Amazing Things

How a Service Dog Saved My Life

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When I first met Swanson early in 2014, I felt like an adolescent boy who finally summoned the courage to speak to his crush for the first time.

My palms were sweaty. My stomach fluttered with nerves. I was giddy. Most of all, I wondered whether the beautiful blonde would like me.

My worries about meeting Swanson didn’t last long. Within seconds, the 18-month-old yellow lab sat down by my side and looked up with a gaze that instantly cemented our relationship. We couldn’t take our eyes off each other. The devotion was immediate. She melted my heart and I fell in love.

Swanson, my service dog, has transformed my life.

Since 2011, I’ve been battling the symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Swanson is my service dog, trained by NEADS, a nonprofit also known as Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans.

The morning after I received the ALS diagnosis, I sat on the edge of my bed and told Celeste, my wife of 37 years, “I’ve just been given a death sentence.”

I was devastated. How could I have ALS? I worked out regularly and played basketball with the youth from my church. I was admired for my stamina and endurance. In my younger days, Celeste and I competed in national figure skating competitions. One year, we even won a medal.

During the months after my diagnosis, dealing with the challenges that ALS brought to my life took all my energy and focus. Celeste was the first person who raised the idea of a service dog and I remember thinking, “I can hardly take care of myself! How am I supposed to take care of a dog?’”

Then one afternoon in Wal-Mart, I met a woman in a wheelchair and her NEADS service dog, Bess. I saw the woman reach for something and she dropped it. Without a word between them, Bess immediately picked up the item and held it in her mouth until the woman was ready to take it. In this simple exchange I could see the depth of their relationship and how the value of having a partner to walk beside me in life would trump any concerns I had about the effort it might take.

Soon after, I began the application process for a NEADS service dog. Under the guidance of staff, most NEADS dogs are trained for 12-18 months by inmates at New England prisons as part of the Prison PUP Partnership. During the weekends, the dogs leave prison and are socialized by volunteers who expose them to household activities and visit a variety of public places – from grocery stores to movie theaters to airports.

To get matched with the right dog, I needed to document all of the places I went during a typical week, such as work, the gym, restaurants and church, etc. In the end, Swanson was trained exclusively for me.

Today, Swanson is my companion who looks to me for direction and who gets excited when she completes tasks. She infuses my heart with gratitude and her energy is contagious.

Aside from helping me maintain my balance, Swanson retrieves my walker, turns light switches on and off, opens and closes doors and picks up anything I drop – all of the activities that will become increasingly more and more difficult for me as the disease progresses.

And she’s with me 24/7. Swanson interprets the tone of my voice, reads my body language, and listens for my breathing patterns. She’s in tune with me and she puts my needs ahead of everything else. If Swanson could talk, she’d say, ‘I’m with you.’

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Disabilities affect people on a physical and emotional level and both elements need to be addressed for a person to remain functional. Swanson bridges the gap between the clinical excellence necessary for my physical healing and the emotional support needed to cope and manage life’s moment-by-moment challenges.

Before Swanson, I was self-conscious going places. Now, people see her before they see my disability. She also helps takes my focus off my disability. If we have to walk a long distance or trudge through the snow, I’m more worried about her than myself. My obligation to her gives me a sense of responsibility, which is something the ALS tries to strip away. Swanson takes care of me and I take care of her.

I believe the medical community is a critical component for managing ALS and the total healing process. But for individuals living with a disability, a service dog provides hope and encouragement to accept our illness, and fight it together as we walk hand in leash through life’s journey.

My advice for doctors: Be open and aware of patients who may benefit from a service dog, then, prescribe more of them.

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Photo by Amanda Shannon

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About Barry G. Morris

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