The End of an Era
(by Jim Kuiken)
On January 6th, 2015, on the second day of my three-week training session to certify with my Service Dog, I met him.
At noon on that second day, we were walked outside to the chairs on the front porch and were taken into the kennel (a converted garage with kennels) one at a time to meet our new partner. I was the first one in. The second I saw him, our eyes locked, and we have been in love from that moment. After they walked us out to the little house out front for our official photo, they took us out to the row of chairs out on the lawn to start training…and as I sat in the chair, he laid down in the grass beside me, and we both crossed our legs (right over left) simultaneously…and it’s been that perfect of a match from that day.
From that day on, everywhere I went, he went. We were literally tied together in everything we did…
Lots of folks have asked (and many more wondered) why we were together. The best answer I can give is captured in this (23-minute video) interview about “James Kuiken on How a Service Dog Saved His Life”. I hope you watch it…it will help so many people understand, and maybe save more lives…
It hasn’t been all sunshine and roses, however. There are many difficult days, and unfortunately, many of those were caused by other folks just not understanding the realities of having a Service Dog, especially for those folks who are trying to overcome hardships, Military Sexual Trauma, PTSd, and other disabilities. If only everyone had read a very poignant post by my classmate and good buddy, William “Rick” Smith, titled “K9 Protocol – What Do You Do? (subtitle: New Shoes)”, it would have been so much easier for everyone…
In the long run, however, not only is Freedom an essential part of my life, and my deep source of joy and comfort (and the best partner anyone could ask for), he is well-known and loved by many. Not only has he accompanied me all over the United States, but has been there for many public appearances and presentations. He has been on Capitol Hill for years with me as we walk the halls of the House and Senate as members of Military Veterans Advocacy, supporting and advocating for benefits and rights of Military members, and especially Veterans.
The list of bills we have supported is innumerable, and many have become law…while others languish, and even die (like the Veterans they are designed to support do)…but we keep going back. He is so popular up on the Hill that when we were scheduling appointments with the Congressional Offices, they would ask “Is Freedom coming too?” In honor of Freedom, Military Veterans Advocacy is even striking a coin in his honor which answers that question!
Heck, we’ve even been to the White House, advocating for Veterans (…and he may have even helped the landscapers by watering a couple of the bushes there on the grounds…).
Freedom has lived a long and very productive, useful and joyous life. Many folks know and love him, from all spectrums of life – personal, professional and public.
That is why it is so hard to announce that Freedom was retired on his 9th birthday, on the 4th of July, 2022.
He has taken his last walk in those marble halls in Washington DC, and any of the myriad of other places we always went…and those new places we had hoped to visit together.
Freedom had begun to have some difficulties with his hind leg, then the other hind leg…and so we had a consultation with his Doctor, who examined him and took X-rays. He was concerned, and referred us to a Neurologist who did a full neurological workup, and took MRI’s of his legs, spine, etc… The Doctor and the Neurologist both had the same diagnosis, and in my extensive personal research, I came to the same conclusion. It appears that Freedom has a degenerative spinal condition called Degenerative Myelopathy (DM), which is similar to the human disease called “Lou Gehrig's disease” or ALS.
Like ALS, DM is progressive and terminal, and has no known treatment or cure. The first symptoms he had (which I recognized retroactively) were in September of 2021. It has now progressed to both hind legs (currently he is unable to manage going down stairs or walking on un-carpeted floors without assistance), and seems to have accelerated in the past few weeks. The only good news is that the disease is generally painless, since it causes a disconnect with the nerves controlling the areas it affects. He gets confused and scared about what is happening, but he is not in any discomfort…and as always, he and I will be tied together at the hip, supporting each other, for the duration.
If you’d like to find out more about DM, you can read up on it here.
I deeply appreciate all of you who have been his friend, and especially those who have been very close in our lives, as we transition into this tough time ahead.