Rambler the service dog can do a lot – open elevator doors, turn on lights, pull people in wheelchairs – but it’s a far simpler skill – kissing – that his humans love best of all.
Multiple sclerosis has left Morten Johnson defenseless against these slobbery sieges, but the Kingsburg man doesn’t mind.
“He’s like an answer to prayers,” Johnson said of the black Labrador and golden retriever mix. “He’s mine, and he accepts me for what I am and doesn’t judge me.”
Rambler came into Johnson’s life earlier this year thanks to Canine Companions for Independence, which provides free, highly trained assistance dogs to people with disabilities.
Johnson was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis more than 30 years ago. Since then, the disease that attacks the central nervous system has taken away more and more of his mobility. The retired dentist and community college teacher no longer can use his arms, legs, hands or feet.
Rambler was trained at a center in Oceanside, where he learned a long list of commands: directions like pull, push, stand and tug. But it’s Rambler’s love, not his functionality, that is valued most. Johnson already has the help of his wife, Diane Johnson, and an in-home caregiver, Carol Downs. What he needed most was a friend.
“I hate to say it, but I’ve had a lot of good friends in the past, and it’s amazing how when someone comes down with a physical disability that your friends just seem to disappear,” Morten Johnson said. “It’s almost like you have leprosy, in a way. I know they don’t mean it, but you just don’t see them as much, and Rambler is always around. And so he’s a total companion.”
Before Rambler, Johnson said, “I was becoming more introverted and quiet.” The death of his former longtime assistance dog, Laney, increased the feelings of loneliness.
“We hoped to get a dog that would draw him out,” Downs said of Rambler, “and that is what he’s done.”
Katie Malatino of Canine Companions for Independence knows that multiple sclerosis can take both a “physical and emotional toll.”
“That can be very isolating,” Malatino said. “The companionship is what he (Johnson) values most. Rambler lifts his spirits, and that helps him get out and about and take responsibility. That means a lot when you’re losing independence.”
Rambler has become a member of the family, a dog they describe as an “absolute lover” with “eyes that melt your heart.”
“He can be anything you want him to be,” Diane Johnson explained – a range that extends from “energetic” to “lounge lizard.”
Morten Johnson says his dog also gives him purpose. He used to be busy with work and activities like woodworking, welding and creating stained glass. Spending time with Rambler is a new, beloved hobby.
“He just is a godsend to me,” Johnson said. “He means so much.”