Dogs are being trained to sniff out Covid-19.
But for many with MS, they’re already proven live-savers…
By Rachel Horne
There are two things which changed Janette Coombs life. One was a faceless, degenerative disease which raced through her body – stripping her of her mobility, her self-confidence and her independence.
And the other? He has soft brown eyes, four legs and never leaves her side. He’s a ten-year-old Golden Retriever called Solar – but he could just as easily be called Hero because that’s exactly what he is to Coombs.
“Before my diagnosis, over a number of years I progressively got worse and found I could do less and less. I stopped going out and I needed more and more help,” say Coombs, who was diagnosed with MS in 1992 and now uses a wheelchair full-time. “After Solar, I am much more confident and there’s more of a reason to go out.”
Coombs was paired with Solar in 2011 through Canine Partners – a UK charity which places assistance dogs with adults with physical disabilities to help them lead more independent lives. Their dogs are trained for about eighteen months – before being matched with their human partner. The organisation says nearly a quarter of their current 450 dog/human partnerships are with people with MS.
At Coomb’s home in Cirencester, Solar carries out many tasks – opening and closing doors, pulling clothes out of the washing machine and retrieving objects like a mobile phone. He even knows what to do in an emergency. Once when they were out in a field, Coomb’s wheelchair tipped over. Solar began barking repeatedly until he attracted nearby ramblers who came to her aid.
In the UK, more than 7,000 disabled people rely on a service dog. The dogs are legally permitted to accompany their partner into all spaces – such as hospitals, grocery stores and banks. The cost of of training a service dog – from its selection as a puppy to the end of its working life – is about £20,000 and upwards – and is met through donations.
No one knows when dogs began helping humans. That has been lost in time. What we do know is that the first service animal training schools were set up in Germany during WWI to aid soldiers blinded by poison gas. By the 1970’s, dogs started being trained to work with those with hearing and mobility problems.
In the last two decades, there has been a major increase in the number of people using service dogs in North America and Europe, according to Chris Diefenthaler, executive director of Assistance Dogs International. The dogs breeds most commonly used, she says, are Labrador and Golden Retrievers – and crosses of the two. This is because they are happy to fetch objects; are food-motivated which makes training quicker and they easily adapt to different environments and people.
There are exceptions, of course. Take Yvonne Coleclough, who has MS and lives in Staffordshire. She already had a strong bond with Bonnie, her four-year old Cavachon and was loathe to get another dog. So she worked with charity Dog A.I.D. (Assistance in Disability) to help train Bonnie to become a fully-qualified assistance dog.
Like Solar, Bonnie carries out a range of duties (see her in action here). However, her small size means she can sit on Coleclough’s lap – which eases the spasticity in her legs.
Bonnie also helps in social situations. “When you are out in a wheelchair, people either ignore you or mother you. When you are with a dog, it’s totally different,” she says. “The attention is off you. You feel normal again.”
Coleclough’s anxiety has also disappeared. “When I was first having to use my wheelchair, I felt really vulnerable and lonely. Having her at my side is like having my best friend with me. I don’t need to panic when I drop my keys or payment card because she just picks them straight up for me.”
A recent study from the University of Sheffield has shown that having a trained service dog is also economically beneficial – leading to less reliance on paid carers. Other advantages include dramatic improvements in the person’s mental health – including greater confidence and motivation.
It’s not just assistance dogs that have such an impact on people with MS. Ask any dog-owner with the disease and they will tell you how much their canine companion means to them.
To us our dog is not just a pet – but a loving friend who provides company and watches over us when our MS forces us to spend long hours inside. They also have an uncanny ability to be in tune with our health – sensing when we are fatigued or overwhelmed.
Some even say their dog warns them when they are about to have a relapse. It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Medical detection dogs have been trained to sniff out malaria and some cancers and a trial is just beginning at the
London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine to see if they can smell coronavirus in humans.
I believe there is another reason to explain our devotion. MS is a disease of uncertainty. After our diagnosis – everything changes: our relationship to our self, to our family and to the outside world. However one thing remains constant: our bond with our dog. Our canine partner doesn’t care what we look like or what we can or can not do. They just want to be with us.
The recent lockdown has emphasised this. For some who are shielding at home alone, their dogs are the only company they have. For those using assistance dogs, they’ve had to depend on their canine partners more than ever. One woman – before the lockdown – relied on her son to change her bed. Now he can’t come to her home, so her dog has learnt to help strip the bed and fetch sheets, according to Canine Partners which provided online support to help her.
With a story like that, it’s no surprise why the dog has become “man’s best friend.”
Rachel Horne is a journalist who has MS.