Sunday, 13 July 2008

"I shall catch you if you fall"

Lenny the assitant dog is there to pick up the pieces for Jane Macdonald, Ori Golan writes.

Composed, collected and eloquent, Jane Macdonald speaks of her condition with stoic dignity and wry irony. "In 1987 I was diagnosed as having chronic progressive Multiple Sclerosis. Now - independent of my MS - I also have progressive cancer: I also suffer osteoporosis which means my bones are very fragile and break easily. It’s just bad luck."

Trained as a nurse, Jane pursued a career at the Royal College of Nursing where she worked as adviser to student nurses. Having always led a very active, she gradually found her condition worsening, restricting her more and more. "I was falling frequently, was only able to stand with the aid of two crutches, and was not able to walk far. I remember once, on my way back from work, I fell over in the Strand, in London. Nobody came to help me: I suspect they thought I was drunk. Eventually someone pulled me to the side of the road and just left me there."

By 1991, as she was becoming more disabled Jane decided to apply at the Dogs for the Disabled centre for a dog that would help her in the coming years. A year later, the much anticipated aid arrived in the shape of a lively Labrador-Golden retriever cross called Lenny.

"The great thing about Lenny is that he’s not just an enormous help, but he’s also a great companion. He has a wonderful sense of humour and he’s a real charmer." says Jane proudly of her four-legged companion who, on hearing his name, perks up and comes to her.
Lenny, now nine year old, was trained by Dogs for the Disabled six years ago to cater for Jane’s specific needs at home and outside. As soon as he hears the postman at the door, he runs downstairs and picks up the post to bring it to her. He fetches the portable telephone when it rings, and even drags in the milk crate from outside, using a special foam around the handle. He will also pick up objects from the floor and bring them to Jane.

"When I was still able to write I would frequently drop the pen and it would fall on the floor. Whereas you can ask someone else to pick it up for you, say, nine times, it becomes somewhat tiresome after that. Anyway, I would feel slightly tired having to say ‘thank you’ nine times. For Lenny it’s all a game and he would gladly do it ninety times. He now picks up everything I drop, which is quite a lot: pens, books, spoons, keys. She demonstrates her dog’s skills by holding a bunch of keys and dropping them onto the floor. "Lenny come!! Fetch the keys!" Lenny springs into action, picks up the key ring in his mouth and places it on her lap. "Thank you so much sweety" she praises the blond dog as he sits in anticipation of more games. "What is so wonderful about him is that he’s a cheerful dog who enjoys working. If I tell him to get the harness he’s full of wags."

And it is outside that Lenny proves just how indispensable he really is. Not only is he able to open doors, press lift buttons, carry shopping bags and fetch objects, Lenny is fitted with a special harness which makes it possible for Jane to lean on him with her left hand while keeping her balance with a crutch on the other. Being a sturdy dog, he can easily take on the weight without any discomfort. "If I wobble he puts his feet out and waits until I stop wobbling: this is something that a crutch cannot do. He has a much wider field base which helps me keep my balance." Jane explains.

"On days when I find it difficult to walk, I can sit in my wheel chair and hold on to Lenny by the collar who will gently steer me where I want to go." She demonstrates this by holding on to her dog’s collar as he sits on the left hand side of her armchair, slightly forward. "I am always worried about crossing the road or falling over outdoors, but at least I know that Lenny has his eyes fixed on me." And falling over, she admits, is something which now occurs rather frequently. "You see," she explains, "with Multiple Sclerosis, when you fall it’s almost as if the energy leeks out the palm of your hands and the soles of your feet - which makes getting up so difficult." But this is when Lenny takes his cue and performs his most spectacular feat: picking up his owner after she has fallen.

As soon as Jane falls, he gets out of her way, so as not to hurt himself. Then, on command, he crawls under her stomach and, when told, pulls himself up on all fours. "At that point I put my arms him and, holding on to his collar, hoist myself up. In a matter of minutes the incident is over and we can resume our activity."

"There’s no question about it: Lenny has allowed me to maintain a certain quality of life I could not have had without him. I can go to the shops knowing that if I fell over he would pick me up and I know that if I needed help he would attract attention by barking on command (I tell him ‘to speak’). This gives me an enormous sense of independence and freedom. In the six years we’ve been together, Lenny and I have become a very close team and I take him everywhere with me. He even accompanied me when I was admitted to hospital for surgery." Generally, she attests, people are very receptive to him, largely thanks to his kind nature and direct eye contact which he makes with strangers. However, with only 50 working Dogs for the Disabled currently in the country, they are still not as widespread or well known as other assistance dogs, although they wear similar yellow jackets when ‘on the job’.

While a working dog, Jane insists that Lenny is essentially a family dog, a pet and a companion. "We spend lots of time just playing. Lenny loves going out for walks with my husband Jonathan and, at home, adores having his tummy scratched. He also loves playing ‘piggy in the middle’ with us, don’t you Lenny?" she asks the dog as he wags his bushy tail and runs to fetch the bag which contains his squeaky toys.

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