September 18, 2003
By Jocelyn Newmarch
Lauren Singer has had multiple sclerosis, or MS, for 24 years now, having contracted the disease — without realising what it was — at 16. “Ten years later I found out and it changed my life,” she says.
“Living with the disease is horrible. It’s exhausting and debilitating, but I’ve been able to move beyond it because it’s only physical.”
But Lauren refuses to be cowed by the disease. She’s written two books about her illness. The first is called ‘A Measure of Time: My Life With MS’, while the second, ‘Fred At Your Service, Ma’am’, has just been published by Spearhead, and sells for R85.
Lauren’s closest companion is her service dog, Fred, who is never far from her side, and he was the inspiration for her latest book.
Brought up believing that guide-dogs and their ilk were not only super-intelligent but also ultra-obedient, I was amazed to see Fred leave his mistress Lauren’s side and run out of the shop where I was meeting them, disobeying a direct order in the process.
In fact, I was beginning to see why Lauren describes her dog as “naughty”.
The big golden retriever is nearly as tall as Lauren herself, and she describes him as an “ordinary, Everyman” kind of dog, who happens to have a special job.
Although Fred was trained by the SA Guide-Dogs Association, he’s actually a service dog, rather than a guide dog as such. His job is to act as a companion to wheelchair-bound Lauren. Not only does he fetch and carry things for her, he’s also one of her best friends and accompanies her everywhere.
“When I get upset he’s there; when I fall he comforts me,” she explains.
But Fred’s loyalty hasn’t gone unrewarded. Far from it. He’s the star of Lauren’s book, ‘Fred At Your Service, Ma’am’, which is about living with disability — but from the dog’s perspective. It’s her second book, and like the first, it explores multiple sclerosis and what it’s like to live with the disease.
“It’s easier to speak about things if Fred is verbalising,” says Lauren. “It’s easier to talk about difficult things because he’s such a cheerful dog.”
Fred certainly has the personality to carry it off, and the bond between them is evident.
“He understands what I’m saying and he knows exactly what I want. Whether he does it or not is something else!” Lauren laughs. “He’s got a very mischievous nature. He loves chewing paper, and can’t differentiate between a R50 note and tissue paper.”
As one would expect of a service dog, Fred’s a highly trained individual. The SA Guide-Dogs Association trains each dog specifically for its intended owner, with each dog receiving basic training as well as specific additional skills.
Lauren says she finds it too tiring to keep Fred’s training at the level instilled by the Association. Practising the basic commands, such as sit or stand, take up enough of her energy as it is.
But she finds he’s just fine the way he is. “He acts very much like a baby,” she explains, because everyone wants to say hello to Fred, and people are eager to talk to her about the dog.
“He opens far more doors for me this way,” she smiles.
More about multiple sclerosis:
Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system, brought on by the sufferer’s immune system attacking the protective myelin sheath around the nerves. There are only symptomatic treatments available, and no cure as such.
Read more about the disease at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society of America’s website: www.nationalmssociety.org
Also take a look at the website of Multiple Sclerosis South Africa (MSSA): http://www.kznms.org.za
You can also call the national helpline number: 0860 456 772
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