A man with a rare genetic disorder that left him wheelchair-bound has gained some independence back thanks to his new canine companion.
Matthew Lafleur, from Opelousas, Louisiana, was diagnosed with Friedreich’s Ataxia when he was 11 years old.
The condition gradually causes the loss of sensation in the arms and legs and can impair speech over time.
Lafleur, 33, struggles to pick up things when he drops them, open and close doors, and turn the lights on and off.
But now he has the help of Zeego, a two-year-old Labrador-Golden Retriever mix who responds to more than 40 commands, reported KARK.
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Matthew Lafleur, 33, from Opelousas, Louisiana, was diagnosed with Friedreich’s Ataxia when he was 11 years old. Pictured: Lafleur with his dog, Zeego
FA is a rare genetic disease that affects the nervous system and causes a progressive loss of movement. Lafleur began using a wheelchair when he entered college. Pictured, left and right: Lafleur with his dog, Zeego
Friedreich’s Ataxia (FA) is a rare genetic disease that affects the nervous system and causes a progressive loss of movement.
Peripheral nerves, which carry signals between the brain and the body, degenerate overtime as do nerve fibers in the spinal cord.
Symptoms typically emerge between ages five and 15, and include difficulty walking, poor balance, slurring speech and muscle weakness.
There is no cure, so treatment focuses on providing sufferers with wheelchairs, walking aids or prostheses so they can retain independence.
In a blog post, Lafleur said his symptoms became apparent when he was in junior high and high school.
‘At a time when I most wanted to just fit in with everyone else, my clumsy walk and poor coordination made me stick out,’ he wrote.
Lafleur didn’t use a wheelchair until he entered college, when he realized he could not walk across campus to attend classes.
‘What really surprised me was that being in a wheelchair, instead of imprisoning me, gave me a small and newfound sense of freedom,’ he wrote.
‘No longer was I the one everyone had to wait for. No longer was I consistently putting all my strength into remaining upright.’
Lafleur applied to Canine Companions for Independence, a non-profit organization that trains and provides assistance dogs, two years ago.
Two months ago, Lafleur acquired a two-year-old service dog named Zeego. Pictured: Lafleur (center) with his dog Zeego and two of Zeego’s puppy raisers
Zeego, a Labrador-Golden Retriever mix, picks things up, opens doors and turns light switches on and off. Pictured: Lafleur (in gray) with his dog at a physiotherapy session
Finally, two months ago, Lafleur brought Zeego home with him.
‘[My] hand coordination is not what it used to be,’ he said. ‘[I] end up dropping everything. With Zeego, all I have to say is “Get” and he’ll pick up things I drop, like keys or my phone,’ Lafleur said.
According to KARK, Zeego doesn’t just pick up things, but also opens doors and turns light switches on and off.
The canine will next help Lafleur train for charity races on a recumbent tricycle, which puts riders in a laid-back reclining position.
‘I don’t necessarily feel guilty that I always ask for help because that is what he is here for and that’s what he does and I’m so grateful,’ Lafleur told KARK.