Episode 44 Transcript

Published: Thursday April 25, 2024

Kimberly Elliott, Be Like Josh Foundation | Advocate for Dogs with Neurological Disabilities

Kimberly Elliot | Rescuing dogs deemed unadoptable


Alycia Anderson: Welcome to Pushing Forward with Alycia, a podcast that gives disability a voice. Each week we will explore topics like confidence, ambition, resilience and finding success against all odds. We are creating a collective community that believes that all things are possible for all people.

Open hearts. Clear paths. Let’s go.

Welcome back to Pushing Forward with Alycia. I’m Alycia Anderson. I’m a fan girl. I have gone to this amazing human beings events. I have, Kimberly Elliott.

She is the founder of the Be Like Josh Foundation and nonprofit organization that’s dedicated to dogs. Neurological disabilities. She is an educator. She’s a fierce advocate for humans, for dogs. All of it. So, Kimberly. Thank you. Welcome.

Kimberly Elliott: Well, thank you for the warm welcome. I… gosh, I’m really feeling myself after that introduction. My goodness.

I feel like as an advocate, it’s a lot of just screaming into the abyss. There’s not always a tangible return on investment. So, I’m always sort of taken aback when I hear how other people view me.

You know, I get out of bed everyday like how can I do better than I did the day before? So thank you for that. I appreciate it. Little feather in my cap to start off the day.

Alycia Anderson: I know advocacy is a huge component of who you are? I look up to following you because you are avid and strong and powerful in your advocacy. And, it makes me in my own advocacy, want to be a little stronger, braver, a little bit more fearless. So, where did this come from?

Kimberly Elliott: OK, let me lay out really quick what Be Like Josh is so we can just help… so we can help our listeners see where I’m coming from. So Be Like Josh is named after my dog Josh. Josh and I met. He came into my home as a foster. I fell in love. He essentially has, in layman’s terms, Wobbler syndrome.

So, the technical word is cerebellar hypoplasia, which essentially means cerebellum underdeveloped, or cerebellum smaller. You have a cerebellum, humans and dogs and other animals have a cerebellum. It’s the part of the brain, essentially that regulates motor function. It’s the center of our balance and coordination.

So, when you see him, he is a happy, adorable, curly, fuzzy goldendoodle who’s walking like he’s had four margaritas and having a great time. If you were to look at his disability on a spectrum, he is between moderate and severe.

So, when he’s not being supported in his wheelchair. He’s being supported by me, his service human, by guiding him with his harness and his harness handle. If I were to let go of his harness, he might be able to take a couple steps on his own, but then he would fall over or go rigid and fall straight back on his head.

He’s not in pain. He’s not paralyzed.

Had someone asked me today when I had them out on a walk. Ohh are your dogs paralyzed? I’m like, no, they’re moving their own wheelchairs, all it is, is a disconnect between the brain and body.

You know when he says walk straight in the straight line. He thinks he is and he’s walking all over like you’re, you know, the girl you partied with in college that drank at every party, you know, so their wheelchairs kind of work, like training wheels on a kids bike.

Whereas most wheelchairs that you see dogs with wheelchairs. Traditionally we see dogs that have had some sort of hind end trauma or paralysis or a limb difference, so the wheels are in place of their legs. We’re more used to seeing that spinal cord injuries I work with and the Be Like Josh Foundation represents a very specific set of disabilities, these disabilities that dogs that I work with. It is intracranial disabilities, more than spinal cord disability. So, like in the medical world when I talk to veterinarians, I say we deal with disabilities C2 and up, so cervical spine 2 and up.

So, everything essentially between your ears, that’s where all of our focus lies. And we’re also huge advocates of diagnostic imaging, which is almost never done in veterinary medicine. At least not in the rescue world. Just because it’s so expensive and most dogs with neuro disabilities, here’s our big like to that are almost always euthanized upon symptom onset because there is a widely held belief in the canine world breeding world veterinary medicine world. That a dog, whose physical body is not typical, that they’re somehow automatically experiencing a lesser quality of life.

And so, our whole mission is #1 rescuing these dogs, taking them from breeders and owners and shelters and other intro rescue transfers, showcasing them telling their story on social media. And a lot of that is, yes, it’s part rescue, but it’s also getting people comfortable with the language of inclusion, the language of disabilities and differences.

You know, we kind of coined the phrase like service human.

Is, well, a lot of people like to say ohh I’m my dog’s service human meaning I wait on my dog hand and foot and hey, while that may be true in our home, I am my dog’s service human. If I do not show up to work and do my job, my dogs don’t go to the bathroom outside, they don’t get a drink of water. Ford cannot feed himself, he cannot. Usually he’s just now starting to lift and hold his own head up.

So, a big part of it is telling their story and making people comfortable with talking about disabilities. Everyone’s so uncomfortable talking about disabilities, they like to say specially-abled or differently-abled. And I say, hey, that’s OK, but in this community we say disabled. There’s nothing wrong with that.

So, and that’s where we found that most people can talk about canine disabilities with a little bit more ease and comfort and familiarity than human disabilities.

So that’s sort of like our first thing is bringing the dogs in, telling their story, getting them comfortable, and then the other piece is the hardcore advocacy, which is you don’t euthanize these dogs because they have a disability. Yes, they have a different lifestyle. It requires more work, but the question is how do we find the person to service human that can bridge the gap between the dog’s body and needs and the world they live in.

The dog is not lesser of a dog. The dog just has higher needs and it’s a matter of can we bridge the gap and are we willing to and it comes down to the people and this is where we really rally like our rescue community, you know, do you want to take in a dog with a disability? Can you see past the disability? Can you see yourself enjoying your relationship with the dog?

And I think we really have created a very inclusive community by doing that by adopting out these dogs with profound some very profound disabilities, we see our service humans carrying them in backpacks and pulling them in wagons and pushing them in strollers and purchasing wheelchairs and special booties and scooters. And, the list goes on and people are living full lives with their disabled dog and it’s just a testament to a disability, is literally just that, it is a disability.

It is maybe one more obstacle or challenge that we have and in an already challenging world, it’s just one more thing for us to overcome and overcoming within the the journey of overcoming is confidence and relationship building and enrichment and so many positive things. And so we’re really big into empowerment. I like to empower the dogs through how we handle them and encourage them, and we empower the people.

Yes. If you want to love a dog like this, we can coach you and encourage you, and you can have this unique experience and believe it or not, we have adopted so many of these dogs out into thriving environments.

Alycia Anderson: I mean, Josh is a perfect example. He’s so happy. He’s like, you know, he’s living a full life too. And I think that that’s really important for our community and society to understand that whether it’s a pet or a human or whatever, you can live a full life with a disability. It just might look a little bit different.

Kimberly Elliott: Yes and it really is a lot of people come to… I have found they come to the experience with this sort of self-imposed limitation, right? Like immediately, it’s like a lot of people say, how do you work? Do you leave the house? Can they be left alone?

I’m like, oh, my god, absolutely. They can be left alone for hours. You know, I will leave Ford alone for 7-8 hours. They’re potty trained. They have boundaries. They know how to stay put in place. They’re brilliant. You know they’re. It’s like there might be a delay between when their brain asks their body to do something. There’s a delay in the execution of the task, but they’re brilliant dogs. They’re smart, they’re emotionally intuitive.

The relationship I have with Josh and Ford, out of all the dogs I’ve ever owned in my life, and I’ve owned some amazing dogs, is probably the deepest, most profound dog handler connection I have because #1 they’re my dog, so just the way you feel about your dog, to the listeners, the way you guys feel about your dog, that’s how I feel about Josh and Ford. But then I’m also a caregiver. And so to your listeners, anybody out there who’s a parent the way you are a caregiver to your child, that that’s sort of how I feel with Josh and Ford, you know.

Ford even more than Josh, his disability is has a much more profound impact on his body. I can grab Josh by his harness handle and kind of walk him down the street and people say, Oh my gosh, he looks like he’s dancing. They don’t always make the connection that he has a disability. But, Ford bless his heart if I try to just to hold him up by his harness handle, he just collapses like a baby giraffe, or like a little marionette doll, you know. And, you can tell by the way he… his eyes will kind of go cross and then roll back in his head. And, he has a lot of, you know, spasticity and his movements and people know right away, oh, oh, with those, they’ll approach differently, you know, a furrowed brow.

Ohh. What’s wrong with your dog? Ohh, that one’s happy, but I’m not sure about this one and it’s like, actually not only are they both happy, but oftentimes Ford is happier because Josh is more particular in getting his way. It’s actually Ford that’s like, oh, hell yeah. I’m down for anything, you know? So, and Ford is so much more to manage, you know, he’s got seizures and he just has high… he just has higher needs than Josh. He’s just a little bit more, but I love him so much. I love him so deeply. We go for big hikes in his wheelchair. We’ll go out for 40-45 minutes walking in the desert.

So it’s… It’s just, yeah, we are breaking down barriers and. Not just, you know, in in our social communities, in our conversation, but also in veterinary medicine. I mean, that’s a whole other conversation that we have is finding veterinarians that can see past the disability and treat the dog.

Almost always, if I come in with Ford and who’s having a UTI, if I go to most veterinarians outside of our very select veterinarian community that we’ve built. Almost always they go let’s talk about the disability, and I’m like, well, hold on, why are we talking about the disability? I know he’s got a disability, he knows he’s got a disability. We good. I’m here to treat this UTI. Yeah. But. And I’m like, look the UTI and the disability they are not affected by one another. And so, I have seen that in veterinary medicine.

The doctors can’t… The veterans cannot get past the disability.

So and… and so we’ve talked about veterinary ableism within Be Like Josh as well and that’s a real dicey topic because it’s like well, who are you, you’re not a veterinarian. And it’s like, well, no, I’m not. And yet, in order to advocate medically for these dogs and treat them, we have to go in and talk to veterinarians like we’re a veterinarian. Now, I know I don’t have the schooling. I don’t pretend to be. I’m not here to treat and diagnose. But I am here to be my pet’s medical advocate.

So Be Like Josh, as many things… I wear many hats. I’m insecure most every day, all day, because I’m I am actually dealing with conversations and a topic that there’s just… you… you can’t Google it.

Alycia Anderson: This is a perfect time to take a quick break. You are listening to Pushing Forward with Alycia and we will be right back.


Alycia Anderson: Welcome back to Pushing Forward with Alycia. I’m Alycia Anderson. I have Kimberly Elliott, the founder of the Be Like Josh Foundation and nonprofit organization that’s dedicated to dogs with neurological disabilities.

Kimberly Elliott: Google dogs with cerebellar hypoplasia you have very limited information. We’ve also uncovered diagnosis that don’t even have a name like Ford’s, you know, Ford and Jeffrey are two dogs with essentially identical MRI’s, identical symptoms. There’s no name to their disability, but if you were to Google degenerative four brain plus cerebellar hypoplasia and dogs you, you get nothing. There’s no case studies, there’s no nothing. Yeah, so. That’s… that’s you know, that’s what we do behind social media and then on social media, we show life with these dogs and how we do it.

Alycia Anderson: And, an interesting thing to all those things that you said, there’s so much of that conversation, that translates to humans, right?

Kimberly Elliott: Oh yeah.

Alycia Anderson: Prejudgment on ability, thinking that life… life quality is not gonna equate to what it would if you had a typical able body. Like..

Kimberly Elliott: Right.

Alycia Anderson:That… that this conversation overlaps, what are you seeing is the impact?

Kimberly Elliott: Ohh my gosh, where do I start? Starting from… I’ll say starting from one end of the human spectrum to the other. On the one end of the spectrum, right, I call it like the fuzzy feel goods and on the other end of the spectrum I look… veterinary medicine.

That’s sort of the spectrum that I sit in because what I’ve learned is through this work, people… pet parents love their dogs. Most people love dogs and they don’t understand them. And I’m just talking about typical dogs, dogs that come out with no disability, no difference, just your good old fashioned old yeller. You know that you buy from the breeder bring it home, you know. They chew up some furniture and that’s that. So, they go to their veterinarian to understand their dog.

Well, as veterinarians don’t understand, dogs with disabilities. Then what… what do… what do we do? How how do we service dogs like Ford and Josh? Right.

So, that’s sort of the spectrum that that I look at every day.

So impact, with the warm and fuzzy.

We have done and we’re gonna start up again…, we do school visits. So, within school visits, we see children. Just really in some of our school visits we’ve had children that feel very comfortable talking about their disabilities, their invisible disabilities. We sit in sort of like round circles, and we have like windows of time with classrooms anywhere from like 15 to 30 minutes where we sit around, we touch Josh, we give him treats.

I explained to them in very simplistic terms what’s going on with Josh.

And in these conversations, you know, I’m able to talk to children and teach them more inclusive language. They will sometimes want to ask me a question. Some of the older students will ask me a question, but I could tell they’re hesitant because they’re caught up in… and how do I say this without being offensive?

And, I encourage them, there’s no wrong answers here.

Opening up conversations about disability… so it’s not, you know, a scary or dirty or negative word.

Alycia Anderson: I think that is a great way to bridge the gap of the conversation about disability for human beings, for children in school, is having a dog… I mean, it’s just like having a book that’s written using pets instead of humans for them to kind of start to dive into experiencing that and accepting it.

I love that work. That’s amazing.

Kimberly Elliott: So, in one of my very first school visits, we had our big assembly and then we broke out into small groups and I was doing General Ed classrooms.

So, I initially started off talking to the non-exceptional students, the non-special education classrooms, OK, just talking to schools about how do we be more inclusive with our peers, with differences and disabilities. And in one of these groups, the educator brought in one student. He was… his name was Henry, and he was such an adorable kid. Like, you just want to wrap your arm around him. He came in and he had lower leg braces. He had a small wheelchair and he had CP. And the teacher brought him in, and I had seen him at the assembly and we hi’d, hello’d, high five, fist bump and everything.

But he came in for some one-on-one hands-on time with Josh.

And so, I’d already been speaking to the students, and we’re in this round kind of like sitting crisscross applesauce and a big circle. And Josh is in the middle and Josh is doing his thing, you know, and Henry crawls over to him and he starts touching him and he just filled with joy and I could see this students warm and engaging with Josh and immediately pulling Henry into that, and I saw… I saw the inclusion happen. I saw it. I saw the mutual enrichment between Josh and Henry, and then I saw the other students sort of making a protective kind of like Big Brother circle around it.

Like we see it, we get it. We love it.

Alycia Anderson: I was at an event recently and I was with a girlfriend, actually. I was with my girlfriend and her son has Down syndrome and her daughter advocates for kids with disabilities in school. And she approached her mom and said recently they’re talking about inclusion in school all the time. They’re like, include the kids with disabilities, da-da-da-da-dadda-da-da… But the schools are not creating environments to teach the kids how to naturally navigate and have experiences just like this. That makes them all find a path into… play and being a community together, so I… that is powerful.

Kimberly Elliott: Yeah.

Alycia Anderson: That platform is kind of bridging that gap specifically when some of these kids are like going to show us how to do it.

Kimberly Elliott: Well. We need real life application. Having said that though right, we have to be careful that we’re not making it like a spectacle. You know, an intentionally enforced, curated thing.

It has to be organic or we feel like there’s it comes with expectations and we don’t want people to feel like they have to perform it or show up in a way that they’re not ready for. I’m also a really big believer in the universal energy that bonds us all, the undercurrent, you know, I’m very big into that.

And so, I think we do have these energetic chords within us. I feel that when we’re in the… when we’re in that setting, you know it’s a demonstration, yes, there’s words, there’s conversation, but just having the kids see how I engage with Josh and I’m just talking very comfortably, like, yeah, isn’t he funny? Oh, it’s OK. He fell over, you know, that he falls over and here’s why, and that’s OK and no, he’s not hurt. It’s OK.

You know, and the kids start opening up and then they start talking about, you know, the raise your hand. They’ll say I’m autistic or my brother has Down syndrome or you know, and they say or I have an uncle who’s in a wheelchair.

And then what I noticed was ohh, it’s cool. This is cool.

Well, what, what person or representation in my life? What experience have I had that I can share?

It’s just normalizing it, right? It’s normalizing instead of stigmatizing it.

And I think we… there’s a very fine line in events like these for me. Between stigmatizing something and normalizing it.

It’s got to be casual. It can’t be forced.

Alycia Anderson: Where does this take your advocacy?

Kimberly Elliott: I don’t know where I’m going. I really just, I rely on the universe to guide me and intuition to guide me and sort of like whatever opportunities in front of me. I just lean into it. I work in… our organization does rescue. Specifically dogs with complex neurological disabilities, spinal cord disabilities, medically complex dogs and that really does take up a lot of time. It does pull me away from… I don’t really do many speaking engagements.

We just wrapped up the Josh Tour. But when you originally you had asked me, circling back to community impact in those events. The impact was almost too much for me to metabolize.

I don’t think I’ve ever had so much deep, powerful, meaningful connection with so many different people from different walks of life from all over the country, from the Midwest to the Deep South to the East Coast to the West Coast to the liberal, to the conservative, to rural Alabama, to conversations in Seattle, and how they differed.

However, the part that didn’t differ was the inexplicable, non-judgmental, wide-eyed, big smile, loving dedication to all the things Josh. Be Like Josh.

Alycia Anderson: That’s where we met, and my best girlfriend, my sister. We brought the kids, we bought shirts. We came in like groupies, and it was amazing because, number one, we got to meet the pets and meet you and have the experience. But the one thing that I really enjoy in my life right now where my nieces and nephews are… is they… they don’t necessarily judge the disability, and they were the same way with the dogs.

And it was just a really beautiful family experience. And for me as a disabled person, then to be able to roll up next to Josh and hold Ford, I mean, I had him on my arms too, you know, and I, there was a beautiful connection of camaraderie and it was really it was a really cool experience as a disabled person too, to see an animal that looks like me to be honest with you.

Kimberly Elliott: So, here’s what I think is so cool. I love when people roll up in their wheels and I place Josh in their arms. They have the same experience in the same way that everybody else who’s standing in line is having. But the people standing in line are going can I hold that dog? Am I strong enough? Am I capable? Will he like it? Oh my God. I’m so nervous.

So, you’re having this… this moment of this is kind of cool seeing myself in an animal, you know, and then they’re seeing… they’re seeing it play out before them in the most natural way, right?

Yes. This person has a disability. Yes, this dog has a disability. But the connection is real and it’s the same connection I’m having with Josh and that’s what fuels me right there.

There’s always so much self-judgment and I think… I think for me that’s the part that taps into me because I come with so much self-judgment. We’re setting aside our stuff, if you will and … we’re just… we’re tapping into the connection and that’s the thing we all share. That end of in itself is the impact.

Alycia Anderson: I think the biggest work you could ever do in disability inclusion today is build the human connection, because once we have that…

Kimberly Elliott: Yeah.

Alycia Anderson: … that heart connection, then anything’s possible, right?

Kimberly Elliott: Yeah.

Alycia Anderson: And we care about it.

Kimberly Elliott: Absolutely.

Alycia Anderson: What is the ask of the audience? Like how can we support you? How can we, as advocates in our space, lift you up in the work that you’re doing and all of it?

Kimberly Elliott: I do not… Yet. I have not yet tapped into grants or large annual corporate sponsors, all of my fundraising is literally like for the dogs. I would love to get either a grant or grants or a large corporate sponsorship of someone that wants to get behind either the advocacy and the speaking. Or just the big picture. Like I do this full time but I do not… I have never drawn a paycheck from the Be Like Josh Foundation.

So, I think I would like to get a little bit more support that way. So that I could expand. I could… I could expand that way.

Alycia Anderson: We’ll get together and we’ll do some brainstorming. I’ve got some ideas.

Kimberly Elliott: OK.

Alycia Anderson: To wrap up, we always do a pushing forward moment, something to encourage and inspire our listeners to go for it in their lives. Is there something that you live by that you could gift away?

Kimberly Elliott: Hmm. Ohh gosh is there something like that I live by? Oh God, there’s something like I live by. Well, I think I think probably what you and I were kind of talking about when we pregamed this, you know, I tend to when I see the crowd gather around something that everyone’s hyped about, I immediately take a hard left turn from whatever that thing is. It’s probably a fear of failure, and it’s probably a fear of comparison, but it served me well because I marched to the beat of my own drum. I don’t want to do what everyone else is doing. I want to do my own thing. There’s more freedom there. There’s more grace.

Alycia Anderson: I love that about you, and in return, you also give a lot of light, brightness love, inspiration, and happiness.

So, for our listeners out there definitely find Kimberly on Josh the Doodle and Be Like Josh Pages on Instagram. And thank you for the important work that you’re doing. It’s reframing how disability is portrayed in so many different aspects of life, and I’m grateful for that.

Kimberly Elliott: That’s like the biggest compliment. That means something to me. When I leave this earth, I want to know that I have left my mark, you know, either on people or some leave behind something tangible. So, I appreciate that. Thank you.

Alycia Anderson: I think you’re doing both.

Kimberly Elliott: Thank you.

Alycia Anderson: Thank you and thanks so much to our listeners for showing up for this conversation and every week like you are.

I see you, we’re growing so fast, you’re helping us grow this advocacy platform, and I’m so grateful.

Until next time. This is Pushing Forward with Alycia and that is how I roll on this podcast.

We’ll see you next time.