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Dog proves to be best friend for Parkinson's sufferer

Pulling a wheelchair
Some dogs are even trained to pull wheelchairs   
December 29, 1997
Web posted at: 1:01 p.m. EST (1801 GMT)

From Correspondent Rhonda Rowland

ATLANTA (CNN) -- More than a million Americans are believed to suffer from Parkinson's disease, a neurological disorder that gradually steals their independence, slowing them down with stiffened muscles and even episodes of tremors.

While prescription drugs can improve some of the symptoms, they don't prevent patients from falling. But dogs are learning to do what medicine can't for these patients.

Lou Paulmier, who has been battling Parkinson's disease for almost 30 years, had to give up a coaching and teaching career because of the disease. In addition to tremors and stiffness, Lou has another common Parkinson's symptom called "freezing:" his feet freeze in place while he's trying to walk. Because the rest of his body keeps moving, it causes him to fall.

Dr. Matthew Stern of Pennsylvania Hospital wanted to find a way for patients to stay on the move.

"These patients tend to become very sedentary, very reclusive," Stern said. "Our desire was to try and enable them to be more independent."

Paulmier with his dog   

Stern turned to Independence Dogs Inc., a group that trains dogs to assist people with disabilities. The dogs can turn on light switches, open doors and pull wheelchairs. This is the first time they've trained to help Parkinson's patients.

"Out of every dog that comes in here, I'd say a good third could fit the bill," said Jean King, the founder and CEO of Independence Dogs.

Melek, whose name means "Angel" in Turkish, was one of the dogs that passed the test. Her name has been appropriate: In a matter of weeks, she transformed Paulmier into an active man.

"I really do think she's an angel. I find myself often praying for little miracles and I would say this is a little miracle," Marge said.

At Lou's cue, Melek can break his freeze by simply touching his foot -- doctors don't know why -- and he can continue walking. If he does fall, she's there to help him up.

Lou is adapting to his new partner. "I'm beginning to think that she thinks she is supposed to care for me," he said. "She's supposed to be in charge when I have trouble."

But already, his wife says, the dog has made a difference in their lives. "She's made him more acceptable," she said. "Or maybe people just recognize the fact that he really is handicapped."


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