• Helen Lee

A ‘few four paw’ and ‘fit bit’ tribulations as I try to keep on the go

Updated: Jul 5

13 years after I was diagnosed with MS, a bundle of joy and energy came into my life in the form of Sash, a black Labrador puppy. As well as being wonderful company, Sash forced me into twice daily walks of 25-35 minutes, but I have to admit to being THE most willing of companions. People with MS (PwMS) are advised to take exercise 20-minutes four or five times a week. Thanks to Sash, and me being a naturally walkative kind of person it was no problem, in fact it was a sheer delight. Well mostly, for we did have our moments.

As I’m sure you know very well, adult Labradors are powerful dogs whose lives are governed by their acute sense of smell and their boundless search for all things edible. Left to their own devices, Roman-like they’d eat themselves sick, if not worse. Despite witnessing Sash’s olfactory prowess many times I was nonetheless amazed to read the conclusion of one study: "If you make the analogy to vision, what you and I can see at a third of a mile a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away and still see as well". Little wonder that Labradors, who have among the very best, if not THE best sense of smell of all canines are so often used as: rescue dogs, sniffing out victims buried under rubble or snow, seeking out stashes of illicit drugs, detecting malignant tumours in humans etc. etc.

However, as I’m sure any Lab owner will testify, give a red-blooded Labrador an inch of freedom and as sure as eggs are eggs its nose will land dog and handler in trouble. In my case, spectacularly so on one occasion, much to the amusement of some bystanders. We were on a walk, part of which passed a flower bed outside a pub. As ever, the walk proceeded in staccato fashion. One minute Sash was straining at the leash, with me battling to stay aloft so to avoid being dragged chin first along the pavement behind her. The next moment she’d come abruptly come to a dead halt, leaving me flailing to avoid falling headfirst over her as she’d found some new, unmissable ‘fragrance’ to sniff.

This normal state of affairs was interrupted when I saw a couple I knew on the other side of the road. They crossed for a chat. Once across the road Sash’s snout was pointed up, frenziedly sniffing the air. She’d clearly caught a whiff of something irresistible in the flower bed. She suddenly yanked on the lead with such force that my arm was nigh on pulled clean out of its socket. To this day I can’t understand why I didn’t let go, but as it was, I struggled as womanfully as I could to keep hold of the lead and stay upright I can only suppose I didn’t want Sash on the loose close to a busy road.

Sash bounded, full pelt, nose to the ground towards the flower bed, with me involuntarily tugged along in her wake. Distracted by my Herculean struggle, I didn’t have the time or presence of mind to take in the fact that there was a low retaining wall in front of the flower bed. When, in a double dropped foot moment (dropped foot is a common MS symptom where one foot suddenly sticks glue like to the ground in mid stride) the toes of my shoes hit the wall full on. There could only ever have been one outcome - I lost my balance and was propelled headlong an, for a few seconds flew near horizontally through the air. In the split second I was airborne I was thinking, oh my God, what have I done, what’s going to happen? Then I succumbed to the forces of gravity and landed with a muffled thud on the flower bed.

Happily, the only damage was some thoroughly splatted flowers and my pride. To say I was shaken would be somewhat of an understatement. It took a few moments for me to gather my wits, sit up and quickly check for broken bones. Thankfully none, but I immediately caught sight of Sash feverishly gulping down whatever rotten bit of discarded food she’d got caught a whiff of. I should explain that Sash had developed the reflex of gobbling up food detritus as quickly as she could because she knew that if I spotted what she was up to I’d prise it out of her jaws. On one occasion, Sash had found and swallowed whole a Mars bar still in its wrapping. Knowing how dangerous chocolate is for dogs much to her consternation and bemusement in a flash I prised open her jaws and thrust my hand down her throat, managing to fish out the Mars bar.

Still recumbent on the flower bed, I was clearly powerless to stop Sash doing her worst. I suddenly became aware of hoots of laughter and turned around to see my friends doubled up in uncontrolled mirth. My initial reaction was one of bemusement. How come friends were laughing at my misfortune? That puzzle was soon answered. The friends came over to me and struggling to express themselves through stifled laughs explained that they’d looked over in my direction and seen me, Peter Pan like, flying full tilt, horizontally through the air, to then drop like a stone onto the flower bed. They’d managed to hold back their laughter at this real-life cartoon scene until they’d seen me moving and realised I was okay at which point it was impossible to contain themselves any longer. They said it was simply one of the funniest things they’d ever seen. As I had emerged completely unscathed and begun to get myself back together I could imagine what a hilarious spectacle I must have made and joined them in the, by now, infectious laughter.

To be fair to Sash, this was the one and only time during our 15 wonderful years of walking together that she had pulled me over, but it certainly was far from being the only cringe-making episode she authored. Very soon after we’d moved to a new house, early one the morning I’d taken her for a walk in a nearby park before setting off for work. Off her lead she was soon following the scent of goodness knows what and darted off into bushes. I called Sash till I was blue in the face, walked up down and around but no sign of her. It was early morning and no-one else was about. Concerned that time was marching on and knowing that I had a meeting to get to I went back home to find my husband Derek was up. He’d just settled in for a long hot shower when I burst in exclaiming ‘’I’ve lost Sash in the park. I’ve got to get to work. Can you come and help me find her?”. Together we hurried back but there was no sign of Sash. We set off in different directions and a few minutes later from across the green I saw Derek approach a man, introduce himself and ask whether he’d seen a black Lab running loose. The man’s warm, friendly expression immediately evaporate, to be replaced by one of utter bemusement. “You mean like the one right behind you?”. And there, sitting obediently at heel, just a few inches behind Derek was Sash. Most definitely one of those occasions where one prays for the earth to open and swallow you up.

I know I’m straying away from MS exercise matters but will return to those in a moment buy I can’t leave you with the impression that Sash was nought but trouble. She was anything but. She was, for example, a ‘Pets As Therapy’ (PAT) dog working at the local hospice. Many was the time we sat with people during their final days and hours, Sash exuding an aura of total peace and tranquillity. One particular visit bears testimony to her profound sensitivity. We passed the bedside of an old lady who lying motionless, barely breathing, eyes closed and seemingly unresponsive. Sash was beside me and as we passed the woman opened her eyes and noticed Sash I asked her if she would like to meet Sash and lady nodded her head almost imperceptibly. I wasn’t quite sure how this was going to work but Sash immediately took charge and went to lay her head on the bed right next to the woman’s hand (who taught her this?). The woman was then able to feel Sash’s ear with her fingers and say in the softest whisper with a peaceful smile ‘’just like velvet.’’ I think these may have been her last words as she closed her eyes then and died later that day.

After my beloved Sash passed on my motivation to go for walks went with her. However as there’s such overwhelming evidence for the benefits which exercises brings PwMS, I felt I just had to do something to get myself back on track (metaphorically at least). I most definitely needed a new spring in my step, but what? Still grieving for Sash meant another dog was out of the question. In the end I decided to invest in a pedometer and set myself the goal of working up to the fitness Nirvana of 10,000 steps a day, about the distance I used to walk with Sash. My sister and many friends who use Fitbits, pedometers or other electronic means of measuring distance walked or run swear blind the mere fact of wearing a device gives a big boost to their distances, pace and performance. So I did my research, took counsel and placed an order.

There was more than a hint of a kid at Christmas about me when the postman arrived with my parcel. I feverishly unpacked the pedometer, quickly read through the instructions and clocked (ha, ha) that the screen was showing 2138 steps. Must be the result of a quality control test I thought to myself and looked for the button to zero the device. Pushing this button and that one, once, twice, thrice, try as I may, I couldn’t get the wretched thing back to zero. Mindful to not to let my mounting frustration upset my karma I looked for the manufacturer’s customer services number. I was agreeably surprised when my call was answered quickly.

I explained that the pedometer had arrived with 2,138 steps showing on the screen and that it wouldn’t reset to zero. There was an uneasy silence and lady replayed my words in THE most patronising voice. “The pedometer arrived with 2,138 steps showing on the screen”, she repeated in a voice laced with haughtiness, but added, with a savage twist of the knife, “have you removed the protective film from the front of the screen?” Oh dear! I tried to make light of it and blurted out “I’d better make an appointment with the optician”. But there was no hiding how dumb I’d been. I rang off PDQ and thanked my lucky stars we weren’t face to face and I was spared her seeing my, by now, beetroot red blushes

The good news is that the pedometer constantly pushes me to go much further than 2,138 steps. The pedometer really works for me, psychologically. I invariably add chunks on to walks I was doing before and give myself a small pat on the back when I see my step count. As I said earlier, my target is 10,000 steps a day. As I write this I’m doing between 4,000 and 7,000 steps a day (not counting walks to the shops etc.), up from near zero in the couple of months I’ve had the device.

So longer term what will be my walkies catalyst? As the grief recede, the more I think about getting another dog. Perhaps my ultimate fitness challenge could be for dog and me to both wear pedometers and I try to match my canine companion’s step count. Four paws and Fitbit in perfect harmony!

But hold on a second, that’d mean me doing at least 20,000 steps given their much shorter stride and that’s not taking account of the doubtless numerous sniff detours. Dream on Helen.

Helen Lee

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