-By Mike Kolar
I have been coping with the challenges of rheumatoid arthritis for more than 25 years. Because arthritis is a progressive disease, it brought daily unknowns and changes that affected my mobility and, thus, my life. After I was first diagnosed, and the disease progressed quickly, I was finding my world more and more limited. I had to give up or scale back many of the things I enjoyed. It was particularly difficult to think about not hiking or camping, activities that had been a big part of my life. There was every reason to believe that my condition would continue to worsen, and I began to look at a service dog as a way to help with basic functions. Initially, my service dog, Turner, was being trained to help with the kinds of everyday tasks that can be challenging for people with arthritis – picking up objects from the floor or from under a bed or cabinet, bringing items like shoes or a cane, bracing so I could lean on him to help me get up from a chair or walk up and down stairs.
While Turner and I were learning to work together on these tasks, I began to experience a significant improvement. Excellent medical care, new arthritis drugs, knee and hip replacements, two operations to repair arthritis-inflicted damage to my foot – all these things helped to increase my mobility, decrease pain, and make it possible to think about returning to a fuller and more active life.
As things improved, my trainer and I began to look at how we could retrain and refocus Turner’s skills to move beyond basic assistance tasks. Turner still helps with the everyday tasks, but he has also made it possible for me to return to my favorite activities, hiking and camping. For me the real fun in hiking has always been the more challenging and interesting trails – up steep, rocky grades that require maneuvering over and around boulders and fallen trees; bushwhacking up a hill to see what the view might be; or following a narrow, overgrown animal trail created by the deer, moose, coyotes, and bears that live in the forestland around my house in eastern Washington state.
Turner will brace so I can lean on him to get up from the ground. I can position him where the handle on his harness provides me a hand hold in making my way over obstacles on the trail. He will walk alongside me to help me keep my balance on a sloping and slippery part of the trail. On steep uphills, particularly when I’m wearing a heavy pack, Turner will help pull me up the steeper sections. With Turner beside me, I am able to live the full life I want.
I encourage anyone with arthritis or similar mobility-limiting conditions to see what a service dog can do not only to make everyday life easier, but also to open up so much more opportunity for you to live life more fully, actively, and joyfully.