When Princess, an American Eskimo puppy, arrived at the San Diego Humane Society in 2016 with a heart disorder known as patent ductus arteriosus, it was clear that she would need surgery in order to survive. However, performing cardiac procedures to save animals in shelters is rarely done for several reasons.
“The dog has to have the right temperament, be in good physical condition, and the heart has to be in good enough shape so she won’t be at risk during anesthesia,” says
Dr. Cynthia Mitchell, the San Diego Humane Society’s medical director.
This birth defect meant Princess’ heart had trouble pumping blood and there was a lot of damage to the heart muscle. Her previous owner was unable to care for her because of this medical condition.
Luckily for Princess, the San Diego Humane Society has an established relationship with a network of specialty veterinary care professionals in the area and, with the help of veterinary cardiologists Dr. Shu and Dr. Huston of the VCA Emergency Animal Hospital, the procedure was a success and she recovered fully.
Meanwhile, not far away, Cynthia Royal spent most of her time housebound or in an electric wheelchair.
Royal has a rare genetic disorder that causes her to have cardiac health issues and stroke-like episodes. Her condition, known as mitochondrial encephalomyopathy, affects less than .03 percent of the population. From a young age, she has endured a number of heart surgeries as well as hospitalizations.
Her symptoms were manageable until the spring of 2015, when she became bedridden. It was at that point she began considering bringing a service dog into her life – one who could act as a medical alert companion and would be able to retrieve items for her.
“I was struggling with a severe change in lifestyle,” says Royal, who previously was at the height of her career as an animal behaviorist and animal trainer, traveling throughout North America to teach people about positive training methods. “My life went from living in a big world to being mostly being isolated at home.”
As fate would have it, Princess made the television news in September of 2016 and that’s when Royal saw her. The similarities between their health issues struck Royal.
“Given that I’ve had open-heart surgery and seven angioplasties, I could relate to what this three- month-old puppy was going through,” shares Royal.
A Bond Between Hearts
When Royal went to the San Diego Humane Society to pick Princess up, it quickly became clear that their union was meant to be.
“She made a beeline across the lobby like I was her long-lost friend,” says Royal. “She’s been by my side ever since.”
After adopting Princess, Royal was able to put her years of animal training experience to use. She taught the amiable pup obedience and how to be a service dog. Princess is a natural, having the innate ability to sense when Royal is stressed.
Once time, Princess sprung into action after Royal had one of her stroke-like episodes and the canine attempted to rouse her. Royal was down on the floor and found herself unable to become fully conscious. She likens the occurrences to going into an altered state where her ability to access all of her senses gets distorted. Through instinct, Princess went to find a caretaker and bring that person back to Royal, calling attention to the situation by barking.
“I just reinforce what she does on her own,” says Royal. And Princess remains protective with Royal. “It’s the only time she’ll leave me,” she says of her episodes.
More than a Helping Paw
Princess is also trained to retrieve items that Royal can’t reach—everything from slippers to the remote. Royal will say, “fetch,” point to an item, and Princess will get it and bring it back to her. Though Princess is a mere 14-pounds, she is a faithful companion and has a job she really likes to do, Royal says.
“I’ve trained hundreds of animals from fish to zebra and she is one of the smartest animals I have worked with,” she says.
In addition to being a help around the home, Princess is also an emotional support animal. Royal attends a number of medical treatments that help her with her brain function (such as working on her verbal skills), and Princess stays right next to her. “She’ll sit by me and help me through it,” she says.
Now, Royal can’t imagine her life without her beloved companion.
“With Princess, I just feel a little more confident and connected to the world when I do go out,” she says. “If I need something picked up or anything else, she makes it easier for me to be out more.”
One Loving Family
Princess’ life isn’t all work and no play. Royal also has five cats who are part of the family. They all share a bed and Princess can sometimes convince a few of them to play with her. And Royal continues to train Princess as they move forward in their lives together. At age 59, she realizes her future is uncertain.
“I’m one of the oldest living people with this disease, but I’ve had such a great life,” she says. “[Princess] has added so much value to me.”
Images via: San Diego Humane Society