Jaci Sweet was born with congenital abnormalities in her hips and knees, and has Ménière’s disease (an inner-ear disorder that affects balance and hearing), rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. Walking, especially up and down stairs, has always been difficult for the 47-year-old nurse, who lives in Spanaway, Wash. But giving up never came easily either.

“I’m one of those people that if you tell me I can’t do something, I’ll do anything I can to prove you wrong,” Jaci says.

In 1997, Jaci was forced to make a tough decision about her nursing job. “It was either the job or my health, so I had to give up the nursing,” she says. But with assistance dogs, daily tasks like grocery shopping or doing laundry are not so difficult, and they help her remain independent.

She got her first assistance dog while finishing nursing school in 1996. “One of my patients was terminally ill and had a German shepherd assistance dog named Wolf. He wanted his dog to go to a good home after his death, and he asked if I would adopt Wolf.”

Wolf was fully trained, and a trainer from New Life Mobility Assistance Dogs showed Jaci how Wolf could help her maintain her balance and handle tasks.

“If we were in the grocery store, Wolf would help by pulling items off of the lower shelves,” Jaci says. “He could also help pull the grocery cart and, if I were to fall, he could help me safely get back in a standing position.”

With an assistance dog, Jaci felt more independent – and empowered, she says. In fact, in 1999, Jaci, who has been in and out of wheelchairs since she was 15, entered the Ms. Wheelchair Washington pageant and took the title. “Having an assistance dog has given me the confidence to venture out into the world,” she says.

Today, Jaci is married and has two young sons. She also has Jasmine, her third German shepherd assistance dog. (Jetta followed Wolf, who died in 1998.) Jasmine can get Jaci’s shoes, open and shut doors, find the television remote and more.

“Not only has she given me my life back, but she’s also become a valued member of our family,” Jaci says.