Entering the Heart

I only know of one instance where heartworm disease actually did some good for a dog and a person. The dog was a rescued Golden Retriever named Dakota, who it turned out, had extraordinary qualities, qualities beyond anything you could anticipate in this or any other breed. The man was Mike Lingenfelter, a depressed, angry heart patient who was almost at the end of the road and through his anguish and despair made everyone who cared about him miserable, especially himself. He was like a wounded bear in pain and lashed out at anyone who came close enough to offer comfort. It’s a great story and written in a heartwarming book called “”The Angel by My Side”” (Hay House) authored by Mike Lingenfelter and David Frei. You probably know Frei as the knowledgeable co-host of the Westminster Dog Show on USA Cable Network.

In 1992 two serious heart attacks and open-heart surgery changed Lingenfelter’s world, bringing to a halt his busy professional life as an engineer who designed and constructed communications projects for airports and mass transit systems in different cities. It also brought to a halt a very robust life-style such as energetic biking along bucolic country roads.

Mike’s response to his new medical limitations was typical of many men who invested their identities in their accomplishments and the demand for their expertise. These included highly visible designs in Dallas, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Buffalo and other cities around the world. Imagine, he holds 17 patents for his work. So what happened to a vigorous man with a loving wife, four children, seven grandchildren, a family dog and a non-stop professional life when things had to drastically change? It was hard to swallow that there was no going back to the way things were. Well, he almost didn’t make it. It was a long emotional drop from the exhilaration of life, as he lived it, into a deep chasm of brooding anger and self-defeat. It is not a rare response for people faced with such harsh realities.

There were several problems with which to cope. He was living under the gun of “”unstable angina”” and could experience a fatal cardiac event at any time. He was never going to get any better and he was no longer the “”bread winner”” in his family. At 54 he felt his life was over and became depressed and belligerent, constantly expressing dissatisfaction with just about everyone, but especially himself. Because of feelings of suicide he agreed to see a psychiatrist. It was a good option. The doctor suggested a therapy dog for his mental healing.

He needed a dog to be with him exclusively, one that was not the family pet. The doctor felt such a companion would get him out of the house, exercising once again, and elevate his self-esteem. He started researching animal-assisted therapy and the human-animal bond on various web sites, which instantly led them to the heart of that world, which includes the Delta Society, Therapy Dogs International, and The Good Dog Foundation. He was taken with some of their tag lines such as “”…to aid the healing process in humans and enhance their quality of life”” and “”…good dogs are good medicine.”” It was the Delta Society’s statement that commanded his attention: “”Individuals who have mental illnesses and low self-esteem focus on themselves; animals can help them focus on their environment. Rather than thinking and talking about themselves and their problems, they watch and talk to and about the animals.””

By this time, Mike and his family moved to the Houston area and had become members of the Greater Houston Golden Retriever Club (GHGRC) because the family pet was a Golden and they became interested in the club’s rescue aspect. Several members of the club were committed to finding lost, abandoned or abused Goldens; they made them healthy and tried to find new homes for them. When approached about therapy dogs the rescue people suggested Mike consider taking on one of the dogs that they were trying to save as his own therapy dog.

Club member Karen Costello found a young golden-red dog. “”He was skinny and in poor health, and he looked as if he’d been pretty much ignored for some time.”” A woman called her, claimed the dog was not hers, and thought the club might be interested in getting it out of her hair. Like so many rescue situations, the caller said if they didn’t take the dog she was going to have it put to sleep. Evidently, this is a classic rescue story. People who for whatever reason get rid of their dog this way by claiming it isn’t theirs.

Despite its poor physical condition, Karen Costello saw something special about this dog in his personality and in his eyes. She instantly renamed the dog Dakota, took the leash and said, “”C’mon Dakota, let’s get out of here.”” After a thorough veterinary exam they discovered the dog had heartworm disease probably from being chained up in a backyard plagued with parasite-carrying mosquitoes using Dakota as a logical target. As their veterinarian treated the dog, his heart stopped caused by a heartworm blockage, but Dakota survived and eventually responded well to the therapy.

The dog became a candidate for service-dog work but turned out to be disqualified after a few months because of an old hip injury that had been neglected. They suspected he had been hit by a car as a puppy and left untreated. So here was a dog in need of expensive hip surgery and a home. That’s when Mike’s wife Nancy stepped in. She took the ailing dog into her home and her heart and brought him and her ailing husband together. Mike resisted giving himself over to the dog. It took a while for them to bond but they did. Nancy said to her husband, “”This dog has been through a lot, Mike. He’s had a bad heart, people have given up on him, and he keeps getting one more chance to survive. Does that sound familiar? He’s just like you.””

Throughout this time Mike continued to have painful, life-threatening angina attacks and Dakota witnessed them all. Now I don’t want to spoil the story for you, just in case you decide to buy this book, so I will just tell you in general terms that Dakota was able to predict when Mike was about to experience a serious heart event and help him prevent it by getting to medical treatment in time. It is an incredible feat for a dog and one that can dry your throat and moisten your eyes.

It is a thrilling story because if you’re reading this column at this web site then it is safe to assume you believe in the miracles that animals can work for us. It simply confirms that we need them, we love them, we cannot do without them. It is a fact though, that animals are better friends to us than we are to them and that needs changing.

“”The Angel by My Side”” is one of the great dog stories of this decade and is far more moving than Lassie or Old Yeller for the simple reason that it is a true story about a real man and a real dog beautifully written. As they say, you can’t make this stuff up. Imagine, a dog and a man with heart problems find each other and give to one another more years than they expected to have. God, I love dogs.

Mordecai Siegal’s next book is, “”THE CAT FANCIERS’ ASSOCIATION COMPLETE CAT BOOK. The Official Publication of the CFA”” published by HarperCollins. It will be in book stores everywhere in September, 2004. This reference book will be the equivalent of the AKC’s Complete Dog Book. His most recent book is “”The Good Life: Your Dog’s First Year (Simon and Schuster). His most durable books are “”Good Dog, Bad Dog (Henry Holt,)”” “”When Good Dogs Do Bad Things (Little, Brown,)”” the 10th Anniversary Revised Edition of “”I Just Got A Puppy. What Do I Do? (Simon & Schuster)”” “”The Cornell Book of Cats (Villard),”” “”The Davis Book of Dogs (HarperCollins),”” He is President Emeritus of the Dog Writers Association of America and a founding member of The Cat Writers Association.


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