All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for April 2004

Dog trains heir as aide

Sun, Apr. 18, 2004
Leila Fadel

Sky has taken care of Jodi Lee Ryan, who has multiple sclerosis, for five years. But it isn't as easy as it used to be, because Sky gets tired quickly and her sight is failing.

Sky will retire soon, but before she does, the 5-year-old service dog will help train her successor.

"It's going to be really hard to retire her because we've been together for so long," Ryan said.

Ryan and Sky, a harlequin Great Dane, are training Cinder, a 9-month-old of the same breed, to take Sky's place. When Cinder is ready to work, Sky will embark on her golden years as Ryan's pet.

Sky was trained by Ryan with help from a dog trainer. Sky wears a special pack and harness when she's out with Ryan. "Please don't pet me, I'm working," is printed across the blue pack that doubles as Ryan's purse.

If Sky feels Ryan falling forward when they walk, she'll put her body in front of Ryan. When Ryan gets up from a table, she balances herself by putting a hand on Sky's shoulder and behind. Sky can sense if Ryan is tired when they are out together. She finds a chair to nudge Ryan toward, and she can even untie Ryan's shoes and pull off her socks.

"I really rely on her," Ryan said. "There are days I can't get out of my bed."

The average life span of a harlequin Great Dane is seven years, and Ryan said she can see that Sky, who is almost 6, has started to tire more easily. Sky will pass her knowledge on to Cinder, who is already 35 pounds bigger than 100-pound Sky.

A trainer helps with Cinder once a week. Ryan's friend, Trish Perkins, also helps train her by clicking a clicker and handing Cinder a treat for good behavior. Sky trains Cinder, too.

"Cinder just follows Sky around, and she does what Sky does," Ryan said. "Sky is kind of like the mom."

Sky taught Cinder to open cupboard doors by repeatedly opening and closing the cupboard with her mouth and then nudging Cinder toward the cupboard.

When the two dogs go out with Ryan, Cinder will sometimes pull on the leash and throw Ryan off-balance. Sky nips at Cinder's tail or bites her neck to let Cinder know that she cannot do that.

"She won't let Cinder jump at me or pull on me," Ryan said.

Sky's having a harder time teaching Cinder how to take off Ryan's shoes and socks. Sky unties the shoelaces with her teeth, gently pulls the shoe off with her mouth and then nudges the socks down before yanking them off with her teeth. Cinder still bites Ryan's toes when she mimics Sky.

But Cinder is just a puppy.

"That she can do these things is really, really good," Ryan said.

The two dogs play together. Cinder is rambunctious, and playfully bites Sky's neck and barks at her. But Sky is more maternal and calm. She knows when she can play and when she has to work.

"My husband jokes that this one is a dog," Ryan said as she points to Cinder, "and this one was born human," she said pointing to Sky.

Since Ryan bought Sky more than five years ago, the two have been inseparable. Sky tucks under restaurant tables and Ryan's airline seat. All of Ryan's friends know that wherever Ryan is, Sky will be by her side.

"It's like losing one of your family members," Ryan said. "For the last five years I've never gone anywhere without her."

Copyright © 2004, Star-Telegram