The Difference a Balance Dog Makes for MS

Guide Dog
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Service dogs are specially-trained dogs that assist people living with disabilities in a multitude of ways. You might be most familiar with guide dogs that help people with vision difficulties navigate the world and assist people with hearing loss by indicating when a phone is ringing or a baby is crying. But those with vision or hearing loss aren't the only people who can benefit from having a trained service dog.

Many people living with multiple sclerosis (MS) have difficulty moving from place to place due to numbness in their legs, which results in feelings of instability and a lack of balance. MS-related fatigue can also cause people to fall, feel unbalanced, or have difficulty walking. Canes and other aids can help, but balance dogs are becoming increasingly common amongst people diagnosed with MS.

They help people sit down, stand up, and get in and out of bed, in addition to providing increased mobility when performing everyday activities. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, service dogs have every right to be anywhere that you have a right to be.

Multiple Sclerosis Balance Dogs

A well-trained balance dog can be of major assistance to someone with MS by performing a range of functions that include, but aren't limited to:

  • Sensing when people are tired and encouraging them to rest by gently nudging them toward a chair or wall.
  • Helping people get in and out of chairs and beds by bracing them as they get up and down.
  • Helping people move from room to room inside a house.
  • Picking up dropped items from the floor, like a telephone or a pen.
  • Pushing buttons in an elevator.
  • Opening doors using a special device.
  • Turning lights on and off.

    The assistance a service dog provides with everyday tasks is incredibly helpful, but perhaps their most important function in providing loyal, loving companionship. In order to perform their duties in the most efficient, unobtrusive way possible, a balance dog also wears a special balance harness, carries a backpack of supplies and is able to act discreetly, such as sitting under a table in a restaurant.

    Types of Balance Dogs

    Not all dogs make good balance dogs. Since the dog's key function is providing extra support, the dog must be large enough to support extra weight and have no health problems. The dog must be trainable and able to focus on the tasks that need to be accomplished. Some of the most common balance dog breeds include:

    • Great Danes
    • Golden Retrievers
    • Labrador Retrievers

    Could a Balance Dog Help Me?

    A balance dog is a service dog, not a family pet, but it still requires a particular amount of care and attention. Before you seriously begin to consider getting a balance dog, ask yourself these questions:

    • Do you like dogs?
    • Could a balance dog help you, given your level of disability?
    • Can you (or someone else) care for the dog?
    • Are you willing to work with your dog?

    How to Get a Balance Dog

    If you believe a balance dog will improve your quality of life, there are three different routes you can take:

    • Owner/Trainer: Train the dog yourself. This could be very rewarding, but it isn't completely risk-free. When you train the dog yourself, you run the risk of the puppy developing health problems or not having a personality suited for being a service dog. 
    • Professionally-Trained Dogs: Hire a professional dog trainer to help you train your dog. You run the same risks listed above, but you also improve your chances of success. However, a professional trainer tends to be expensive.
    • Service Dog Organizations: Purchase a dog that has already been trained as a service dog (see below). Unfortunately, there is no governing body that regulates service dogs, so the quality of the dog and the training it has received varies from organization to organization. Be sure to thoroughly research each organization and speak with people who have gotten dogs from the organization(s) you are interested in.

    The good news is that financial assistance is often available to help you purchase, train and cover the continuing expenses of owning a balance dog. However, this depends greatly on your level of disability and the programs available in your area. Figure out your options by calling your MS care provider, your local MS chapter or other organizations that serve people with disabilities.

    Helpful Multiple Sclerosis Organizations

    Sources:

    Jodi Lee Ryan and Anne-Elizabeth Straub, People with MS Are... Going to the Dogs. April-May 2005 InsideMS.

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