When you live with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s Disease), you work through a steady stream of losses—in mobility, independence and privacy. Each person with ALS (abbreviated PALS) finds a way to cope—with the help of The ALS Association, specialty clinic staff, and family and friends. However, very few can cope the way Kathy Hult does—with a service dog named Joy.
Though service dogs are increasingly used to assist people with other disabilities, they are a rarity for PALS. One reason is that ALS, which is degenerative and fatal, often progresses quickly. In just a few years or even months, the disease can move through the body, killing the motor neurons essential for limb movement, speech, swallowing and ultimately breathing. My father died of ALS about three years after his diagnosis.
Hult’s ALS is progressing more slowly. She was diagnosed in February of 1999. Three years later, it became clear that she might be a good candidate for a service dog. Another factor in her favor was that ALS was not affecting her voice. This is critical as her dog is trained to respond to voice commands. If ALS eventually affects her voice to the point where verbal commands are impossible, Hult feels that her long relationship with Joy will make it possible for them to carry on together. Joy knows Hult’s routine well and is very tuned in to her.
Joy is Aptly Named
Before Hult even applied for a service dog through Helping Paws in Hopkins, a black lab – aptly named Joy – was in her foster home. While there, Joy was being properly socialized and doing her job of learning about 75 standard commands. For two years, she attended a weekly class and had daily homework to complete with her trainers. Joy proved she had the right stuff, both in her temperament and physically, so in mid-2002 she was ready to be paired with the right person.
Months after her application and the subsequent screenings, Hult was introduced to various dogs. Each time, the Helping Paws staff was watching carefully for a good match. There are no forced placements; the match must be right for the person and the dog. Hult, a lifelong dog lover, was looking for a dog with spunk. When she first met Joy, she found the dog a bit passive and even “boring,” even though Joy performed all of her commands very well.
However, the three observing instructors, with their combined years of experience, were sure it was a match. In their eyes, Joy had instantly picked Hult and showed it by performing nearly flawlessly. Hult became a believer in the three months between their initial meeting and the day she brought Joy home for good. Joy’s skills were fine-tuned to Hult’s needs (an ongoing process), and they went through a three-week class together before graduation. And, as one who has seen Joy in action, the spunk is there.
The Difference a Dog Makes
In many homes, the people serve the dog. Here it works the other way around. Joy picks up things that Hult needs or has dropped. The dog is also a “walking step stool” who can help Hult get up off the floor (after a fall or otherwise). Joy can pull off Hult’s coat or socks and performs many other tasks. Joy even presses the wall button to open the automatic door in Hult’s building with flair.
When asked what else Joy brings to their life together, Hult has much to say. Though Hult is very upbeat and outgoing, she says that Joy is there when she needs a push to get out in the world. Joy also provides the very important feeling of safety. If needed, Joy can seek assistance for Hult, both at home and outside of the home. When the two recently took an Alaskan cruise, Joy made going through airport security easier, and also charmed everyone on the ship. Joy makes people smile and helps people approach Hult in public. Hult feels that she and her dog are ambassadors, helping people learn about ALS and service dogs. Most importantly, Hult proclaims that Joy is her closest relationship, and that they have a spiritual and emotional connection.
With all of the positives that Joy provides, Hult does worry about what would happen if either she or Joy were to get sick or injured. Being proactive by having an organized support network of friends ready to assist addresses these issues. This network also helps exercise Joy, especially during the winter. Finally, Hult is conscientious about cleaning up after Joy outside, even when it requires some fancy wheelchair maneuvers.
Still, the pluses far outweigh the minuses. When attending Hult’s ALS support group, attendees enjoy watching Joy as she monitors everything, right down to the pizza that is brought in for lunch. And on that Alaskan cruise, Joy was so popular on the ship that sometimes Hult had take her and “hide” in their cabin to get a break. Joy truly does scatter a hundred griefs.
Helping Paws recently placed its second dog with a PALS. For more information, visit www.helpingpaws.org/