Faithful Servant

Loyal service dog improves California man's life
Author: Beth Marshall

In each issue of HemAware, we “Take 5” with people in the bleeding disorders community and spotlight their efforts with just five questions. Here, we talk with Bob Byrne, 58, of Northern California, about how teaming up with his service dog, golden retriever Vladimir, has improved his life. Byrne has severe hemophilia A.

How did you begin working with Vladimir?

There are a lot of older men in the hemophilia community who have arthritis and other complications as a result of having bleeds for so many years. Many of them don’t have caregivers who can give them day-to-day assistance. I’ve always been a dog lover, so I researched the Assisted Dog Institute (now the Bergin University of Canine Studies) in Santa Rosa, California. They offered an eight-week service dog training seminar, so I signed up and started training dogs. Vlad was the dog I was assigned to work with. He and I worked so well together that six months later I went back as a client. My goal is for us to serve as a living example of how service dogs can benefit men who have mobility issues from hemophilia.

How does he assist you?

I have stiff knees and ankles, and I have difficulty stepping off sidewalks and climbing up and down stairs. Vlad is trained to take my weight, like a cane, so I can put my weight on his shoulder blades when I need to. As I go up and down stairs, he’s by my side to stabilize me. If I ever fall, he’s trained to get underneath me so I can push off his back to get up.

How many commands does he understand?

Vlad has about 90 commands, with the ability to learn more. If my mobility decreases, he can continue to help me. For example, if you’re in a wheelchair, you can hold a service dog’s harness and he’ll pull you along. They’re trained to open doors—including refrigerator doors—turn lights on and off, get things out of dresser drawers and even help with shopping. Service dogs have a command to take your credit card, go up to the counter to hand it to the clerk, and then return it to you.

How much does this service cost?

Right now, the cost is around $2,800, because these dogs are highly trained and carefully bred. I purchased Vlad out of pocket. I discovered later that if I had spoken with my physician and he had written a letter stating how Vlad could assist me, that I could have received funding from some institutions and programs. Also, there’s usually a waiting list for these dogs, sometimes of up to a year or more.

What are the other benefits of having Vlad in your life?

You know, for a lot of people who have conditions where they are in a lot of pain, having something or someone to take care of is really important. I brush his coat. I brush his teeth. And he needs exercise, so I throw a ball for him for a while every day. When you have mobility issues, you can feel isolated. When I walk down the street with Vlad, I meet all sorts of wonderful people (and their dogs) who would never have spoken to me if I wasn’t with him. Having a dog can really bring people out of their shell and increase their sense of well-being. I have days where I don’t even feel discomfort or pain because I’m so happy that I have this dog who is so wonderful to be around.