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Mobility assistance dog helps Woonsocket man

Posted: Tuesday, Jan 8th, 2013

Jami Schoenfelder, a pharmacy technician at K-Mart in Huron, takes Ken Stenzel’s debit card from Calvin, a Can Do Canines mobility assist dog. In the next photo, Calvin helps Stenzel by opening a door for him. And next, from the left are Calvin the collie and Judy and Ken Stenzel. Can Do Canines, a non profit based in New Hope, Minn., trained Calvin and provided him to Ken free of charge. Calvin is trained to open doors, carry objects, pull wheelchairs, pick things up and even pay for items at the store. PHOTOS BY KARA GUTORMSON/PLAINSMAN

WOONSOCKET — After being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998, Ken Stenzel knew at some point, he would have difficulties with the simplest of tasks.

A year later, when his symptoms flared up to the point that he couldn’t walk, Ken found himself wishing for another pair of legs. Instead, he got a four-legged friend that has helped him more than he ever thought possible. Since his mobility assist dog has come into the picture, Ken’s gotten a new leash on life.

Calvin, a smooth-coat collie, came into Ken’s life in May 2008. He is trained to open doors, carry objects, pull wheelchairs, pick things up and even pay for items at the store.

Can Do Canines, a non-profit based in New Hope, Minn., trained Calvin and provided him to Ken, free of charge. Ken first learned of Can Do Canines through a brochure distributed by the MS Society.

“I had some doubts at first,” he said. “I wasn’t sure a dog was something I needed.”

But once Ken met Calvin, it was love at first sight. “They just fit each other,” said Ken’s wife, Judy.

Since then, Ken and Calvin became ambassadors for Can Do Canines. They started visiting schools and service organizations in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region, providing demonstrations of Calvin’s skills.

Calvin has become a celebrity in his own right. When Ken and Judy moved to Woonsocket in 2011, his celebrity status rose up all over again.

“We love to show people all of the things he can do,” said Judy. Calvin responds to hundreds of commands, putting ordinary pooches to shame. Besides picking things up off the floor and opening and closing doors, Calvin can reach the store counter, give the clerk the money, and take the bag.

And if that’s not enough, he can also provide elevator assistance.

But if you are going on an elevator with Calvin, Ken says you need to be prepared for a long ride.

“He doesn’t know which floor to go to, so he just pushes all of the buttons. We have met a lot of people in elevators,” he said, laughing.

Ken and Calvin also make visits to nursing homes.

“He’s so intelligent, I can take him anywhere,” he said. “He never loses his training.”

The only thing that the 6-year-old smooth coat collie can’t resist is a child in a wheelchair.

“That is the only time he will strain at the leash, because he wants to get over there to see the child,” said Ken.

Living with MS means there are good days and bad days. “This is a nerve disease that turns your nerves into frayed extension cords,” Ken said. “Your brain will say ‘move your foot,’ but it won’t happen.”

Like a sixth sense, Calvin knows when Ken is going to have a hard day. “He knows the symptoms, and on a bad day, he will just lay in bed with me.”

Calvin has proved to have a healing effect, emotionally and physically.

“Part of MS is fatigue, and that’s where Calvin comes in and helps me so much,” said Ken. “He saves me a lot of energy in a day.”

In fact, since Calvin came into his life in 2008, Ken has discovered he’s been taking fewer medications. Previously they were spending $3,000 a month for medication and now it’s almost nothing.

“I’ve only been spending $18 every six months,” Ken said.

Alan Peters, executive director of Can Do Canines, said since he started the company in 1987, he’s seen hundreds of examples of how dogs can help people have better lives.

“Along with the physical disabilities that our clients face comes an emotional depression,” said Peters. “It comes as a low in your life when a person realizes there are certain things they can’t do for themselves anymore.”

Peters said the assist dogs are more like an extension of their handlers.

“Rather than having to depend on other people, they can get help from the dog. The dog becomes part of your family and part of who they are. That raises spirits,” Peters said. “And when spirits are lifted, many times we’ve seen medical problems get better as well.”

Peters said the other benefit the dogs have is the conversations they provoke. The Stenzels have experienced this firsthand. “He attracts a lot of attention whenever we go anywhere,” said Ken. “Everybody just loves him. He brings smiles from people anywhere he goes.”

Even Ken’s doctors agree — the dog has helped, in a big way. Calvin’s healing influence diminished the progression of Ken’s MS.

“There’s no doubt in my mind,” he says. “I have a better life thanks to Calvin.”

For the complete article see the 01-06-2013 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 01-06-2013 paper.

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