Why I can personally attest to the benefits of having service dogs

A health scare with my service dog underscores just how much I adore her

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by Jean Walsh |

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The disease I have, Friedreich’s ataxia (FA), causes loss of mobility among other things, which prompted me to get a sweet service dog named Wendy. Last December, I took Wendy to the vet for her annual checkup.

Like all of her previous appointments, Wendy kissed the vet, got a treat for taking her shots stoically, got weighed, and was declared in great health. But this time, there was an “except” added to the “in great health” part.

“Except” is not a welcome addition to “in great health.” Wendy had three cysts that the vet wanted to take a biopsy of because they felt funky to him. You may be thinking, “OK, they can just take them out at the vet’s,” which is indeed the case with many cysts that pets have.

A closeup photo from behind shows the side and back of a golden retriever's head. The dog is looking to the left and has her mouth slightly open. The photo is taken outdoors, but not much can be seen in the background.

Jean Walsh’s beloved service dog, Wendy. (Photo by Jean Walsh)

But I knew this wasn’t the case with these cysts, which were located close to Wendy’s spine. A simple flinch in the wrong direction by Wendy  during the procedure could easily lead to a lethal or paralyzing nick.

The vet had to sedate and operate on her to do the biopsy. Despite knowing that anesthesia could be risky to her, I wanted to know if we should do something about the possible cancer ASAP. Golden retrievers like Wendy are prone to cancer.

A quick aside: If you are wondering how I would afford surgery, I’d been saving for an emergency by using an ABLE account, which is a tax-advantaged savings program.

I can procrastinate. However, when it comes to my health or that of loved ones, I like to know what I am dealing with as soon as possible to prevent needless worry. Wendy is family.

Her surgery, though, couldn’t be scheduled until after the new year, so for about four weeks I was tense and vacillated from teary to inappropriately angry. Last Christmas wasn’t our family’s best. I knew I was upset about Wendy, but I didn’t realize how upset I actually was.

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Then the vet called, and all the cysts were benign. I was expecting to be relieved upon hearing that, but I didn’t expect jubilation. I was ready to party, as much as a mellow, 61-year-old with FA can, with takeout food, a movie, some wine, and candy. My entire family got a text from me, and we were all relieved together.

Wendy, who is always by my side, does many things for me throughout the day. She loves to make me laugh. She likes to sleep on her back in this one spot in our house where she can keep an eye on me in multiple rooms. To get up, she needs to catch a paw on the wall for leverage. I always laugh when she squirms around on the floor with a big upside-down grin on her face. She invariably continues the squirming until I stop laughing.

A golden retriever acts silly while lying on her back on the wooden floor of a home. She has her front paws up in the air and one of her back paws is pressed against a wall. Her mouth is slightly open in what looks like an upside-down smile.

Wendy, lying in her favorite spot of the house, knows exactly how to make columnist Jean Walsh laugh. (Photo by Jean Walsh)

When she isn’t squirming, she can usually be found with a stuffed animal in her mouth.

Service dogs aren’t for everyone. But as a lifelong dog lover and owner, I knew what dogs bring to the table with their acceptance and love. I also knew I could handle the responsibility of owning a dog.

For me, getting a service dog was a no-brainer. A loving companion and a sentient being helping me be more mobile? Yes, please! I applied for one as soon as all of this dawned on me.

But the decision wasn’t based just on how I feel, as service dogs have been shown to improve the psychological and social health of people with disabilities or chronic illnesses. I can attest to the fact that I have better mental health because of Wendy. That would have surprised me to know before I got her!

Dogs aren’t immortal. Worse, they don’t live as long as most people do.

The joy, laughter, and support that aids me in being independent are well worth the pain I will feel when I lose Wendy. She has given me so much. I know I’m not the only service dog handler who feels this way. I will love her endlessly and be grateful for all of the time that she is by my side.

You can read more about FA and service dogs in my friend Matt Lafleur’s columns.

Note: Friedreich’s Ataxia News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Friedreich’s Ataxia News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Friedreich’s ataxia.


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