The information on this site is for educational purposes only. Persons diagnosed with MS should consult with their physician before starting any form of treatment.


Sophia - the MS Therapy Dog

by Brett Curtis Weber, Ph.D.
Published December 2001

This is "Sophia" at sixteen months of age, my German Shepherd Dog. I began training Sophia as my service dog when she was two months old. She now accompanies me everywhere I go performing a variety of tasks that include pulling my manual wheelchair and retrieving objects. Service dogs are a wonderful help to people with disabilities. Many people will tell you that just owning a pet can be highly beneficial to a persons health. Pet owners are known to have lower blood pressure, less stress, and better overall cardiovascular health than people in similar circumstances without pets. Sophia is a very smart dog and is learning to observe my scent daily in hopes that she may eventually be able to "reliably" alert me to an oncoming attack caused by my MS. She has done this in the past, and is remarkably sensitive to my health and wellbeing. Approximately 6-10% of people with MS appear to have a form that is progressive from onset, but also characterized by acute attacks--in my case attacks have always correlated with periods of high emotional stress. At present, there is no scientific evidence that I am aware of to support the idea that a person's scent changes during a MS attack. Even so, I believe that a change in scent is possible given the obvious physical changes I experience during an attack. Determining whether or not Sophia can detect a potential change in scent prior to my attacks is where this research is focused.

German Shepherd Dogs have a remarkable sense of smell. They have been used to locate gas leaks in pipes buried as deep as 15 feet underground, and were among the first search and rescue dogs used after the September 11th tragedy in New York City. In the U.S. military, German Shepherd Dogs have been used to alert soldiers to the presence of landmines in time to avoid detonation, and have been valued partners in K9 police divisions as both narcotic and bomb sniffing dogs. Dogs in general possess approximately 200 million olfactory cells which allow them to distinguish many subtle odors, whereas humans have only about 5 million. Conservative estimates suggest that the canine sense of smell is at least 40-100 times more powerful than our own. Sophia's remarkable sense of smell, disciplined personality and high intelligence make her an excellent choice for this study.

I was once asked by a physician why anyone would want to know when they were about to experience an MS attack. Wouldn't knowing that ruin your day? After all, you couldn't stop the attack from happening. Undoubtedly some people would rather not know when their disease was about to worsen. Perhaps, the physician I was talking to would rather not know if he were the one living with MS. However, I believe that the vast majority of people with MS would want to know and would benefit from the knowledge. Clearly, hurricanes and tornadoes cannot be stopped, but most everyone wants to be warned and given the opportunity to prepare for them. The same is true for MS.

~ Self-confidence ~

There are many ways that a person with MS can prepare for an oncoming attack. There is much anecdotal and some scientific evidence to support the claim that certain diseases can be influenced by the mind in either a positive or negative direction. I have come to believe through my own disease and observations that Faith Creativity and Companionship are among the three most powerful ways my body has moved towards healing. Of course, its God's work when we believe--and its God's work when we doubt! :o) Science is showing that chronic feelings of hate, depression, hopelessness, and blame can advanced sickness. What an incredible gift it has been to have a companion dog who reminds me to practice Faith, Creativity and Companionship and possibly affect the course of my own MS attacks. Without a doubt, Sophia is a tremendous benefit to me and dogs like her could be a benefit to many other people with MS! To read  about some of the challenges we faced while training Sophia read: A Dog's Tale.

To learn more about this research please watch for updates here. For a molecular theory on how emotional stress may affect the course of PPMS, please visit my next section on Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI)

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