We’ve heard from many members of the MS community that service or therapy dogs can provide incredible comfort to patients and their families. From helping with mobility to reducing anxiety, these magical animals are sometimes exactly what the doctor ordered.
Here, we talk to 45-year-old Karin, who’s been living with MS for three years. She lives in a little town of 5,000 about 20 minutes from Winterthur in Switzerland with her husband, her service dog Pantin (French for “little puppet”) and her three wonderful children.
Karin and Pantin are inseparable. The service dog helps Karin in her daily routine assisting his owner in everything she needs, from walking to getting dressed.
What type of MS do you have?
I was diagnosed with a relapsing form of MS.
When were you diagnosed?
My MS symptoms went mostly unnoticed until I had a conflict with a former friend. This particular conflict had a very negative impact on me, and caused me to fall into a depressed state that lasted two years. When I initially had an onset of noticeable symptoms, I went to my doctor who failed to take them seriously. Thanks to a friend whose mother had also suffered with MS, she encouraged me to get a second opinion. This doctor luckily took me seriously enough to arrange a referral to a neurologist. I was finally diagnosed in 2014 after an MRI.
How have your symptoms changed over time?
My relapses have always coincided with my stress levels, and would occur every two to three months. I’ve decided not to take any MS medication choosing instead to work on stress management. This has proved successful, and my relapses are now every two-and-a-half years. One of the most difficult parts of MS is how often it changes. You can never know if what you can do today, you’ll be able to do tomorrow. It’s not knowing if your body will work tomorrow that I find the most difficult symptom to handle. Other than that, some of my most challenging symptoms include numb hands, spasms, pain, weak legs (so I can no longer walk long distances), and mood swings.
Pantin is showing how he takes a few steps at the time when going down stairs. This is incredibly helpful if you’re on crutches or unstable on your feet. – Karin
When did you start thinking about getting a service dog and why?
I’ve had dogs my whole life and because of my reduced physical capacity and my unsteadiness, I decided to apply for an assistance dog. Even just applying for a service dog filled me with hope and gave me the feeling that I would be able to cope with daily life.
This shows how Pantin opens a drawer. He gets out my “nappys” and shuts the drawer. He does this all while I sit on the toilet which is quite a long way from the drawer, but for ease, we filmed his behaviour from a shorter distance. – Karin
How did you find Pantin?
I found Pantin through an organization called Le Copain. They train assistance dogs and find them appropriate owners. After an initial interview and being given a resounding nod of approval by Pantin and the staff. I was invited to the dog training centre.
It’s important for the trainer to make sure that the dog and potential owner are a good match. In fact, I was introduced to two different dogs just to see how I fared with each one. Though it was clear quite quickly that Pantin had chosen me! After working with him, he became reluctant to leave my side, and followed me everywhere. We “fell in love” with each other. This contact was just what I needed to renew my self-worth. His devotion and affection was evident.
Later I discoverd Pantin had been introduced to four people, who also loved his dashing good looks and appreciated his devotion. But Pantin was waiting for me — as far as he was concerned, I was the one!
What kind of training has Pantin had?
Le Copain buys puppies from selected breeders. At eight weeks of age, they’re fostered to a family who is given the task of teaching basic commands and introducing them to all sorts of different surroundings. These “foster families” are given support and guidance by Le Copain. Before being admitted to training school, the puppies are all checked for good health and wellness. At 18 months of age, the dogs enter the vital school program, with professional trainers. Once they have learned all they need to help a disabled person, the dogs are then matched with a disabled partner when they are around two years of age. Once the match is made, the service dog and disabled partner take part in a two-week training program.
Pantin is pushing my “paralyzed” arm back on my lap with his nose, as it’s not good for a paralyzed arm to be hanging down for a long period of time. – Karin
What do you think the biggest benefit of having a service dog is?
His help has been more than just opening and closing doors, getting the phone, calling for help, pulling off clothes and socks, and pressing buttons. Pantin is a bridge builder. When people are uncertain as to how they should react towards disabled people, he works as an icebreaker. People ask questions about him when they initially talk to me.
He is also a great spastic pain reliever. Having a higher body temperature, he seems to sense when I have spasms and tries to comfort me by snuggling up to me and sharing his body warmth. His sensitivity is incredible. He intuitively interrupts me mid-sentence when he feels that whatever I’m saying is getting me worked up and upsetting me. He’s always trying to protect me from things that could worsen my condition or behaviour that could harm me.
Pantin showing different ways of opening/shutting doors. This is especially handy when you’re in a wheelchair. – Karin
Would you recommend getting a service dog to other MS patients? Why?
Yes. Le Copain sees the benefit of fairly mobile people recieving an assistance dog. Dogs keep people with MS more physically active. Not only does a service dog help MS patients get out of the house, but you have someone there in good and bad times, including relapses. With a service dog, you continue to grow as a team and adapt to circumstances as they occur.
Service dogs make such a positive difference to daily life. There are many reasons to feel sad about having MS, but having such a wonderful companion and assistant makes it much better. I have acquired a best friend for life.
Pantin unloading the tumble dryer. He does the same with the washing machine.
What else do you want people to know about service dogs?
You never should stroke an assistance dog even if it’s lying quietly next to its master, as the dog is still alert and working. He or she is watching for any important signals that his master may need help. Petting a service dog can distract him/her from their very important job.
How has Pantin changed your life?
Pantin gives me unconditional love regardless of my mood. Once during a relapse, I started to drop things quite often, and Pantin was suddenly next to me holding the spoon I dropped without me even saying anything, just standing there looking up at me. It’s as if he was trying to remind me that things weren’t so bad and that he was there for me.
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