The Benefits Of Service Dogs For People With MS

This blog was originally published on HealthDay.

Every morning Tammie DeCroteau, 54, sits on a kitchen chair and waits for her yellow Labrador Logan to fetch her sneakers from another room. It’s not just a dog trick.

Logan is a service dog for DeCroteau, who has multiple sclerosis – an energy-sapping degenerative neurological condition that makes even simple tasks exhausting. Walking to and from another room and putting on her shoes can burn the little energy DeCroteau has for the day. “To someone with MS like me, having Logan is life-changing,” says DeCroteau, who lives in Melrose, Massachusetts.

The Need for Assistance
In MS, the immune system mistakenly sends so-called killer T cells to attack the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. The destruction causes nerve impulses to slow or even stop getting through to other parts of the body.

As a result, MS patients can experience any number of problems, such as weakened or uncoordinated muscles, trouble walking and maintaining balance, blurry or double vision, bladder and bowel dysfunction, neuropathy (a burning or numbness in the extremities), an inability to grasp objects, slowed thinking skills and mood disorders (such as depression or anxiety).

A universal symptom among MS patients is extreme fatigue. Doctors believe it may stem from brain damage. “You could wake up refreshed and full of pep, and by 11 a.m. you’ve completely run out of energy. It’s the kind of fatigue that prevents you from doing anything. It’s like walking through molasses,” says Dr. Ellen Lathi, a neurologist and medical director of the Elliot Lewis MS Center in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Lathi says MS fatigue can also be exacerbated by weakened or atrophied muscles, obesity or a secondary medical condition.

DeCroteau has noticed over the last 20 years that she loses steam quickly if she’s not careful. “I try to conserve energy as much as possible,” she says. But that’s tough since she now has to wear a foot brace and use a walker to get around, and she has trouble holding things in her right hand.

Service Dogs for MS
Enter Logan, the furry companion who offers DeCroteau invaluable service by performing numerous jobs. Like other service dogs specially trained to help people with MS, Logan can:
• Pick up keys or anything that falls on the floor (saving DeCroteau energy and reducing her risk of a fall).
• Fetch a cellphone from a table.
• Retrieve anything DeCroteau points to.
• Nudge a light switch with her nose.
• Open a refrigerator by pulling a rope wrapped around the door handle.
• Retrieve a bottle of water.

Right now DeCroteau is training Logan, who’s only two years old, to help carry grocery bags into her home. Eventually, the dog will know up to 60 commands.

MS service dogs can also assist with balance or help their owners get up from the floor by bracing their bodies for their owners to lean on. “If you’re in the living room with nothing to grab onto, the dog stands there like a statue and you learn where to put your hands on the dog so you can get your balance and stand up,” Lathi explains.

Getting a Dog
Lathi says there’s no rule that you have to get a service dog from a specific group or agency. If you want a service dog to assist you with MS challenges, you can:
• Buy a dog and train it yourself. But “that’s very hard to do unless you’re a dog trainer,” Lathi points out.
• Purchase a dog and hire a private dog trainer to teach the animal MS-related commands, like to fetch fallen objects. Lathi teaches general dog training as a hobby and has even trained some dogs for MS patients in the past. “Make sure you use a dog trainer with experience in service work,” she suggests.
• Look for an organization that trains service dogs for MS patients; both nonprofit and for-profit groups do this. “Most people go to one of the large organizations that have experience in training dogs and have their own breeding program or partner with a breeding program,” Lathi notes. She says it’s a reliable way to get a dog with the right temperament, and a sound health and work ethic – things that are hard to predict if you train a dog on your own.
• DeCroteau went to a nonprofit organization called NEADS/World Class Service Dogs, based in Princeton, Massachusetts. Staffers interviewed DeCroteau to see if a service dog would meet her needs and if she could work with and care for the animal, which typically receives 18 to 24 months of extensive training. “You need the cognitive skills to remember and use 50 to 60 commands. You have to be able to manage two weeks of rigorous training on our campus – essentially, to learn what the dog already knows. And you have to make sure the dog gets 30 to 40 minutes of exercise per day,” says Katy Ostroff, manager of client relations for NEADS/World Class Service.

Finding the right service dog can take up to 18 months, during which time clients are expected to meet another commitment: raising $8,000 toward the $43,000 cost of the animal (NEADS/World Class Service Dogs chips in the rest).

DeCroteau’s family and friends helped raise her share of the costs. They organized a comedy night at a local restaurant, and DeCroteau’s 22-year-old son – a U.S. Marine – was even allowed to come home and take part in the event as a big surprise for his mom. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” DeCroteau remembers. “We wound up raising almost $20,000 and donated the extra money to NEADS.”