Anne-Elizabeth Straub in Brooklyn, New York, gets out of bed and finds she’s having difficulty walking today. She calls her dog, Meka, a golden retriever, who “braces” Anne while she gets up, walks next to her, and assists her in and out of the shower. He brings her shoes as she dresses. When they leave the apartment, Meka walks next to her as she drives her motorized wheelchair. If Anne drops the phone, a pen, or something else, Meka picks it up. What do these two women have in common? They both have MS and wonderful service dogs.
Dogs, among others
Service animals come in many shapes, sizes, and species and perform tasks including, but not limited to, retrieval, support, guiding, alerting to sounds, opening and closing doors, and responding to changes in the physiological, mental, or emotional state of their human partners.
Monkeys, horses, cats, and pigs have all been trained to perform helpful tasks. But dogs have a special relationship with people and are, perhaps, the best-known service animals. Guide dogs for the visually impaired have long been accepted by the general public. Other types of assistance dogs, if less familiar, are equally helpful.
The number of people with MS who have service dogs is growing every year. Still, service dogs are not for everyone with a disability, any more than dogs are appropriate companions for everyone in the general population.
Deciding if a service dog is right
Typically, MS makes some daily activities more challenging, but it frequently takes people who have MS some time to decide that they need any kind of help at all. The decision to acquire a service dog takes a period of adjustment, even if the person knows the potential value of an animal’s help.
Sometimes the sentiment expressed is: “I’m not disabled enough to need that,” or its opposite: “I’m too disabled to have a dog.” Both responses miss the essential issue.
We think the question might be framed this way: “If you have a disability and using a service dog would mitigate its effects, would your life be easier and better?”
Another question also needs an answer: “Can you care for the needs of your animal partner either directly or with help?”
Answering truthfully requires considering your living arrangement, finances, and the desires and needs of other family members as well as yourself. It also means assessing your planning, problem-solving, and other cognitive abilities; the presence or absence of a support network; and your normal level of energy. When MS is in the picture, these vary in every individual situation regardless of the level of disability. There are no “one size fits all” answers either.
The next consideration is the partnership aspect. A service dog can provide wonderful assistance and loyal companionship, but he or she also has needs that must be met. A dog requires food, daily exercise, and care for bodily functions. A dog needs grooming, veterinary care, fun, affection, socialization with other dogs, and ongoing training. These take time, planning, energy, and money. Do you have or can you muster the funds, time, and personnel to meet a dog’s needs?
The path of owner/trainer
If you are considering being an owner/ trainer, there’s a great deal to learn. Many owner/trainers as well as professional trainers point out that selecting the dog can be far more daunting than the training itself. There must be a fit between the dog’s characteristics (physical and temperamental) and the needs of the person with the disability.
The dog must be in good health and condition. That might seem like a no-brainer until you look a bit deeper. Suppose, for example, you want the dog to assist with your balance. It is particularly important that the animal’s hips and elbows be healthy and free of any dysplasia or arthritis. Larger dogs, those most likely to be chosen for this kind of task, are more prone to congenital dysplasia than smaller breeds.
The only way to be sure is to X-ray the animal when she or he is full grown (around two years). The films should be interpreted by a vet who is a specialist in such X-rays. However, obedience training often begins when a dog is a puppy, and service dog training typically begins when a dog is nine to 18 months old. There is the possibility of disappointment—if balance support is essential.
There are also personality or temperament traits that are important to the chemistry between a dog and a human partner. Dogs are highly individual in terms of their willingness and ability to learn and their levels of concentration. It could prove to be a lengthy, costly, and emotionally draining process if the first (or second) dog you attempt to train proves not to be the one.
The owner/trainer takes on a large though clearly not impossible project. It can be successful, given access to the right information and support. There are many knowledgeable owner/trainers, and the Internet provides a means for these sometimes far flung people to communicate. See Resources below.
Private professional trainers
If you choose a private professional trainer, you need to review the trainer’s experience. Ask to contact former clients, especially others with MS. Ask if the trainer will help you select your dog. If this service is not included, you need to consider how you will find the best dog for your needs. Who will be in charge of those important health and temperament checks? Are you clear about timing and costs? Do you have a written agreement?
The path of assistance dog organizations
There are both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations that provide and train service animals and their human companions. Assistance Dogs International is a major resource for locating nonprofit groups. A tour of Web sites—or a look through the brochures—will show you that policies, procedures, expenses, and expectations vary widely.
Make sure that you understand and agree with the policies and procedures of any organization you decide to work with. What will you be required to pay? Will you be the dog’s legal owner? Will the organization follow up after placement? How and at what cost?
You will be asked many questions about your needs, preferences, and living conditions. Are you comfortable with that?
So there you have our primer on finding a new partner in life! Of course, it’s just the beginning.
Jodi Lee Ryan is a freelance writer and professional speaker. She is helping to train Sky’s successor, Cinder (photo above). Anne-Elizabeth Straub, who partners with Meka, is a certified Feldenkrais practitioner.
This article originally appeared in the April-May 2005 issue of InsideMS.