How dogs brought comfort and joy during life with ALS
In the painful days after a diagnosis, four-legged family members were a blessing
I have a vivid and beautiful memory from a few summers ago, as my late husband, Jeff, and I lived with his ALS.
We were spending a day on the water, as we often did. Jeff had lost his voice and most of his ability to walk, but still had the upper body strength and the determination to captain the boat. In my mind, I can still see Jeff with his right hand on the steering wheel and his left hand resting on the back of our dog, Rudder. Both of them were wearing genuine expressions of joy.
From the image, you’d never know that these were among the most wrenching days of our lives. Both Jeff and Rudder were living with terminal illness — Jeff with ALS, Rudder with an aggressive cancer. Behind the camera, I was acutely aware of the preciousness of our days, eager to soak in every ounce of happiness and memory, desperate to stave off the fears of how I’d go on without these two.
Every couple has shared joys that define them, and having dogs was one of those bonds for Jeff and me. Since our third date, we’d been bringing our dogs along on everything from hikes to boat rides to dinners out. They brought us laughter, companionship, and devotion — all things that buoyed us in the best of times and turned out to be crucial for the yet unknown challenges ahead.
By the time Jeff was diagnosed with ALS in the fall of 2018, we’d lost two of our three dogs to illness and old age. Only Rudder, whom I’d brought to the relationship, remained. He was my “heart dog” — an old soul who was exceptionally perceptive to human emotions. During the scary and uncertain days leading up to Jeff’s ALS diagnosis, Rudder was ever-present, shouldering, perhaps unfairly, much of our need for comfort and reassurance.
The week of Jeff’s diagnosis, when he and I were stoic for each other but privately reeling, I noticed Jeff and Rudder sitting on the dock at our home, staring out together over the water. I yearned to run and comfort Jeff, but realized that Rudder was already doing so, perhaps in a way that I couldn’t. As we processed our heartbreaking news, I too found solace in Rudder. On our short daily hikes, I sobbed as we walked side by side, not wanting Jeff to see me cry once we were back at home.
As his ALS progressed, Jeff chose many activities based on whether Rudder could join, selecting beaches with hard-packed sand so that they could still walk together without Jeff tripping, or opting for driving vacations rather than flying so that we could bring Rudder along. Meanwhile, Rudder accepted Jeff’s growing physical limitations with grace. He’d walk slowly alongside Jeff’s power wheelchair, or gamely fetch a tennis ball while Jeff could still throw one for him. Watching the two of them together was, for me, bittersweet and moving.
The summer after Jeff’s diagnosis, he saved Rudder’s life, discovering him in the middle of the night with a condition that led to an emergency surgery and, unfortunately, a resulting cancer diagnosis. As we’d frequently done during Jeff’s time with ALS, we opted to double down on memories and experiences, seeking to create even more joy with our beloved pet. Upon Jeff’s wish, that summer was filled with boat rides, walks, and trips to the dog park.
A few months later, Jeff suggested we adopt a companion for Rudder. One could argue that the timing of a second dog was questionable. Jeff was nearly fully paralyzed, and our plates were full with medical appointments, caregiving, and living with the daily challenges of ALS. Yet somehow we both knew that bringing a new pet into the household would be a positive thing. It was a nod to living rather than dying, consistent with the philosophy that Jeff had embraced since his diagnosis.
Sailor joined our family just a few weeks later. Far from an old soul, Sailor’s antics and silliness were a welcome addition to our household. She fit right in, adoring Jeff and Rudder from the start. Our band of three became, effortlessly, a team of four.
I lost Jeff six months later and Rudder five months after that.
Though grieving, I’m still grateful for so much — for Jeff, for Rudder, for the memories we made together. And I’m grateful for Sailor, too. I realize now that she was one of Jeff’s final, most selfless gifts to me — a living bridge to the time he and I had together, to the love of dogs that we both shared, and to his wish that I keep experiencing joy, loyalty, and, yes, laughter, too.
Note: ALS News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of ALS News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to ALS.