Sunday, February 12, 2017

Survivor’s Best Friend

Some of you may have been thinking of getting an Emotional Support Animal (ESA). I found some articles on the StrokeNetwork website that might be of interest to you. I noticed that Barb posts an animal related article each month on this site.

The following is from the website StrokeNetwork:

By Barb Polan
Contact Barb at

Barbara survived an ischemic stroke in November 2009, at 52 years old, caused by a dissection of her right carotid artery, which was probably caused by the physical strain of competitive rowing. The stroke resulted in left hemiparesis and the eventual loss of her job managing and editing a community newspaper. As a result, her physical therapy has focused on regaining the ability to row, something that gets closer every rowing season; for emotional and cognitive recovery, she writes a stroke-related and has published a memoir.


November 2016


Among humans, emotional support is provided in a wide range of forms: the nodding of a head, a gentle touch from one person, a bear hug from another, or “I love you” from a friend as she says good-bye on the phone. The support that helps a person get through a challenging time can come from friends and/or relatives who provide physical comfort or even just listen to us tell our story.

From animals such as Emotional Support Animals, or even a regular pet, just their presence can provide solace - your cat curled up on your lap may comfort you as well as holding hands with the person seated next to you during a plane’s takeoff and landing.

Because dogs are known for their empathy, they are most often selected as ESA’s. My first dog ever was a black Lab/Newfoundland mix who, although not officially an ESA, sat in front of me and whimpered when I cried, while now, my ESA jumps next to me on the couch and cuddles against me. He especially likes to lick up the side of my neck, sometimes even lightly nipping my earlobes, which, somehow always warms my heart.

Whatever form it takes from either people or pets, emotional support comes from gestures of unconditional love, which is the ability to non-judgmentally respect and empathize with another living being.

Empathy is rare. Empaths are those people who probably were judged “too sensitive,” as they were growing up, people who take on another person’s grief as their own.

An empath would never say, “There, there, don’t cry,” or anything else that disallows another person’s feelings. Feelings, including sorrow, are valid ways of responding to situations, and are best respected by others.

Pets are particularly good at this – at accepting your sorrow and reacting with concern, not disapproval. And that’s what makes them effective Emotional Support Animals - they cry along with you.


October 2016

Sample Letter for Your ESA

To qualify as a legitimate Emotional Support Animal (ESA), you - the animal’s owner - must have a letter from your mental health professional, preferably on his/her letterhead, saying that your pet provides emotional support for you.

Of course, this requirement means you must have some sort of mental health professional, which is common for stroke survivors because approximately half of us experience depression and/or an anxiety disorder. I started going to my psychotherapist for grief counseling, but got my dog to alleviate anxiety that I developed.

Not all mental health professionals have written a letter like this before, so in this month’s column, I will provide a copy of my (not copyrighted) letter, which can be used by your psychotherapist (or whoever provides your mental health care) verbatim:

To Whom It May Concern:
Barbara Polan is my patient and has been under my care since (date). I am intimately familiar with her history and with the functional limitations imposed by her emotional/mental health-related issue.

Due to this emotional disability, Ms. Polan has certain limitations coping with what would otherwise be considered normal, but significant day-to-day situations.

To help alleviate these challenges and to enhance her daily functionality, Ms. Polan has obtained an emotional support animal, specifically Turbo, a 25-pound male Lowchen. The presence of this animal is necessary for the emotional/mental health of Ms. Polan because its presence will mitigate the symptoms she is currently experiencing.

(Mental Health Professional’s Name)

(State license number)

Although my letter includes my ESA’s name and description, that was added simply because of my concern that the reader asking for the documentation not wonder if I was using a different animal’s pet to get away with some sort of fraud – sneaking another, different animal into a place it was not allowed.

Because of that fear, I also bought a picture ID online, which can serve as additional confirmation, but that is absolutely not necessary. The ID also came with a printed certificate saying Turbo is an ESA, but that, I thought, was much less convincing than a photo ID. The hardest part of the process was finding a photo that did justice to his sweet little face to send to the company that produced the ID.

You may have also noted that the letter does not include what the patient’s specific need for the animal is, which is intended to protect the patient’s privacy. That means that my anxiety causing the need for my ESA is not mentioned in Turbo’s letter.


September 2016
Caring for the Pet who Cares for You
Having a service, therapy or emotional support animal brings along the responsibility of caring for him/her as you would any pet: feeding, walking, vet visits, grooming as needed, and affection. How those responsibilities get fulfilled is dependent on both your disability and the animal.

Stroke survivors’ deficits span a range, but the animals’ fundamental needs are basically the same and could likely be provided by a stroke survivor with hemiparesis. A dog needs to be walked and fed, be taken outside to eliminate, and be taken to the vet and a groomer, as needed. The basic solution to fulfilling these requirements while dealing with any physical disability that interferes with pet care, is to have a well-trained dog – a dog who can be walked without pulling on a leash, who curls up quietly in the back seat of a car when being transported, and who does not jump on people or chase cars.

Let us start with taking the dog for a walk:
In my case, with hemiparesis that leaves me with only one usable hand, walking my ESA is out of the question because he tugs at the leash and, although I could hold the end of the leash with my 
functioning hand, I don’t have the balance to keep me from falling over, which is why I use a cane.

The last time I walked Turbo by myself, he was a puppy, and by the tenth time he tugged and I nearly fell over, I decided, “No more; it’s just too dangerous.”

Obedience school? Of course.
When we registered for the class, each of the owners told the trainer the breed of our dogs. I should have known I was in trouble when I said, “Lowchen,” and the trainer got a delighted look on her face, and responded, “I love Lowchens! They’re so naughty.”

And that’s the way it was: he had perfect behavior in class, but not at home. He would walk with a slack leash back and forth the length of the training barn, no matter who held the other end of the 
leash. At home, either in the house or outside, it was tug, tug, tug. Or tug, then me freezing in panic that I’d fall down.

I tried a harness that supposedly stopped the behavior, but – you guessed it – it didn’t stop Turbo. And the trainer instructed me what to do when he pulled, which was to stop, pivot, and then head the other direction. But she could never demonstrate it or have me practice because – you guessed it again – he always behaved in class. When I practiced at home, I couldn’t get it to work, but I couldn’t figure out why; not only did it not work – the act of pivoting made it even more likely I would fall.

I finally gave up, and for years now walks happen only with someone else holding his leash. When I’m home alone with him and he needs a walk, I take him out the back door and throw a ball for him. That’s the best I can do on the walking part of taking care of my dog.

Feeding is better: dry food scooped out of a bag that’s folded shut and wet food in a small plastic container with an aluminum cover I can manage to pull open one-handed (sometimes using my mouth too – ick!!). Filling the water dish is easy; it’s leaning over and putting it on the floor that’s sometimes messy.

Vet visits and going to be groomed have an issue similar to misbehaving while he walks – he insists on sitting on a lap in the car, which works only if there’s a second person in the car. And even if he would stay off my lap, I would not be able to get him out of the car and walk on a leash into the building anyway. Him sitting on my lap, not a seat, when I drive, is too dangerous for me to even try – I have enough trouble driving without a dog on my lap as I do it.

As for providing affection for a pet, loving a dog is as simple as taking pleasure in your pet’s presence, providing lots of physical contact, and making loving sounds – which is really just mirroring your dog’s affection for you. All stroke survivors can do that.

                                                                                   Copyright @September 2016
                                                                                      The Stroke Network, Inc.
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