If you’ve been around me this week, you know that I’m taking care of my son’s dog while he and his wife are away. This is a very mellow dog under most circumstances. I mean, look what he’s wearing! But that ‘s for another blog.
This morning, I was feeling pretty “parky”. My balance wasn’t great and my gait was slow and stiff. But the dog wanted to go out and there weren’t a lot of options since I was the only one home. So I got him ready with harness and leash and I gingerly stepped out the door, hope that his mellow side ruled. Well, a few steps in, I could tell that no rabbit was around to be chased and he was content to meander, smelling whatever he could and marking his turf as usual. A few more steps and I noticed something else: his steady gait pulling me slowly was also helping correct my walking. I was loosening up and feeling more like myself.
Thinking about this latter, I wondered if there were such a thing as a “gait dog” and went to the internet to see. First stop was Wikipedia. Sure enough, in an article on service dogs, I found this:
Another type of mobility assistance dog task is that of a “walker dog”. They are used for Parkinson’s Disease and multiple sclerosis patients, along with other disorders and conditions. These dogs are not canes, and the handler does not put full weight on them. However, the dog can greatly assist a person with their gait and balance while walking. This technique is usually called “counterbalance”. It can also be helpful for those with the symptom of proprioception, the inability to walk in a straight line.
I imagine this is really tricky, training dogs for this purpose. While any mild-mannered dog might be useful like I found my son’s to be, any rabbit or squirrel which might cross our path could cause a catastrophe.
On the Michael J. Fox Foundation site, they add this:
For many people with Parkinson’s disease, pets provide both companionship and practical help with daily life.
Service dogs trained to work with people with Parkinson’s can help their owners maintain balance while walking, or alert a family member after a fall. They can also be trained to help people with Parkinson’s move when experiencing gait freezing or stand up from a chair or after a fall. Plus, owning any dog, service or not, automatically writes exercise into an owner’s schedule. Research shows that regular exercise helps many people with Parkinson’s disease improve symptoms. Running around with a cat also qualifies as exercise (though of course cats are better known as naptime companions!)
In general, studies link pet ownership with reducing signs of depression in people with chronic illnesses and with reducing loneliness in the elderly. In one study, residents of a nursing home felt less lonely after visiting with a dog alone than after visiting with a dog and other residents.
Interested in finding a service dog? Visit the Assistance Dogs International website to find accredited breeders in your area.
There is an organization in Virginia which trains assistance dogs as well. Their website has a lot of useful information.. Check out Service Dogs of Virginia. They estimate that it costs $40,00 to fully train each service dog and they rely on donations. If you’re looking for a worthy charity to support, I suggest this might be a great one.