MORE THAN A BEST FRIEND

by Alice Thomson

We’ve all heard it said that dogs are man’s best friend. It appears to hold true – in the UK one in two households owns a pet and in 2015 it was estimated that the pet population stood at 8.5 million dogs and 7.4 million cats. With so many of us owning and loving our pets, the idea that dogs can be more than faithful companions isn’t that surprising. The ones who know that the best are likely the 7000-plus disabled people in the UK who depend on assistance dogs for care ranging from alerting those with epilepsy of an oncoming seizure, guiding the blind, or helping someone with limited mobility to perform daily activities. They are even used for therapeutic needs, often for those suffering with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety or depression.

I first became aware of the extent of care a dog can provide when I met a fellow Ehlers Danlos Sufferer who is in the process of training her own dog to become a service dog. I met Charlie in hospital, and recently had the opportunity to spend a couple of days with her and George, a beautiful seven month old fox red Labrador Retriever. Charlie started to develop symptoms of EDS at the age of 11. Like so many with EDS, her condition was undiagnosed for many years and her symptoms were put down to growing pains. At 16 she quickly developed issues with her jaw. It would dislocate repeatedly and the medical professionals struggled to relocate the joint.

Charlie started to develop symptoms of EDS at the age of 11.

For four years, on and off, she had her jaw wired shut, though the wires would snap under the pressure of dislocation. These dislocations were so bad that at one point she was submitted to hospital 35 times in six months, and one weekend was administered a general anaesthetic five times. She has been living with a permanently dislocated jaw for eight months and is awaiting further investigation which could lead to joint replacement surgery. She also developed problems with her hips, spine, neck, and wrists – her shoulders dislocate up to 20 times a day. She relies on morphine patches to help her cope with the pain. Like many living with chronic pain, Charlie maintains a sense of humour and a determination to live her life.

Initially, Charlie had thought to start a dog walk service. So she acquired George to help her establish if this career path was physically feasible. As a dog owner and a disabled person, Charlie felt it important to train George in basic obedience. As she started to understand her condition and its impact on her life she realised that dog walking was not going to be a sustainable career path. It became clear to Charlie that George was a quick learner who enjoyed his training and needed to work at something. In training George, she realised how helpful it would be to further his training and use him as a medical assistance dog. She decided that if she wanted to live on her own, George would have to earn his keep.

charlie-and-george-shopping-2

Image credit: Charlie

Although George seems young, Charlie has been training him since he was 14 weeks old. She takes him to a private trainer once a week for an hour and occasionally they go to advanced classes. She continues his training at home and in the community. The initial training is basic and involves activities like sit, walk to heel and fetch. Once George became adept at these, therapy activities are slowly introduced and built upon. She does this by swapping tennis balls with keys or other things she would want to retrieve, and teaches George to handle these things carefully.

I was impressed with George’s ability. He knows his left from his right and can even wait at such a distance to the point where Charlie can be out of view. Charlie finds training George easy. She explained that once the dog has its basic obedience training, you can train it to do more or less anything you want. She emphasised the importance of breed, ensuring the dog has the right temperament; an over-excited canine is not the best choice of assistance dog.

Charlie did admit that it can be frustrating at times. George has his good and bad days, but on the whole George is such a good learner that the bad days are few and far between. Charlie confesses to be a “dog person”, and feels this is particularly helpful in the training process. George still has some way to go. It can take 18 months to achieve the medical assistance dog category, and even once that’s obtained, the training never really ends. Charlie sees the job of an assistance dog as an animal that helps. For her, this means George will be able to help her with washing, carrying shopping and getting people’s attention if Charlie needs help. As her medical condition changes, so will her needs from George.

Charlie sees the job of an assistance dog as an animal that helps.

George has changed Charlie’s life. Before, Charlie had no routine, no reason to get out of bed, no desire to leave the house. She felt isolated by her condition. With George, she has to leave the house, she has a reason to get out of bed; she has purpose and routine in her life. He even creates social opportunities, as many people will stop to talk with Charlie and ask about George. I witnessed this first hand when taking George around some shops. Nearly everyone that saw us smiled at the sight of George. And many stopped to talk, expressing how beautiful he is, or asking what an assistance dog is. Many children and adults request to stroke him, but sadly when George has his service coat on he’s at work. Charlie stresses the importance of respecting this, “Some people ask to stroke him, or just do it. I have to tell them not to because it distracts him from his work.”

But it’s not all hard work for Charlie and George. Once the service coat is off, there is always time to go on walks and play, or snuggle up and relax at home.

Featured image credit: Charlie

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