A New Leash on Life

by Jan Blaustone on July 1, 2005 - 1:32pm

QUEST Vol. 12, No. 4

Everyone strives to remain independent throughout life but none perhaps as passionately as the teenager who tastes independence and makes empowering life choices for the first time. Adolescence is no different for Middle Tennessean Josh Hamby, 18, with one exception. Josh has a partner.

Fifteen years ago, when Josh, of Tullahoma, Tenn., was found to have Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a friend told Josh’s mother, Laura, about the benefits of service dogs. Long waiting lists from service dog providers and her husband, Mike’s, allergies contributed to Laura’s decision to postpone acquiring a canine assistant for her son.

The right time

But about two years ago, Josh fell while walking and has been wheelchair-dependent ever since. This life change was a difficult transition for the free-spirited Josh.

Hampton with Josh.
Josh Hamby has experienced less pain and depression since he paired up with Hampton. Photo by Doris Dressler, Canine Assistants

"His spirit plummeted along with his physical strength," Laura says, "and he continued to lose strength rapidly. He can’t get his hand from his lap to his control [joystick] without a great deal of effort. He’s also having more trouble getting comfortable in bed so his sleep — and ours — is disturbed."

Josh wanted a service dog, and his parents agreed that the time had come. His mother said his desire came in part from "feelings of hopelessness when he drops something and can’t pick it up, or not being able to wake us at night because he can’t reach the intercom button."

Josh also dreamed of a partnership that would draw attention away from his chair and onto the dog.

One day in March, Josh and his parents were as excited as kids at Christmas before their five-hour drive to Alpharetta, Ga. There they’d attend a two-week training camp at the nonprofit Canine Assistants, where Josh would work with a dozen or more highly trained dogs and learn which one would become his partner and share the bond of unconditional love he’d been dreaming of.

"I’m telling everyone!" Josh said before he left for the training, about six months after completing his application. "I’ve been counting the days but I’m not nervous, just excited.

"The dog of my dreams will make me feel safe, for starters. The dog will be smart but silly and playful, curious but obedient and reliable. I’m really excited about bringing my dog to school and church. Everyone is anxious to meet my dog, not just me."

Most Canine Assistants service dogs are born, raised and trained at the facility and undergo a rigorous screening prior to their partnerships. They begin their formal education with a puppy trainer, then graduate to an adult trainer and finally are homeschooled for three to six months.

Doris Dressler, Canine Assistants’ homeschool director, says the dogs are placed in volunteers’ homes in order to "fine-tune" them before they go out and work.

"The dogs go everywhere with their volunteers — work, school, shopping, you name it — so they get exposure out in public and become acclimated to being on the go all day long," she explains. "The dog actually works — pays for things holding the wallet in his mouth and takes receipts from counter level, carries the Wal-Mart bag out to the car, pushes the handicapped button to open a door … those kinds of things.

"It’s like an internship for the dog and an opportunity for us to correct any issues there might be such as with car riding, housebreaking, chewing and so on."

The right dog

The first few days at the training camp were exhausting yet exhilarating for Josh. Several dogs that had completed their training and homeschooling were eligible to be matched with potential recipients. While his parents watched from the background, Josh seemed to hit it off immediately with a 22-month-old golden retriever named Hampton.

"Hampton was so cool!" Josh says. "He approached me from the side and didn’t jump up and get in my face. He was quiet and paid attention. When he did ‘lap,’ he didn’t lick my face, he got off on my command, and then he licked my hand.

"I also like how he is big enough that his head is level with my armrest so he’s easy for me to pet."

It took no time at all for Hampton to realize that when Josh’s arm falls off his armrest, Hampton can nuzzle underneath Josh’s hand and, by raising his head, lift the arm back onto the armrest, putting Josh again in control of his joystick.

"He’s just really smart!" Josh says. "And he’s so instinctive. I wanted him from the start. I was sweating and so nervous until they all agreed that Hampton should be my partner."

"Usually you can tell a good match by watching the recipient work the dog," says Lauren Herndon, Hampton’s trainer. "It was obvious with Josh and Hampton. They were very in tune with each other from the beginning. Josh was in love with Hampton and Hampton couldn’t take his eyes off Josh. You could tell that Hampton would already do anything for him."

A great partnership

What began as a search for a partner to assist Josh physically soon turned into much more as Herndon describes Canine Assistants’ optimal partnership.

"I’m hoping that Hampton will boost Josh’s confidence level and take his mind off what is going on with his health," Herndon says.

Hampton and Josh on a rainy day
Hampton opens doors for Josh, lifts Josh's hand to his wheelchair joystick and stays by his side whatever the weather. Photo by Doris Dressler, Canine Assistants

After returning home with Hampton, Josh’s parents reported that their son was smiling more than he had in years and not asking for pain medicine that he’d previously requested at least twice a day.

"Hampton has accompanied Josh to doctors’ appointments where he’s received difficult news," Herndon was told. The dog sensed Josh’s sadness and has been a great source of comfort.

Mike Hamby says, "That first night together Josh slept six hours straight. I can’t remember when he last slept that well and he has cut his pain meds by one-third. This is better than we ever hoped for.

"From the day they were paired up," Hamby adds, "Josh was learning to become more assertive and in charge. Hampton tests Josh like a teenager tests his parents, but at the same time, he’s very mindful of Josh’s energy level and emotions."

Laura remarks, "I feel like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. Hampton is a blessing to us all.

"For so many years we watched as Josh was losing his strength and abilities, becoming depressed and more dependent upon others to do even the simplest of tasks. Now Josh has someone who is dependent upon him. Although we assist Josh with Hampton’s care, Josh is in charge and we couldn’t be happier.

"Having Hampton in our family may not always make life easier but he certainly makes life better."

Hampton also gets Josh outdoors more to walk him, and Josh is talking about going to community college after he graduates from high school next year.

The right decision

Experts in the field aren’t surprised.

Francois Martin, associate director of the Center for the Study of Animal Well-Being at Washington State University in Pullman, says, "This young man is experiencing the benefits of the human-animal bond."

For more than 25 years, researchers from the People-Pet Partnership at the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine have studied the effects of human-animal interactions. They’ve observed improvements in people’s social behaviors and attitudes about life.

Martin says researchers believe that "companion animals influence how people perceive themselves and how they perceive others.

Hampton opens the door for Josh.
Photo by Doris Dressler, Canine Assistants

"In addition to helping people with disabilities in their activities of daily living, some argue that the greatest benefit of this partnership may be the integration of people with special needs into society. The presence of a service animal may provide a link for social interaction, keeping people with disabilities from growing socially isolated.

"Other studies show that animals can provide significant psychological support during periods of intense stress," he says, leading to fewer doctor visits, fewer medications and thus financial savings.

Laura has her own explanation:

"God gave Hampton to Josh just when he needed him most. We put our faith in God and our trust in Canine Assistants, and our prayers were answered beyond what we hoped for."

Laura says that while Hampton recognizes Josh as his "dad," he also feels connected to Josh’s parents.

"Hampton even tried to shove a Nylabone into Mike’s mouth during a group hug. He may belong to Josh," she says, "but Mike and I are still family!"

Simply put, Herndon says, "We hope for these changes in every recipient’s life. That is one of the main reasons we train these dogs — to make a difference in people’s lives."

Also see "Chance Gets a Second Chance."

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