Tales from the Hydrant

by Kathy Wechsler on Sat, 2006-04-01 15:40

When one member of the family is found to have ALS, everybody in the family — including the family dog — is affected by the disease in interesting and unpredictable ways. Some family members adapt better than others.

The stories of Mike, Sahara and Coolidge illustrate a few of the different ways in which your pets may respond to your physical changes brought on by ALS.

Stephen Hallgren with his dog Mike.
Stephen Hallgren and Mike.

Mike (aka “the German Shedder”)

Stephen and Glory Hallgren live in Somerset, Wis., with their three cats, 14 chickens and a 110-pound German shepherd named Mike.

Stephen, 57, who received a diagnosis of ALS last spring, says that the 5-year-old shepherd seemed to sense the disease’s onset. Back in the summer of 2003, Hallgren fell in his front yard.

“The next summer, after my leg had healed [from the fall], Mike wouldn’t leave my leg alone,” Hallgren says. “He kept licking my lower left leg, and that’s where my ALS started the next fall when I first noticed a problem.”

Mike could also sense when Hallgren’s ability to walk began to deteriorate.

“He has become much more aware of my movements,” says Hallgren, who walks with the aid of a cane. “If he is lying in a path that I need to use, all I need to do is walk up to him and he knows that I can no longer jump over him, so he gets up and moves.

“Another thing I have been able to convey to him since my energy has diminished is to just go ‘psst,’ and he knows that it’s nap time,” and goes to his bed.

Hallgren misses his regular three-mile runs with Mike.

“He was more my dog, but I’m not doing much with him, and I think he’s becoming more Glory’s dog because she takes him on walks,” he says. “I still spend the whole day with him, so he’s pretty close to me.”

Sahara

Sterling and Jeannette Kelley of Hallsville, Mo., have a 9-year-old border collie who’s always been a part of the family. Sahara’s loving, playful personality changed in 2003, when Jeannette, now 73, was found to have ALS.

As Jeannette’s bulbar-onset ALS progressed, a feeding tube and then a tracheostomy became necessary, and Sterling has become her full-time caregiver. Jeannette’s speech is affected, and she uses a power wheelchair for mobility.

“I don’t have time to take the dog out and play with her,” Sterling says. “This disease has pretty much ruined our relationship with Sahara because my wife has to stay so close to the suction machine and I have to stay close to her.”

To Jeannette’s dismay, Sahara has become very reclusive. Fearful of the noises made by Jeannette’s trach and suction machine, the black-and-white border collie spends much of the time hiding in her kennel in the back bedroom.

“Now [Sahara] stays away from my wife because she doesn’t understand the noises — my wife can’t talk to her,” says Sterling. “It’s changed their relationship entirely. Sahara no longer feels comfortable in her own home.”

To give Sahara time to be an ordinary dog, the Kelleys often send her home with friends or their two grown daughters’ families, where Sahara can be her active self again.

Coolidge

After receiving a diagnosis of ALS in May 2004, Judson Harmon moved to St. Paul, Minn., to live with his daughter, Kathryn Harmon Ledo, her husband, Rob Ledo, and their 11-month-old son, John Judson Ledo.

Last year when Harmon, 71, who now uses a power wheelchair, was able to walk with the aid of a walker, he stumbled and fell in the carpeted living room, “probably yelling ‘Ooooff’ and muttering several rude words as I hit the floor.”

The house was empty except for two cats, a pigeon, and Kathryn’s 3-year-old black-and-tan American coonhound, Coolidge. Harmon, unhurt but unable to get up, had no choice but to wait for Kathryn to return home from a short errand.

“I felt Coolidge put his head firmly under my left arm and my chest, as if to help me rise to my feet,” says Harmon. “I immediately thought ‘How wonderful!’ and later, cynically, ‘Maybe he’ll help me find and balance my checkbook after this.’”

By the way, Coolidge wasn’t successful at raising Harmon to his feet, but he was good company while Harmon waited to be rescued.

Judson Harmon, Coolidge and grandson John
Coolidge is protective of both Judson Harmon and his grandson John.

“So, what was Coolidge’s purpose when he came to my side and put his head under me as I knelt, helpless, on the living room floor? Was it to cuddle, to stop my yelling, to see if I had any treats, mere curiosity, or to raise me up? He didn’t say.”

Coolidge has always been a protective and caring dog. For example, Harmon gets his legs stretched once a week by a home health aide. When the stretching gets painful and Harmon cries out, Coolidge often comes over, puts himself between Harmon and the health aide, and licks Harmon’s hand, as if to ease his pain.

“Coolidge also watches out for baby John and warns Dad when his wheelchair gets too close,” says Harmon’s daughter, Kathryn, who’s the alpha female of the pack. “He’s given Dad a gentle nibble or even a growl when Dad has approached the play pen too quickly.”

“When we play tug-of-war, [Coolidge] adjusts to me and doesn’t pull very hard,” Harmon says. “He also knows he will get a high-quality scratching from me.”

Kathy Wechsler
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