Anti-Bullying Speaker Gabe Ford Shares her Strength

by Cheryl Price
Gabrielle Ford's memoir
“To the world you may be my dog, but to me you are the world.” Gabrielle “Gabe” Ford expresses this heartfelt sentiment about Izzy, her beloved Black and Tan Coonhound who passed away in May 2009. While many dog owners and pups indeed form a tight bond, the connection between Gabe and Izzy certainly went deeper. At a time when a medical diagnosis and bullying left her in a deep depression, Gabe was introduced to Izzy and soon gained the inner strength to embrace her own life. Now at 30 years old, Gabe is a confident woman, an author and national anti-bullying speaker. When asked what got her to this point in life, Gabe immediately answered, “Izzy.”

Gabe grew up outside of Detroit, Michigan and experienced a fulfilling, carefree childhood. She loved to dance and participate in sports. Then suddenly, when she was 12, Gabe began to walk off-balance and her speech started to slur. Gabe recalls, “I was a little more clumsy than what I was before, but I still thought I was a normal 12 year old.” Her family became concerned, and soon Gabe was taken out of school and brought to doctors and hospitals for multiple tests. After misdiagnoses, it was finally confirmed that Gabe was suffering from Friedrich’s ataxia, a rare disease that causes nervous system damage, movement problems and leads to impaired muscle coordination. Says Gabe, “My world had been turned upside down. I didn’t want anything to be wrong.”

At the same time that Gabe and her family were absorbing the diagnosis, other family problems arose that resulted in the family relocating. Gabe remembers, “I had to learn to live a new life. Lots of things were unfamiliar. I had to move to a different town and a new school. I wanted to be like everyone else. I tried to deny I had a disease, but the reality was that I had to quit dancing and all the activities I was in because my balance was getting worse.”

Life as she knew it was spinning out of control, and all Gabe wanted was to be a typical, carefree middle school student. Unfortunately, Gabe could not enjoy school because she became a victim of school bullying. Gabe recalls this difficult time in her young life: “The bullying started in eighth grade, when I began at the new school, and it actually continued right up to graduation day of high school. I didn’t have friends in this school and immediately kids were calling me names, spreading rumors that weren’t true, I was threatened that I’d be slapped and beaten up, kids threw spit wads at me in class, and they mocked the way I walked, talked and how my mouth moved differently. Kids would trip and shove me because they knew my balance was bad, and then they’d laugh. I tried to be nice, hoping they’d stop making fun of me. While I was really upset, I tried not to show the hurt. I’d go home and stay alone in my room. My parents heard very few details about what was happening.”

As Gabe speaks, it’s clear that the pain still lives in her memory and that the shame is something that may be healing but will never completely go away, especially when she discusses her high school graduation: “At my graduation ceremony, I twisted my ankle and fell when I was walking back downstairs towards my seat. That moment was extremely humiliating for me because I tried so hard to walk down the stairs without anything happening. I stood back up and made it to my seat and started thinking, ‘Oh gosh, I’m gong to made fun of,’ and later that night kids did mock me for falling. That night really was the final straw for me. I hid away in my house and fell into a deep depression. For about four years I was home most of the time, lonely, emotionally distraught. At the same time, my condition was worsening, but I refused to use a walker and a wheelchair.”
The years of bullying that she’d kept private had taken their toll on Gabe. She shut down. After a year of being home post-graduation, Gabe decided, “I needed something that was mine. What better to love you unconditionally than a dog?” Gabe asked her mother for a puppy. “At first she resisted because she was worried about me taking care of a dog. After some pushing, though, she realized the dog and responsibility would be good for me, especially considering how secluded I’d become.” Gabe was ecstatic about getting a dog and immediately started to research a unique breed online. Gabe joyfully recounts, “All of a sudden I saw the name Black and Tan Coonhound, which I’d never heard of  before, so I clicked on the name and fell in love with the picture. I read the profile about their temperament, their energy level, and everything was perfect. My mom called the breeder and asked if she had a little girl puppy, hopefully mellow and with the longest ears. She said she had a little girl whose ears were the longest in the litter. We knew she was the one for me.” When the puppy was old enough to leave her mom, Gabe’s wish to have a dog came true. Gabe named her Izzy and the two were immediately inseparable.

At first Gabe and Izzy spent a lot of time indoors. While Gabe was thrilled to have this new love in her life, Gabe still wasn’t getting out of the house--that is, until Izzy swallowed a rock at five months and needed to go for emergency surgery. The veterinarians were able to get the rock out, but they noticed that Izzy’s organs were smaller than they should be for her age and size. It turned out that she had a portal systemic shunt, a life-threatening disease. This diagnosis meant that Izzy would need to have regular, frequent visits to the vet, accompanied by Gabe. Out of the house and in charge of Izzy, Gabe had to speak with the veterinarians; speaking wasn’t something she felt comfortable doing, due to her effected speech. But with Izzy as her priority, Gabe let the words flow and gained confidence in doing so. The vet put Izzy on a lifetime low-protein diet, and Izzy responded well.

People were touched by Gabe and Izzy, and an article was written in the paper about their unique relationship and conditions. From that, someone at Animal Planet contacted Gabe about doing a television feature. Gabe and Izzy were in the spotlight!

Four years after the television debut, Izzy started to walk unsteadily. Gabe thought perhaps the shunt was the problem. But when the symptom didn’t improve, tests were ordered. Izzy was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy, progressive degeneration of muscles. It was both profoundly sad and unbelievable that Gabby and Izzy now shared a very similar disease. Gabby explains, “When Izzy became sick by the muscle disease, our bond strengthened even more. We understood each other. She had a difficult time walking far, which I understood.”

Gabe now was a fixture at the vet’s, with Izzy now being treated for the systemic shunt and muscle disease. As Gabe says, “I was forced out of the house again. By Izzy becoming sick, I had no choice but to overcome my fears about going out and speaking in public.”

Speaking to doctors and people in the waiting room was certainly a big social step for Gabe, but she began to have opportunities to branch out even further. “Before Izzy was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy, my sister’s class asked me to come in and talk about what it was like to be on Animal Planet. The following year, my uncle, who was also a teacher, asked me to talk to his class about bullying, since by that point my family had learned what I’d been through all those years.” Gabe was speaking to groups of children, and while it took some getting used to, she was out there and spreading a positive message: “At first it was very difficult. I didn’t like speaking in front of people because for years I was made fun of for the way I spoke. In fact, in high school I had speech class waived because I was so deathly afraid of getting up in front of everyone. But Izzy got me out of my depression, out of the house and speaking to people!” Today Gabe continues to speak publicly, only on a grander scale. “Now I travel around the country and speak to, at most, 3,000 kids at a time.”

Today, Izzy has been gone for over a year, and Gabe thinks about her every day. She remembers having to make the decision to put her sweet Izzy to sleep. “When she was 9, Izzy had started to get very weak, especially her back legs. She had been using a wagon to walk long distances, but at this point she couldn’t even stand up and was crying out in constant pain.” Indeed, Gabe made the right decision to put Izzy down and end the suffering. “I still miss her so much!”

While Izzy is not physically in Gabe’s life anymore, she is most certainly in her heart and in her life every day. Her public speaking, her memoir, her confidence--so much stems from having Izzy in her life. “Izzy got me through a hard time in my life. Nobody should have to endure the bullying that I went through all those years. I try to explain to kids when I speak that bullying is a choice.”

Looking back, Gabe realizes that she should have opened up to her family about the bullying that was taking place in school. “It’s important to share with people what’s going on because there are things you just can’t handle by yourself.” She also advises those parents who are aware of bullying to speak with administration and faculty at their child’s school.
Gabe with a friend's dog, Samji
The most important message Gabe has for bullies, though, is to realize that they have choices. Speaking to these bullies, Gabe explains, “Bullying is not something you have to do. Be the better person and make the best choice that you can. If you have made fun of someone and feel bad, just apologize that day. Take advantage of the moment while you have it. If you apologize, you will feel better about yourself too.”

In her book “Still Dancing,” available at Gabe’s website and, Gabe speaks about her childhood years and those treacherous bullying experiences, as well as where she is today. Writing her memoir was time-consuming and not easy, especially when recounting personal stories. Gabe put in the work in order to help others.

As for her physical well-being, Gabe now uses a wheelchair, something she wishes she’d been more open to sooner. “I’ve realized that it doesn’t matter what other people think of me being in a wheelchair. I now know it’s okay; I’m not a bad person just because I use a wheelchair. I’m just like everyone else, only I can’t walk. It took me years to realize that.”

Gabe Ford has a perspective that many people don’t gain until late in life. She has already had her share of heartbreak and pain, and yet her attitude is positive and her plans definite. “I want to get married and have a family.” And she will! Gabe is intelligent, beautiful, determined and strong. Keep an eye out for her because the spotlight on Ms. Ford is shining bright.

For more information and to order Gabe’s memoir “Still Dancing,” visit


  1. Great job on this amazing story you have been give. keep up the good work, the kids need you to be a VOICE for them.

  2. i remember seeing her story on tv and wondered what came of the two. i am glad to see that she has survived and blossomed to a confident woman. i am a huge fan of pets and pet therapy. i have gotten great peace and tranquility from my beloved dogs. when things couldn't get worse, my dogs were there next to me


We would love to hear from you! Please become a member to comment. Thank you!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.