When Kathy Hult of Eden Prairie, Minn., was matched with a Labrador retriever named Joy six years ago, it was love at first sight.
“Joy just has been such a huge part of, not only my life, but my quality of life,” says Hult, 56, who received a diagnosis of limb-onset ALS in 1999.
ALS trail blazer
|Partners: Kathy Hult with Joy, her Labrador retriever service dog.
Hult learned about the service dog agency Helping Paws in 2001, from a woman with one of their dogs. She contacted the local organization and went through a lengthy qualification process, interview and home evaluation.
Within a year, Hult had been matched with Joy and the pair had endured three physically and mentally draining weeks of team training at the Helping Paws facility in Hopkins, Minn., making Hult the first individual with ALS to receive a service dog from Helping Paws.
“I was thrilled that they would consider me to be placed with a service dog,” she says. “I just hoped at the time that my slow progression of the disease would continue, so it would be a positive experience for the organization to place a dog with an individual with ALS, which would lead to more dogs being placed with people affected by the disease.”
Hult, who lives alone in an assisted living apartment, uses a power wheelchair and has difficulty raising her arms. She says Joy has dramatically increased her level of independence by retrieving dropped items, turning on and off lights, and opening and closing doors. Joy also haslearned to remove Hult’s jacket and socks by tugging them with her teeth. The 9-year-old service dog knows the “speak” command and will bark until help arrives, or go and get help when needed.
Even more than physical assistance and security, says Hult, Joy offers emotional support, filling her life with humor.
“I’m so much happier with her,” she says. “Her unconditional love and loyalty allow me to feel good about who I am through the progression of ALS.”
From running errands and dining at local restaurants to visiting Disney World and taking a cruise to Alaska, the duo go everywhere together. Joy’s presence often brings people over to Hult and is a great conversation-starter.
Finding the right organization
Not all service dog organizations will place their dogs with people affected by ALS, says Hult, who spent three years as Helping Paws’ treasurer. She has heard many people with ALS complain about the difficulty of finding organizations willing to serve them.
Because ALS often progresses so quickly and life span is shortened, and because so much time, money and effort go into training a service dog, some organizations feel it’s not practical to place a dog with a person with ALS, Hult explains.
It may take time to find a service dog organization that looks at the individual, not just the disease, but don’t give up, she urges.
“You have to go in and say ‘There are ALS success stories.’ Get your physician behind you,” she says. “If you think your progression is slow, you should be able to present that argument to them.”
Hult calls getting Joy a “phenomenal” experience. “I know quite a few other people with ALS who have gotten service dogs, and it’s been fabulous for them, as well.”
Despite her enthusiasm, Hult warns against making any hasty decisions when considering a service dog.
Consider carefully, with input from your ALS physician as to how quickly the disease is progressing, she advises. Your support team also should be involved, because the dog has needs that may be difficult for a person with ALS to meet.
“If you have a rapid progression of the disease, it’s hard enough to deal with the constant changes that are occurring,” she warns.
“To add getting a service dog may not be the best idea. I personally would question that decision.”
Even those with slower progression should think twice. “Getting a service dog to work for you takes a lot of work and commitment,” she says. “People think that when a dog is trained, it will automatically do everything for you, but it’s not a robot and has to want to do things for you.”
It takes time and energy to bond with a service dog and establish dominance by becoming the “alpha dog.” Then after the dog is fully trained, “it’s a matter of working with her so that she responds to you giving the commands,” says Hult, who runs Joy through her list of commands every day.
Adapting to the future
|Kathy Hult was the first person with ALS to receive a service dog from Helping Paws.
Even a slowly progressing ALS, such as Hult’s, requires some adapting for both members of the service dog team.
When she first received Joy, Hult used a walker, and Joy learned to walk beside the walker. Then Hult began using a scooter, and Joy had to adapt to that. And then they both had to adapt to a power wheelchair.
“I was able to go from living independently in a house to an assisted living apartment with her, and she adapted beautifully,” she says.
Hult, who still has the ability to speak, plans to record commands into a communication device before she loses her voice, so Joy will respond to orders from the machine.
Like everything else in ALS, says Hult, even with a service dog, “you have to be proactive.”