both of his front legs on my left thigh then capture my gaze and hold it. It is as if he is saying, here we go Mary, there’s a big one coming, stay with me, stay with me, stay with me. I can only describe his gaze as scanning. He is scanning my brain and keeping me stable until the neurological event has passed. So accurate is his ability in this regard, so psychic and amazing, that I have learned to say simply to my sisters that Chester feels a big one coming, so pay close attention to the road. He is never wrong and he has probably saved our collective lives on more than one occasion. It is simply amazing to experience.

Having Chester at my side means that the entire family enjoys a ride without terrifying alarms going off every few minutes that leave the driver constantly rattled and wondering if something is truly wrong or is Mary just misfiring. I arrive at my medical appointments in great shape; but there is one large drawback. What do I do with the dog that has transformed the journey from trauma to transportation? Where does Chester go and what does Chester do while I see the doctor, or eat in a restaurant, or shop in a mall? He most certainly cannot be left in the car.

Ironically, when Chester is least required for me in the role of service dog, he becomes most visible in that role to a world at times ill-prepared or uneducated about the real service these exceptional animals afford to individuals with a wide range of challenges – be they neurological (TBI, seizure disorders), visual (blindness), or emotional (autism, PTSD) in nature. Here’s where a new anxiety disorder, for me, is added to my previous TBI-inspired problems. How is the world going to deal with me having Chester at my side anytime I venture more than 10 minutes or miles from my home?

If I am invited to a party at a friend’s home that is 40 minutes from my home, then Chester has to come along, even if that friend doesn’t like dogs. The same applies to the mall, or restaurant, or movie, or event, or location I need or want to go to. I live in a country that loves its pets but allows them in very few situations. It is a small but critical comfort to me that Chester’s right to accompany me is protected by Federal Law and guaranteed by the US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. Chester has “performed” beautifully by my side at the movies, at the doctor, in restaurants, and even in church. But sometimes I just want to go to the movies or have the occasional meal in a restaurant without feeling like a civil rights warrior. And many times I have to go to work. Sometimes I have to work out of town. Sometimes I even have to stay in motels and hotels. Which brings us to the lushly carpeted hallowed halls of The American Club in Kohler, Wisconsin.

An Emotional Arrival of a Different Sort

When Clare and Annie and I hand-carried our lifestinks deodorant to the Kohler Waters Spa for the very first time some 17 months ago, I was teary-eyed, humbled and amazed as we crossed the threshold. Our little handmade homemade deodorant had won its place among the other unique products sold there. Training the spa staff was a joy. A healthy and rewarding relationship had begun.

Annie and Chester are greeted at the American Club

But much had changed for the Duggan Sisters over the course of 17 months. As we crossed the threshold in early March to The American Club, two elegant doormen in top hats and double-breasted long woolen coats held the ornate doors open for Chester and the Duggan Sisters. Exiting guests appeared surprised and delighted watching Chester hurtle his short-legged little self up the richly carpeted stairs to the lobby. He was as confident and self-assured as if he’d been to the Manor born. And then I heard the greetings.

“Chester has arrived!” was repeated again and again as the message spread among the desk clerks and other staff. As Chester hurried me through the lobby, arriving as he always does to each of our destinations with the air of a Secret Service Agent sweeping the area for any potential threats to my well being, I kept my eyes firmly on the ever-present Oriental carpets. Then I heard a young woman saying, “Welcome to The American Club, Chester” and then another and another. Clare had respected my wishes and notified our friends at Kohler that I would be arriving with my service dog. I had not known what to expect, but I had not expected this. I felt my anxieties beginning to dissolve in the face of the warm and professional greeting of the Kohler staff. It was to continue like that for our 3-day stay.

Each and every psychological hurdle for me was alleviated in the face of the Kohler brand values of hospitality, service, communication and compassion. In every area staff delighted in Chester’s presence: offers of walks and assistance abounded. When a member of the team knocked on our door minutes after our arrival, bearing an enormous and elegantly carved crystal bowl to be used as Chester’s water dish, we laughed. When he saw Chester he realized that Chester could have bathed in the bowl. Assuming the more typical stature of a service dog, this wonderful young man smiled and said, “Oh, I’m sorry. We just wanted him to have the finest there is! Let me get something smaller.”  In business speak this sort of attention to detail and service is known as enchantment. We were definitely enchanted.

The weekend went off without a hitch. January weather finally arrived in March, creating a winter wonderland and Chester’s favorite thing in the whole world – SNOW. Chester romped in the pristine landscape surrounding the Club until he passed out exhausted in our room where he slept undisturbed while we enjoyed a complimentary spa treatment and a late night dinner.

Jean Kolb, Kohler’s Director of Wellness, with the Duggan Sisters and Chester

Jean Kolb, Kohler’s Director of Wellness, and a true dog lover, and the rest of the wonderful wellness team met Chester on our first morning and never stopped fawning over him for the duration of our visit. We trained staff, attended a cocktail reception for attendees, and met with chefs in The American Club kitchen to approve Green Smoothies to be served with breakfast. We gave our talk and sold our products and held our meetings and Chester accompanied me where and when it made sense and was necessary.

The women of the weekend accepted Chester’s presence with love and grace; in fact any number of them shared their personal stories of heartache, sickness and struggle with me, commenting that Chester’s presence at the Kohler weekend had been an added healing blessing. And that mattered to me more than anything else. It is in the nature of the work we do as sisters, that we often find ourselves in hospitals and schools and nursing homes; and so we have begun to research training Chester to the even higher calling of Therapy Dog. It looks like that training will begin as soon as next month. We look forward to seeing what additional professional training can do to enhance Chester’s naturally comforting and uplifting presence wherever he goes; for others, in addition to myself. I am confident that he has it within him to go from an individual Service Animal to group Therapy Animal.

In our final minutes at Kohler, as we were packing our bags, and preparing to leave the wellness weekend, there was a knock on our door. Clare answered to a smiling member of the cleaning staff, saying we needed just a few more minutes, if that was okay. No problem, she said. I was just checking in a little early hoping I could meet Chester!

My sisters have struggled with me to accept the gift of Chester. When I say I feel self-conscious about having a dog with me everywhere I go they have two consistent retorts. The first is, stop feeling self-conscious Mary, no one is looking at you, they’re all looking at Chester. The second is infinitely more somber as they remind me that our nation is now flooded with soldiers returning home with severe TBIs and lots of related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Our fervent prayer is that each and every one of them will enjoy the healing presence of a Chester in their life and the lives of their families. And that Americans will graciously welcome them home in the same fashion that Kohler welcomed Chester. My sisters are always reminding about how lucky I am that for whatever challenges I face, I have been left with so many gifts, and foremost among them the gift of storytelling. To that end, I would like to share one brief and final story of our weekend.

A POST SCRIPT: Still Wisconsin, definitely not Kohler.

Exhilarated from Chester’s big adventure but exhausted from our working weekend, we stopped in the small town of Cedarburg, Wisconsin on our way home. A store there wants to carry our products and we were really hungry. Hoping to kill two birds with one stone, (an expression I really want to stop using) we stopped. We went into a highly recommended restaurant and I approached the young man at the hostess stand, asking for a quiet table for three women and one small service dog. Though the restaurant was very quiet at 3PM on a Saturday afternoon, the only quiet tables were up a long, steep flight of stairs that neither Chester nor I could manage. So, we reluctantly agreed to a tall table with stools in the front of the restaurant. Chester settled quietly, as he always does on the floor just beside my stool. A young woman came over and said, “I’m sorry, but is that a Medical Animal?” and I explained, as I had to the host, that yes, he was my Service Dog and assisted me with a Neurological Disability. She stepped away, without a response or smile and I sensed trouble. Before we had even a moment’s time to look at the menu, a woman, clearly the owner, came flying in the front door and from 3 feet away from our table said, “Ladies, you cannot be here with that dog!” The few customers present stared at us while I explained to her that in fact my right to be in her restaurant with my service dog was protected by the Federal Government.

I was tired and bummed to be coming off my Kohler high but quick thinking Annie retrieved a card we carry explaining my rights. “But he doesn’t even look like a Service dog,” the owner said. “And he doesn’t have tags or anything.” And this was true as Chester’s tags had fallen off amid his playful romping in the snow at Kohler and couldn’t be found. I explained that to her and reminded her that I am not required to have any identification on Chester. In fact, clearly marked Service Dogs make lots of disabled folks feel vulnerable and afraid. She glanced briefly at the card explaining my rights to a Service Dog under the Federal Americans with Disabilities Act and then threw it back on the table, saying I don’t need this.  But I thought she did and I said so to her. I found the voice I had so dreaded using, just as my sisters had said I needed to. I claimed a little more space for my own wellness, and hopefully someone else’s in the process.

“Madame, I paid for that card but I think you should keep it and read it and share it with your staff. I’m just a middle-aged gal with a brain injury who’s hungry and happens to have a service dog with me and wants to get a bite to eat in your restaurant. But one of these days you are going to get a soldier in here with a brain injury and a dog that doesn’t look right to you. And you might find yourself being rude and illegal to an actual war hero.” She turned on her heels, saying have a nice afternoon over her shoulder as she left the restaurant. When I told our perfectly lovely waitress how upsetting that encounter had been and how out of line her boss was, she defended her saying, “We have a blind guy here all the time with a dog, and she never makes a fuss.”

Annie looked at my now tired and discouraged face and said, “Don’t let the turkeys get you down, Mary.” Clare looked across the table, made a sad face and said, “Cole slaw or French fries?” When I glanced down, Chester was sweet and still beside me, intent on capturing and holding my gaze, using his scanning technique as he had so many times before in our few months together. Don’t get upset Mom. Don’t get swept up in their crazy thinking. Stay with me. We’ll get through this and we did. But not without me gazing deeply into Chester’s sweet eyes, and saying “We’re not at The American Club anymore, are we Toto?” Indeed we weren’t.


Watch Chester’s Goodbye To The American Club


Stay tuned to our blog for ongoing stories about Chester’s travels with the sisters.


About the author:
Mary Duggan is Co-Founder and President of the Duggan Sisters.

The Duggan Sisters cracked the code and created a natural deodorant that actually works: lifestinks.  We hope you will spend a few minutes exploring to experience their spirited approach to wellness through their natural products and healing stories.


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5 Responses to “Chester Goes To The American Club”

  1. […] don’t know if Chester will ever again be able to take on his big job of assisting me through the neurological challenges of my life with a TBI. My sisters are always determined that his working life will be fully restored with some work with […]

  2. Having lost my beloved dog a year and half ago, I can guess at your pain in losing him, although as your service animal he was so very much more to you than mine. Sending you loving thoughts for healing.

    There WILL be another dog for you, not to replace Chester, but when you are ready, he will send you a new angel to help you.


    • Mary Duggan says:

      Thanks for the kind words. In the past two years we have lost a dog and three cats – now we lose Chester. I always thought I was keeping Chester at a distance as he had a job to do. I was nuts. This is awful. It feels the same. But less than two years together is a new one for me. Love can’t be measured in time allotments. He gave everything to us; and we didn’t even know underneath it all he was struggling with this lousy cancer. Damn. Again, thanks, Mary

  3. Jennifer says:

    I debated whether to read this or not because I am still grieving for “my boys.” We said good-bye to one in 2012 and the second this past March. I still cry at inappropriate times. I am surprised at how grief-stricken I still am feeling.

    This was beautiful. You and Chester were blessed to have each other. May God bless you.

    • Mary Duggan says:

      Thank you for having the emotional courage to read about our Chester. I know about your grief. When we adopted Chester I thought I could not take him on – I was still so in grief for my previous dog and then the loss of 2 cats. All I can say is, I know your grief. Thank you for taking Chester into your heart – he would have loved that. How did you hear about this blog? Just curious? Be well, Mary

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