Dogs help the brain-injured

Imagine walking down the street toward a familiar destination. Suddenly, you have no idea where you are, or where you are going. A Cherry Hill resident who suffers terrifying sudden memory lapses has found a friend to help him cope. A friend with four legs. His name is Arye Oji  which means Lion and Gift. He is a beautiful caramel-colored Rhodesian Ridgeback, a dog bread to hunt lions in Southern Africa.  Walking the streets of Philadelphia, Arye’s keen senses are focused on his owner, Philip Abrams:

“He constantly looks at me,” Abrams says. “He checks me out.” Abrams struggles with brain damage as a result of several severe concussions. One moment, he is fine, going about an errand – the next moment he could be utterly lost:”Everything is a blank sheet,” is how Abrams describes the sensation. “I don’t remember anything, and then the panic sets in, the stress sets in, and it’s just overwhelming, and I’ll be going in circles.”

This type of disorientation is common in people with so-called “mild” brain injuries like concussions, says Dr. Timothy Young. He is medical director for brain injuries at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia.One of the things that I see a lot at my clinic are folks that have difficulty with getting lost,” he said. “If they don’t follow a specific routine, they can get disoriented very easily so  you try to develop strategies to address that.”

Safety net is shaky

His patients use notebooks or smart phones to help them stay on track – but even that poses a problem, says Young. If you are completely lost and in a panic, you aren’t likely to remember how to use your iPhone to get you out of a jam:You can create all kinds of safety nets, but at the end of the day, if someone forgets to use the safety nets, then you have an issue.”

Philip Abrams decided that a service dog could help him. A dog lover, he rescued Arye from a shelter when he was a puppy, and trained the dog to respond to his unusual needs:He sees certain things that I would be doing that give him an indication, they just sense it. And then when he sees a certain kind of mannerism that’s when he springs into action.”When Arye notices Abrams is in distress, he immediately pulls him toward a location that he knows, or approaches a person who knows them, perhaps a bus driver, store attendant, or police officer.  Abrams tries to stay on predictable routes where Arye can recognize people and places. Philadelphia therapist and dog trainer Michaela Greif has seen this special bond develop countless times. “They end up like a couple,” she said. “That’s what they are – and they end up tailoring a whole new vocabulary for themselves and they become very intuitive, the dog to the person, but also the person to the dog.”

Society slow to adjust

Greif says the days when dogs were mostly used to help the blind are long gone. Service dogs now assist people with a wide range of disabilities, both physical and emotional, but public awareness of these new roles lags behind.Philip Abrams says people often question why he should be allowed to bring his dog:Oh, you look normal, you’re not blind, what’s wrong with you?”Just recently, Abrams was on his way to a job interview, and was flagged by a security guard in the building:”He said, ‘No dogs allowed’ – and I said it’s a medical service dog, would you like to see his license, and he said no, go sit in the corner for security reasons, and I felt like I was a child, or a dog – go sit in the corner.’Abrams left, momentarily defeated – but he’s been making it his personal mission to spread the word about the many uses of service dogs:Please please don’t be frightened when you see a service dog, have compassion, that’s all I ask, and I’m really serious about it, because I had some nasty things said to me.’

When trained by an organization, service dogs are expensive – they can cost up to $20,000. Dog trainer Michaela Greif says the dogs bring such independence and safety to people’s lives, she predicts their use will grow, despite the price tag. Greif says beyond the help they offer, these animals bring another important benefit to owners: It’s very empowering to take care of an animal, and to take care of an animal well, and often for folks who are battling a disability, they don’t have a lot of empowerment in their life. I think it feels really good to take care of something, and to have it take care of you.”

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