Exceptional Canine: Assistance Dogs: Special Athletes’ Best Partners

Assistance Dogs: Special Athletes’ Best Partners

By Danelle Umstead and Jerry Weichman for Exceptional Canine

Assistance Dogs: Special Athletes\' Best Partners

Champions find ways to overcome obstacles. Just ask any disabled athlete. Here, two differently abled athletes share how their assistance dogs help them keep their competitive edge.

Danelle and Bettylynn
I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at age 13, but I let neither my degenerating vision nor my multiple sclerosis, with which I was recently diagnosed, get in the way of my downhill ski-racing.

I’m fiercely independent, but even I need a little navigation help now and then. After all, you can’t tell a cane to find the elevator. In 2008, I was paired with a service dog named Bettylynn. She’s a Labrador Retriever trained by Guide Dogs for the Blind.

From our first days together, Bettylynn has been a rock star guide. She’s so adaptable! When I ask her to “find the ski rack” at a resort, Bettylynn finds the rack and the one empty slot for my skis.

She doesn’t accompany me down the slopes, but we hike and walk together. She’s also my guide around the gym. She knows my routine and will find a bike or other equipment on command. Bettylynn is all work and no play when she needs to be — but when her service harness comes off, she’s very puppy-like and an energetic member of our family. Bettylynn is a valued member of the U.S. Adaptive Ski Team and will accompany us to the 2014 Paralympic Games in Russia.

Jerry and Raj
One minute Raj is my four-footed running partner, paws paddling furiously and tongue gleefully slobbering out the side of his mouth. The next, the 11-year-old Australian Shepherd mix is my calm and nurturing therapy-dog, helping mentally troubled teens cope with life’s issues.

My dog is as resilient as I am. I’m a very active recreational athlete and a clinical psychologist. Raj is an awesome workout companion due to his high energy level. He accompanies me when I jog, hike, run, take long walks or ride my bicycle.

I trained my sidekick when he was a puppy to stay with me when he’s off-leash, so he’s almost always loose but never far from my side. Even in old age, he keeps up with me like a champ.

At the same time, it’s just incredible how he transforms from active Aussie to subdued therapy dog to assist me in my professional life. The kids light up when they meet him.

The only downside is facing the fact that I won’t have Raj in my life forever. But he’s totally healthy now, and I think he has lots of living left to do!

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/dpmike

Danelle Umstead, a visually impaired skier, won two bronze medals at the 2010 Winter Paralympic Games in Vancouver, Canada. She lives in Park City, Utah, with her family and trusted guide dog, Bettylynn.

Jerry Weichman, a below-the-knee amputee, is a recreational competitor and an adolescent psychologist in Newport Beach, Calif. His dog, Raj, is an exercise companion and a certified therapy dog.