More MS news articles for May 2001

Four-footed friend Craven keeps watch over the needs and safety of MS patient

By REBECCA COUDRET, Courier & Press staff writer
(812) 464-7509 or

Craven did everything but yawn to show how utterly bored he was.

Another conversation — and he wasn’t the center of attention. Swell.

With a perfunctory look at Jim Saul, Craven stretched out and got comfortable. But he didn’t take a nap, didn’t close his eyes for a second.

He was, after all, on duty.

For a year, Craven, a 2-year-old golden retriever, has been Saul’s service dog — the arms-and-legs equivalent of a seeing-eye dog. Saul, a former police officer, has multiple sclerosis and has been in a wheelchair for 4³ years.

Saul said Craven, who wears a “Please do not pet me. I’m working” vest, “can do almost everything — bring me things, open doors, close doors. It doesn’t matter what I drop; if he can get it in his mouth, he’ll pick it up and bring it right to me.

“I’m really lucky, because Craven takes me with him everywhere he goes.”

And, he said, the loyal, day-to-day companionship has been invaluable.

But Craven is more than a pal, more than a helper. He’s also a lifesaver.

In early March, Saul had fallen asleep in his home, a renovated church rectory built in 1865 in Corning, Ind., just south of Montgomery. “We’d remodeled it inside and out. What extra money we had we put into our home.

“I’d been feeling bad with spasms — it’s common with MS, but really painful, like a massive charley horse in my back. I’d taken my medication, put the (wheelchair) in a resting position with the back down a bit, and I fell asleep.”

Saul stopped telling the story to explain, “At that point, I’d had Craven for almost a year, and I’d never heard him bark.”

But that morning, Craven was “in my face, his paws on the foot rests of the chair. He was jumping and barking incessantly. When I awoke, I didn’t immediately connect the noise with him because he never barked.”

But Craven was insistent, his barking nonstop as he alerted Saul to the danger in the house, which was rapidly filling with smoke.

“He got me out and down a 45-foot ramp, across the driveway and the road — and we could hear the ‘whoosh’ as the siding was melting. The welding was popping ... right after we got out, the living room (where they’d been) was engulfed.”

When volunteer firemen arrived, Saul was treated for smoke inhalation — and so was Craven. “He got some shots of oxygen while we were waiting.”

Saul laughed and said he’s not sure what Craven’s motives were. “He’s so well trained that I’m sure the rescue was his motive. But there’s always a chance he wanted me awake to help open the doors so he could get out of there.”

Now, two months after the incident, Craven’s still not crazy about the house, Saul said.

“He doesn’t like to go back there. He becomes very unsettled when we’re there. He’s suffered a trauma from the fire. As people, we can rationalize that it’s OK now, and it’s not going to happen again, but he’s still reacting to it. There’s a little bit of lead resistance when he sees the house.”

Craven needs “a lot of verbal and tactile reassurance — a lot of petting and talking to him — to make sure he feels safe.”

“And I have to remain calm because he’s very perceptive of how I feel. He senses my agitation, so I need to make him feel calm, feel special.”

Saul, a graphic design student at the University of Southern Indiana, is living in campus housing with Craven; Saul’s wife, Carol, and son, Christopher, are living in a motel in Montgomery.

“I found out July 6, 1996, in Cleveland, that my career as a police officer was officially finished. Even when you know something like that is going to happen, it’s a blow to hear it. I wasn’t ready for everything to be over. But I also wasn’t prepared for the isolation.”

With a few exceptions, he said, a lot of his friends and co-workers disappeared — and that hurt Saul almost as much as the illness he has to face every day. People were guarded around him; some were afraid to talk to him, while others just stayed away.

“I’ve spent six years in this chair. Nothing hurts as much as the silence of my friends.

“I’ve been lucky to have Craven. He’s great company, especially since I’m living (at USI).”

Hearing his name, Craven looked up. Satisfied that Saul was OK, he put his head back down. “It costs $10,500 to train a service dog,” Saul said, explaining that Craven came from Canine Assistants in Atlanta. The dogs are placed with people who have physical disabilities from accidents or illnesses. More than 200 dogs have been placed by the nonprofit agency.

Saul said Craven knows and follows 90 commands.

“I already owed him a lot for what he added to my life before March 8. Now, I’ll never be able to repay him. You can’t tell a dog ‘thank you.’ That doesn’t do it. But I’ll always feel indebted. And I’ll always be available to talk to people and show them how special these dogs are.”

Saul smiled.

“But Craven’s the most special of all, he said.

“You know, it’s sad when a dog outdoes some people in terms of sensitivity.”