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Cindy & Murphy; a working team.

Cindy & Murphy A Working Team

Cindy Teal is doing some shopping. Holding her companion for support, she says, "Forward" and the pair heads down an aisle. Something catches her eye. "Easy," says Cindy, and her companion slows. She reaches for an item, but drops it. He carefully picks it up. They approach the cashier. Her companion takes some money from her hand and efficiently handles the transaction.

That companion is Murphy, the gentle golden retriever who has been Cindy's assistance dog for over two years.

Cindy was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1980, while working as a registered nurse and, with her husband, Mark, raising a teen-age son. Paralyzed by a severe exacerbation, she spent the next seven years in a wheelchair. Cindy gradually regained mobility, but has permanently lost all feeling in her legs. She is legally blind and wears hearing aids in both ears.

"Murphy fills in the blanks created by my MS. He is my eyes, my ears and my legs. He's made it possible for me to stay active."

Murphy wakes Cindy each morning with a gentle nudge. She gets up, dresses and helps Murphy into his harness -- the modified child's walker which is his uniform during "working hours." He leads her down the hall, pulls open the front door and they set out for a morning walk.

"Because I can't feel the ground beneath me, I need Murphy to stabilize me. It's much easier to hang on to his harness than to go from counter top, to railing, to the arm of a caregiver."

At home in Weddington, North Carolina, Murphy's on call. He carries objects, helps Cindy up and down stairs and picks up things she drops. He opens the refrigerator door with the help of a rag Cindy has placed on the handle. When she points, he picks up the ringing telephone.

Cindy has recently begun a job as program administrator at Southeastern Assistance Dogs (SEAD) where Murphy will be her full-time assistant. "I can count on Murphy to deliver something to a colleague or to open an office or bathroom door. But since my office is designed with most things I need within arm's reach, Murphy will have plenty of time to catch a few winks on the floor. He deserves it, I couldn't even get to a job without him."

For Cindy, getting around town would be impossible without Murphy. "I need him to cross streets, push elevator buttons, get me through stores or find me a table in restaurants or a seat on the bus. When we come upon a crack or a bump in the sidewalk, or if he sees a car heading my way, he stops. I tap my foot twice to show him I understand, that I know to be careful."

Cindy and "best friend" Murphy's almost effortless communication has come from their round-the-clock togetherness since 1988. "I speak to Murphy mostly through the verbal commands and signals he learned in training. And I've been teaching him sign language. Every day we understand each other better."

Long an animal lover, Cindy was a volunteer assistance dog trainer when Murphy became a student. "I knew how much a dog could help me with my MS. Murphy and I just clicked. He's a laid-back dog. Absolutely nothing phases him, luckily, because I'm out in public a lot. I needed a dog who could sit quietly and who would not get excited in a roomful of people."

Murphy's calmness has defused a few tricky situations. "My MS occasionally gives me seizures. It's a great comfort to have Murphy then. He lies right next to me, perfectly still. He soothes me and keeps onlookers from panicking. Plus, I don't have to worry about my purse."

The golden retriever is a magnet for attention wherever they go. "It's amazing how many people approach us. They ask his name and want to pet him. When I'm with Murphy, people look straight at me and smile. They don't turn away from my disability. It's a great boost."

Murphy laps up the attention. But when Cindy takes hold of his harness, he knows it's back to business. "Assistance dogs have a real work ethic. They want to help you. That's what they know."

One place Murphy is a big help is in airports. "I travel quite a bit," says Cindy. "In the airport, I can ask him: 'Take me to a telephone' or 'Find me a seat,' and he does. Being able to travel alone is the greatest gift Murphy has given me. I just wish he could drive."

Assistance dogs like Murphy can be a real boon to people with MS. As seeing-eye dogs respond to things their owners can't see, assistance dogs can perform tasks that their owners can't. That can mean increased mobility and independence for the disabled owner. It may also mean a lighter role for caregivers.

"I use a wheelchair and can't get around too well by myself," says Lawrence Blackwell, a New Orleans resident who has MS. "I have a wonderful wife and son who attend to my needs. But since I got my golden retriever, Northstar, from Canine Companions for Independence, I depend much less on my family. He pulls my wheelchair, brings me what I need from another room, carries things and switches on lights. I've recently taught him to retrieve the TV remote control. I feel much better knowing that when my wife and son are out, they are not worrying about my being home alone."

Despite the benefits, owning an assistance dog is not for everyone. The flip side of the broader freedoms is the responsibility of caring for a pet. It's a job to walk and clean a dog. And there is the expense of feeding one.

"For some people, particularly those who use wheelchairs or live alone, taking care of a service dog can be a problem," says Pat Murphy, special projects manager, National Multiple Sclerosis Society. "Before investing in a dog, consider how you will care for one or if you can arrange for a family member or caregiver to help care for it. Also investigate cleaning services provided by most vets, often at reduced cost for assistance animals."

"A good rule of thumb," say Cindy, who estimates that the SEAD program has matched about 60 dogs with people with more advanced disabilities, "is if you can bathe yourself, you'll be able to clean and care for the dog."

Built in to training programs are techniques which make upkeep a bit easier. Murphy was taught to jump in the shower on command, then lie down to drip dry on a towel Cindy has tossed onto the floor. And the dogs are taught to eat, sleep, even empty their bladders only on command.

"Northstar's food can be in his dish all day, but he won't eat until I give him the go-ahead," agrees Mr. Blackwell.

Once you've decided to look into getting a dog, the extent of your disability may also be a factor in selecting a training program. "There are some 50 training centers across the country and the methods and costs vary considerably," says Cindy. "It is important to choose one suited to your particular disabilities, your support systems and your financial situation. Some programs will train a dog you already own if there seems to be potential as an assistance dog."

One popular program is Canine Companions for Independence, the non-profit organization from which Mr. Blackwell received his dog. Based in California, CCI has been training dogs for about 15 years. Once a client is accepted to the program, he or she must travel to a regional training center for a two-week intensive session. Students graduate after mastering the 89 commands the dog has been taught, passing a written test and navigating an excursion to a local shopping mall.

"It was tough at times, but never overwhelming," says Mr. Blackwell, who completed the program in 1988. "I was prepared to work hard. And I found the trainers very willing to adjust to my needs. If I got tired they allowed my son to assist me. I think success depends on your desire for a dog. You must want its love and attention and you must be willing to care for and treat it as well as you would a person."

Still, the "boot camp" model of training may be difficult for some people with MS. "Since so many people with MS experience fatigue, that type of training can be grueling," says Cindy. As a result, the SEAD program dispatches area trainers to clients' homes.

Costs vary, too. SEAD charges up to $2,000 for the dog and training, depending on the client's ability to pay. In contrast, CCI requires a $125 fee for application processing and supplies, but does not fund travel, lodging or other expenses incurred during the training.

"In short, there is enough variety to make owning a dog a real possibility for many people," concludes Cindy. "I encourage anyone who has even a passing notion of getting a dog to look into it. Determine just what a dog would mean for you physically and financially and what the options and benefits are for your individual needs. Compare the programs: find out how the dogs are trained, whether the program does any follow-up, what happens if you have a problem with your dog, if there is a wait, etc.

"If you are willing to make a commitment to companionship, the benefits are extraordinary. Murphy has allowed me to accomplish the things I wanted to do. I can't imagine where I'd be without him."
COPYRIGHT 1991 National Multiple Sclerosis Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related information on training center; Cindy Teal and her assistance dog
Author:Price, Susan
Publication:Inside MS
Date:Jan 1, 1991
Previous Article:Seeds of Light, Images of Healing: A Self-Portrait.
Next Article:A look at the FDA from the MS point of view.

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