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A lifetime of loyal companionship
Islander Linda Hale can still remember the spark she felt when choosing Little Smoothe, a sturdy-looking Labrador Retriever-Border Collie, out of a dozen other puppies.
“It’s like a child is born and gives their first cry,” Hale said. “Even though it’s a cry, it’s a welcoming to the world – like I’m alive.”
For the last 10 years, Smoothe, a guide, medical assist service and seizure dog, has supported Hale in every aspect of daily life – from navigating the grocery store to monitoring for seizures. Hale, who has used a wheelchair since 1990, suffers from Fabry’s, a rare inherited disease which “starves the whole body,” she said.
Fabry’s occurs when the body lacks the enzymes required to metabolize lipids such as oils and fats.
Even though her father died from Fabry’s when he was 52, Hale was not diagnosed until five years ago.
“Fabry’s has been afflicting me since birth with ever-increasing impact,” she said. “It is starving my entire body, bones, body system and organs. I spend my whole day doing what I can to stay alive.”
Hale has suffered an array of medical issues from projectile vomiting as an infant to osteoporosis and impaired vision. While the disease attacked her father’s kidneys, it impacted Hale’s gastrointestinal tract and other organs.
Little Smoothe’s arrival made an immediate impact.
“I would not be able to manage without the participation of Little Smoothe,” Hale said. “We work as a team. The responsibility is equal. She’s responsible for me; I’m responsible for her. It’s a positive relationship.”
Hale, who receives an average of nine hours of assistance from Catholic Community Services per day, was once a long-distance runner and enjoyed tutoring students.
“It’s difficult to be on the receiving end instead of giving,” she said. “It requires a great deal of patience and good communication skills.”
Hale’s 10-year-old dog, however, has been an unyielding source of patience.
“She has spent as many as 24 days in the hospital with me, monitoring my seizures more accurately than any man-made machine or human being,” Hale said.
A very special dog
Smoothe is “on duty” whenever she is wearing a leash, or whenever she and Hale are in the same room.
“That was a dilemma and any individual – as a caregiver – would have trouble fulfilling,” Hale said. “Here we’re asking a four-legged creature to maintain, not be played with, literally be on duty for seizures, be on duty for transfers.”
Smoothe walks on the left side of Hale’s electric wheelchair, and used to pull her when she used a mechanical wheelchair.
As years of overmedication began to deteriorate Hale’s eyesight, Smoothe’s service became all the more important. The lab walks ahead of Hale and the length of the leash lets Hale know how far she is from other objects.
“I was on 58 to 72 pills in a day over an eight- to 10-year period while people were trying to figure out what the diagnosis was,” Hale said.
Hale can still read with the use of strong glasses, and can clearly distinguish light and dark, she said.
Smoothe assists with walking and also helps Hale – who weighs 90 pounds – transfer to and from her wheelchair using a harness with two leashes.
But it wasn’t until Hale had a grand mal seizure after Smoothe joined her that she realized Smoothe could also be a seizure dog.
“She was in tune with seizures and it was like she almost knew what she needed to do,” Hale said. “It is incredible.”
Through private training, Smoothe was trained to help Hale during a seizure to prevent suffocation.
“She would put her muzzle against my cheek to keep my head up so I wouldn’t drown in my own reflux,” Hale said. “If you were lying down, it would drain back into your lungs.”
One of the challenges of such a bond is entrusting Smoothe to dog-walkers when Hale is unable to take her outside.
“Who do you trust with your dog who has gone through so much training, and who lifestyle-wise, to me, can’t be replaced. She’s irreplaceable. You can’t put a dollar amount on it. For those who want to, it’s in the thousands.”
It’s uncommon for a dog to be trained in so many areas of service, said Wendy McDougal, puppy-raising program director and full-time trainer at Summit Assistance Dogs in Anacortes.
Different types of training, needed for hearing dogs or wheelchair assistance dogs, often require constrasting personality types and can take up to two years to teach.
Only 20-30 percent of the dogs that enter Summit Assistance become service dogs, McDougal said.
“It’s more because we’re trying to ask them not to be normal dogs,” she said. “ You can’t chase a squirrel or bark at that guy at the door. These dogs that we’re looking for are not your normal dogs.”
Best of friends
After years of being receptive of the ailments of her own body, Hale began to notice a change in her companion.
“She wasn’t herself,” Hale said. “I was having to massage her neck and having to push food down.”
A trip to the Winslow Animal Clinic revealed a mass in Smoothe’s abdominal area and internal bleeding. Hale and her mother were referred to the Animal Critical Care Emergency Services in Seattle, where an emergency surgery was performed in late June.
After the mass was removed, Hale waited three days for the results of the biopsy, which revealed the cyst was fibrous and unlikely to return.
Smoothe has recovered well, and continues her service, Hale said.
“She can pretty much do everything she could do before,” she said. “She’s running after balls and retrieving, working and is attentive and in tune with what’s going on with me. She’s pretty much 100 percent.”
Every day, Hale and Smoothe embark on a mission to participate fully in life.
“Little Smoothe and I realize life is a gift and cherish each minute we have,” Hale said. “She is an inspiration and reflects unconditional love and acceptance.
“With Little Smoothe in my life the vitality is there. When we go to bed at night we are head to head and we say our prayers.”
How to help
To donate, contact Stephen Ellingson at Columbia Bank regarding the Little Smoothe Recovery Fund, 855-8549.