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How My Support Dog Helps Me Through Life With Chronic Pain

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About two and a half years ago, my husband and I went to the local shelter “just to see” the dogs. (I really should know better. I’m the type of person who would take all of the dogs home if I could.)

During this time, I had really been struggling with health issues. My depression had hit an all time low, and physically, things were going downhill for me and the doctors couldn’t figure out what was going on. (This was shortly before I received the additional diagnoses of lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.)

While we were at the shelter, we came across this shaggy, mid-size (about 50 lbs.) collie mix named Wilson, who I connected with immediately. We asked about him, and the volunteer provided what little information was known about him, and asked if we’d like to play with him outside. The shelter had these great fenced play areas with picnic tables, and so I sat at the picnic table and got to know Wilson a bit better.


He approached me cautiously, not out of fear, but concern before turning and sitting on my foot, leaning his head back in my lap for me to pet. This was extremely significant because of past dogs in my family’s life who had done the same with my mom. It was as if those animals who’d crossed over the rainbow bridge were telling me this was my dog.

A few days later, we officially adopted Wilson into our home. Initially, we were going to be the type of pet parents that didn’t allow him on the furniture or feed him people food. (That didn’t last long.) He was classified as an emotional support animal to help me cope with my depression and anxiety, but he seemed to sense how sick I was physically. Where he would play fully with my husband, tug on that toy harder, run faster, jump harder, he was gentle with me.

From the emotional and psychological standpoint, I call Wilson my Angel Dog. He’s brought so much joy into our lives, made me laugh with his goofiness, comforted me when I’m having difficulties, and just brings a sense of calm and peace. But about a year ago, our very smart dog showed me how much he was clued into me.

I had had a really rough few days where I was essentially living off of pain pills and Glucerna. I spent the majority of the time sleeping and it was just me and Wilson at home.

About mid-morning, I was awakened by the feeling of being pushed by something. When I came to, I realized Wilson was lying next to me in bed pushing me with his paws to wake me up and he didn’t stop pushing until I sat up on the edge of the bed. He then did his “I need to go outside” routine, and I stumbled through the house, heading toward the back door. But rather than go to the back door, Wilson stopped in front of the fridge, watched me for a while, and then looked back at the fridge. It took me a minute, but I realized I was likely hypoglycemic. I grabbed a meal replacement shake out of the fridge, downed it, and only then would Wilson go outside.

I returned to bed for more sleep after he came back in, and a few hours later, found myself repeating a similar pattern. Again, he woke me up by pushing me, but this time it wasn’t food he was after me to get, but water. And this time, he wouldn’t let me go back to sleep forcing me to stay awake. (Which is actually a really good thing because otherwise I would not be sleeping at night.)

He has also helped keep me from having panic attacks, alerted me to low blood sugar episodes and tried to warm my feet by lying on them when I’m having problems with Raynaud’s. Wilson loves to snuggle…he just hasn’t figured out that lying on top of me when I’m having a really high pain day isn’t the way to go sometimes. Wilson tracks me at night, particularly if I’m having a really bad night, and will keep tabs on me. (The night after my most recent surgery he made things really interesting for me. Every time I got out of bed, he would move and lie on the floor so I would have to step over him to return to bed. He made sure he knew where I was, but lifting legs over a dog after abdominal surgery isn’t the most fun thing ever.)

I’m not bringing up this topic to just brag about how awesome my dog is, although he is pretty awesome. There are a lot of positives to pets in the lives of people, regardless of their ability or disability. But when you have a disability, there are also some considerations to take regarding animals.

So, Wilson provides a great deal of services to me. But Wilson, like any pet, requires a great deal of care and has his own needs. For some people with the types of illnesses that chronic pain warriors deal with, the needs of a pet are too great and are more of a responsibility than some can handle. That leads me to: what questions should one ask themselves when considering taking on a pet/emotional support animal/therapy animal/companion animal/service animal?

(There are a variety of differences between an animal that is a pet vs. emotional support animal vs. therapy animal vs. companion animal vs. service animal, and the laws that govern the type of animal and where they are allowed are far more detailed than I wish to get into here. For people who are interested, I encourage you to look to the Americans with Disabilities Act and Regulations on Service Animals for further information.)

Questions to ask before taking on an animal:

1. Why do I want this animal in my life?  

Are you looking to adopt because you saw that Sarah McLachlan SPCA commercial one too many times? Or do you really feel ready to take on an animal with their needs? Have you researched the specific breeds/types of animals and temperaments?  If you adopt a puppy or kitten, are you aware of the increased care requirements you’ll have for a while? If this is a service animal, have you thought about the costs of training and education? These are all things to take into consideration.

2. Will this animal fit into my lifestyle?

Some chronic pain warriors are still able to work full-time, so is this animal going to be alone most of the day? If so, are they able to entertain themselves or will you return home to find things torn up? If you’re fairly sedentary, adopting a high energy animal who requires lots of exercise probably isn’t the way to go. Animals have personalities, too, so if you’re a person who enjoys peace and quiet, bringing a barker home might not be the best way to go.

3. Can I afford this animal?

Vet bills, food, medication, treats, toys…it all adds up. And if your animal becomes chronically ill themselves or requires special food or medication? It can get even pricier.

4. On my bad days, will I be able to exercise/play with this animal as they need to be?

On my extremely bad days, it can be hard for me to let the dog out; is this something you would have to consider?

5.  Is there support for me to turn to if I have to be hospitalized for a length of time because of my illness? 

Or even on those days where you suddenly find yourself stuck at the medical center for 13 hours, is there someone you can call who can help your animal out? I know Wilson can hold it for a while, but a dog can only cross their legs for so long.

And ultimately, the question that needs to be answered is: Will this animal bring more joy and help to my life or will the animal cause too much of a burden on me to care for it in my present health state?

I can’t imagine my life without Wilson in it, but I have the help of my husband for things like bathing him and making sure he gets enough exercise. Wilson is also calm enough of a dog that he doesn’t require constant stimulus, and while he has his hyper moments, that’s not his constant state. He fits into this family perfectly.

I’m all for animals in our lives as I believe they bring great joy and value, but we owe it to those animals to bring joy and value to their lives as well.

Note: Since writing this original blog entry, Wilson has been reclassified as a service animal. He continually surprises me with the ways he’s figured out to help me.

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Thinkstock photo via fcscafeine.

Originally published: June 16, 2017
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