Assistance and companion (therapy) dogs can provide a great deal of comfort to someone who is disabled or suffering a long-term illness. The positive benefits are tremendous, and a dog can be trained to perform many varied duties to help a person at home who is incapacitated. Visiting a retirement home, I met a volunteer who once a week brings along her Golden Retriever; a trained therapy dog, to visit the residents. It was remarkable to see the reaction of the residents in the 24 hour care unit who can barely communicate, yet immediately seeing the dog, they reached out to stroke and pet him. I watched this trained gentle dog's therapeutic affect touch individuals, giving comfort inexplicably in a way that only a dog can.
We have a Dogue de Bordeaux; a large breed, originally from the French Mastiff family, and whilst proving to be excellent guard dogs, protective and loyal they are sweet natured towards their family. The only drawback is their perpetual drooling which molosser dogs are renowned for. We brought home our dog when she was 8 weeks old. Training wasn't hard; my husband and I having prior experience, she soon learnt all the normal commands. It didn't take us long to be smitten by her endearing nature as she quickly became part of the family, filling a gap that we didn't realise was there.
Born with Gaucher disease, I often have chronic bone pain, and quickly became aware how our dog pays close attention to me when I'm in pain. She sits next to me, resting her head on my lap, looking up attentively into my face with doleful eyes, as if trying to tell me she understands I'm hurting. As daft as this may sound, at times like this, it's of great comfort when alone at home, to have our dog around.
Dogs have the uncanny ability to sense things and develop skills when someone in the family is not well or frail. When I was diagnosed with Parkinson's at age 44, somehow our dog took on an assistance role with no formal training. Her instincts kicked in, and we found her doing things that we'd never trained her to do. Suffering two chronic diseases, I am in poor condition, yet our huge heavy dog is very gentle with me, as if she realises I need "handling with care". If I get disorientated she guides me back home. Once I was choking and couldn't breathe, she knew I was in peril and got my daughter's attention by persistently barking in an identifiable tone indicating danger.
A common symptom of Parkinson's is falling down which is easy to do; it's getting back up that's the hard part. The first time I fell, I lay motionless on the ground, a little shocked I had fallen, thankfully not hurt, just bruised. I laid there, not knowing how on earth I was going to get up, but our dog came to the rescue, standing still by my shoulders, she allowed me to put my full body weight on her and was able to pull myself up. I have since fallen a number of times, and she does the same thing, standing next to my shoulders, waiting patiently to help me get up.
When I am having a particularly bad day, our dog follows me around the house and doesn't leave my side for a minute, and will follow me from room to room. Of course she is of tremendous help in the kitchen too, for as I start to prepare food, she sits close by, hoping I'll drop something on the floor, which is inevitable with Parkinson's. Like a four legged vacuum cleaner she eagerly clears up any mess I happen to make. You know how difficult it is to clean up a slippery raw egg that has fallen on the floor, but a dog as quick as a flash will remove all evidence and leave not a smear.
Our dog is my companion when the family are out, she helps and watches over me; I can't imagine this household without her. Although a dog is a big responsibility and an additional expense; for someone who is housebound or chronically ill, it can be highly beneficial and therapeutic, for the bond between dog and owner is like no other. Our dog doesn't worry what I look like, I'm always greeted with a wagging tail whether I've been gone half an hour or the entire day. She doesn't judge or hold grudges, isn't bothered by my wheelchair, or any of the Parkinson's symptoms, doesn't know what stigma is, and accepts me as I am. Some people could learn an awful lot from a dog!