All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for April 2004

Assistance dog fills special family role by providing independence, security

Monday, April 26, 2004
Wilbert Wiggs
The Daily Ardmoreite

Six years ago Mary Lewis was "surprised" by diagnostic test results verifying she had Multiple Sclerosis.

Initially the news was devastating. An active spouse and mother who worked in risk control management, she gradually lost her mobility. While Lewis was able to maintain her job at Wal-Mart, her work and the disease became too much for her to handle alone.

Today she looks forward to daily independence, thanks to Docker, her golden retriever assistance dog obtained in June 2002 to help replace the arms and legs that had begun betraying her. Lewis and Docker have become a team, enabling her to resume doing normal things without having to depend on or burden her husband, David, or daughter, Bobbe.

Docker blends into the family setting. Lewis said her life with the assistance dog focuses on independence, "not companionship."

"We work together as a team," Lewis said, describing her relationship with Docker. "He makes me feel good inside, comfortable ... he gives me my daily independence ... a reason to go forward."

The dog serves many roles.

As the "graduate" of Paws With a Cause training, Docker fills a special role with her family. They go to work each day fully assured that Lewis is good hands and secure.

Paws With a Cause raises and trains selected dogs for assistance roles for people with disabilities and hearing impairments. The organization is based in Wayland, Mich., and works primarily with golden and Labrador retrievers and standard poodles, according to Oklahoma director Barbara Lewis. She was in Ardmore last week to recertify Docker, making certain the animal has fully maintained all aspects of a two-year training program.

A Blanchard resident, Lewis describes assistance dogs as "wonderful mobility aids," allowing their partners to travel independently and move gracefully and safely through crowds and across streets. People's reactions to the dogs vary -- from wanting to pet, feed or interact with them, to believing dogs should not be allowed in public places.

"Both attitudes need to be addressed as they connote a lack of understanding of the nature and purpose of a guide dog," according to material describing the role.

Docker isn't the Ardmore woman's first dog. She gained some insight to using a dog for assistance from an aging family pet, discovering he provided some help in her limited walking. She learned about assistance dogs while visiting an animal shelter.

As state PAWS director, Barbara Lewis said dogs start in the program as puppies and train for two years. Instinct, not breeding, is the prime prerequisite. Golden and Labrador retrievers and standard poodles have preferred qualities. Two years of specialized training cost an average of $18,000. PAWS bears the cost as a non-profit organization, but does solicit supporting donations and foster puppies.

Once assigned, the partner bears the responsibility of care and vet bills. Periodically, Barbara Lewis makes contact to recertify each dog -- making sure dogs are alert and responsive in all skills areas. The list is extensive and must be completed fully, otherwise it's back to refresher training (in the home). She works with dogs throughout Oklahoma for recertification.

Certification skills for Docker touched on:

And working properly in any situation -- among others.
During one episode, Lewis was directed to back her wheelchair away. The dog didn't move at all, but his eyes were constantly moving as he watched her carefully.

"He must be fully under control in all circumstances," Barbara Lewis said.

"He gets an A-Plus," she added. "And Mary gets one, too."

Copyright © 2004, The Daily Ardmoreite