phoenix family makes huge sacrifice for their pets

I read a post yesterday on Facebook that caught my attention. A client of mine reported that a friend of hers was in need of some camping gear. But not because she was going on a vacation. This woman and her family will be homeless as of the 30th of this month. They need camping gear to survive as a newly homeless family.

You see, money is tight for them like it is for so many others. This family has beloved pets, some of which are service animals, and their apartment gave them a mere thirty-days notice that they would no longer be accommodating animals. The service animals could stay by law, but the others who provide them so much emotional support could not. So the family had to make a choice: get rid of the animals or move.

They can't stay, and they don't have the money to move. They won't sever ties with their furry family members, so they are making a huge sacrifice. They are starting over, Little House on the Prairie-style. They are saving every dime and waiting for their tax return to come. Through the generosity of others, they have secured a large tent and a few other necessities, but they need so much more. 

Now before you judge...not that you would, but some might, and I know how these things go and what questions might be asked:

• If they don't have any money, why do they have pets?

• Why don't they just get rid of the pets so they can have a safe place to live?

• Why don't they get a better job that pays more?

Let me fill you in.

I spoke to Dawn, the matriarch of the family. She told me about her husband, Michael, her daughter, Kim (19 years old), and her daughter, Deanna (18 years old). 

Dawn suffers from Ehlers-Danlos syndromes (EDS). Since our mutual friend who connected us also suffers from it, I am somewhat familiar with the disease, but, from what I understand, the symptoms and problems that arise from EDS are plentiful and infinite, and differ from person to person, so I would never claim to know all about it. The Ehlers-Danlos National Foundation describes it as:

"Individuals with Ehlers-Danlos syndromes (EDS) have a genetic defect in their connective tissue, the tissue that provides support to many body parts such as the skin, muscles, and ligaments. The fragile skin and unstable joints found in patients with EDS are the result of faulty or reduced amounts of collagen. Collagen is a protein which acts as a "glue" in the body, adding  strength and elasticity to connective tissue.

"EDS is a heterogeneous group of heritable connective tissue disorders, characterized by articular (joint) hyper mobility, skin extensibility and tissue fragility. There are six major types of EDS. The different types of EDS are classified according to their manifestations of signs and symptoms." 

I could provide you with the list of symptoms, but you'll probably move on to another post in your feed within the pages or so, so I'll let those of you who are truly interested in exploring more check out the link to the EDNF web site and see for yourselves. I encourage you to do so. In summary, it's like something out of a horror story. 

What Dawn has been able to achieve is remarkable. She beat the odds and got out of a wheelchair she had been sentenced to for life because of her EDS. She was in that wheelchair for thirteen (YES, 13) years. She describes her victory: "I was on my way to hospice when I said I needed help. I could ask an animal for anything; people much less so." Then along came Bella. Bella was a neglected and abused animal before she connected with Dawn. The two are inseparable. As an untrained rescue dog, Bella learned 53 commands and became her service dog. "Bella made me want to walk and fight and so much more. I have been out of a wheelchair for three years and pharmaceutical-free. I recovered both kidneys and my liver that thirteen years of medications had all but killed off. I did it all with my pets, for my girls, husband, and myself."

Not to be chiché, but they seem to be the definition of "rescuing each other." 

Dawn's daughters, now young adults, both have EDS. Now that they are both over 18, their Social Security benefits (like the kind people really need) are greatly reduced, so money is tighter than ever. To make matters worse, Deanna has autism. She will be filing for disability as a young adult, but these things take time.

So what about Dawn's husband, Michael? Where does he stand? 

Dawn filled me in. "Mike and I were teenage sweethearts...we are disabled family...Mike also has a connective tissue disorder that the doctors are trying to diagnose. He is barely physically able to work part time."

Despite all of these tribulations, the family devotes their time to and has been glued together by animal-related causes. Dawn told me that she doesn't remember a time when she wasn't rescuing some sort of creature (I could relate), and that she holds a special place in her heart for the bully and shepherd breeds–the underdogs. She says "so often they are overlooked, but they are wonderful little souls." Even though their family needs, they give to animals. Dawn reflects that "I have been trying to save every animal I could, since my first memories. Rescuing reptiles, dogs, cats, birds, and whatever helpless being heeded me...our rescue driving has been grounded, as the van has over 160,000 miles on it now, and we can't afford to replace it. All we ever asked for our transports is gas. We did the rest on a limited budget as a family."

Sometimes those who need the most give the most.

So what about their pack? Let's hear about their awesome animals! 

Seven: A therapy cat for Deanna. An elderly orange tabby.

Sweetness: An ESA/therapy dog. Helps the family to alert when Deanna is at her worst. This chihuahua also loves to cuddle with Michael.

Bella: Dawn's "pride and joy," as described. A five-year-old Anatolian Shepherd.

Monty and Snauters: leopard gekos.

Dawn let me know that with her husband's health decline and loss of part-time income due to his condition, they have financially slipped to the point where difficult decisions have to be made. She says "I am not taking my children back to low income housing where we were victims of crime multiple times...I looked into shelters, but none could keep us all together given our daughters' ages and the pets...So yes, we will be homeless, but only for a bit. I will not settle for this for my family."

Even at this bleak time, Dawn maintains a positive spirit and a great deal of hope. Once they receive their tax return, they plan to purchase an RV, some land, and build up a home with their own hands. She pictures it:

"We'll build up chicken coops for eggs, a barn for a goat for milk products, and places to grow fruits and vegetables year-round. Maybe even plant a small orchard for nuts, avocados, and olives. We will have to build up solar panels for power, and a water cistern for bathing and drinking. We will build planters and fill them by hand composting and building soil. Adding in greenhouses and cold boxes for a year-round natural food supply. It's going to be hard. Many would think impossibly so, but I have come back from death's door and proved many experts wrong with just that one act. I was also not supposed to be able to carry children, or to ever walk again. Being told something is hard or even impossible has never stopped me from giving something my everything until another path opens or I progress. The only futile thought is not even trying."

If that's not inspiring, I don't know what is.

So while they wait for their tax returns so that they can start the next chapter in their lives, they'll be camping. Right now, the family is working on gathering the essentials and minimizing expenditures as they spend their last week in their apartment. They are still in need of quite a few things, so if anyone local or otherwise can provide any of the following, they would be forever grateful:

• foster home for their elderly cat, Seven, who would not fare well in a tent.

• campfire cookware

• small camp stove or solar oven

• a few good warm, low temperature sleeping bags

• camp cots

Dawn says "anything will help, and everything is appreciated." 

She didn't ask for it, but I would be happy to facilitate any monetary donations that could go toward purchasing what they need in this transitional period. If you would like to donate, we've established a funding page.

When learning about this family's situation and the sacrifices they are making to keep their entire family together, it makes me cry and smile at the same time. While some people treat animals as if they are last year's fashion accessory, easily discarded, this struggling family is making a huge sacrifice to honor the commitment they made to their pets. They may not have much, but they have each other, and sometimes that's all a family needs to come out sparkling on the other end. 

Connect with EDNF on Facebook and Twitter.

"the dog story: a journey into a new life with multiple sclerosis" book review, #giveaway, and author interview with matt cavallo

Matt Cavallo's wife, Jocelyn, became a friend of mine through our local MOMS club. We had some fun experiences together, and her boys, Mason and Colby, are sweethearts. I was always happy for my kids to play with them. I thought Jocelyn was a cool cat. Totally real, funny and fun, and over-the-top nice without the sickening sweetness. But I didn't realize how cool she really was until after she called me to her home to take care of the family dog, Teddy. 

The Cavallo family. Photo courtesy of Matt Cavallo.

The Cavallo family. Photo courtesy of Matt Cavallo.

The consultation was the first time I'd been to her home. She showed me where all the dog stuff was, and we talked about how Teddy would be for me on walks, which would be very important during our visits. She explained to me how Teddy was used to being walked twice a day by her husband, Matt, whom I'd actually never met. "Teddy is really Matt's dog," Jocelyn explained. "We all love Teddy, but Matt is super attached to him, and he's probably nervous about having someone come in to take care of Teddy while we're away, but we totally trust you." 

Most people who take the time and money to hire a professional pet sitter are pretty devoted to their pets, but this seemed different. I didn't want to pry, so I took what she said at face value and reassured her that Teddy would be fine. "Please let Matt know that I'll take great care of Teddy, and I will walk him twice a day, like he's used to."

I think Jocelyn felt like she needed to provide me with further explanation. "I don't know if I told you, but Matt has MS," she blurted. 

"Wow." What could I say? "I...had no idea. Is he...okay?" 

"Yes, he's okay. I mean, as much as you can be with MS..." Jocelyn went on to tell me a small portion of Matt's story just as Matt pulled into the driveway, home for lunch. "He actually wrote a book about it," she concluded before he made it into the house. It's called 'The Dog Story,' if you're interested." I gathered that there was more to Matt's relationship with Teddy. And, yes, I was interested.

After just hearing the news about Matt, I was a bit nervous as to what to expect, knowing he'd be coming in any second. I mean, he could drive, so he must be somewhat functional, right? Matt came in and Jocelyn introduced us. I don't know what, exactly, I expected, but Matt looked totally normal. Not at all like what MS looked like in my imagination. He was friendly, yet slightly aloof, probably trying to play it cool in the face of this stranger who would care for Teddy in a few short weeks. Matt made himself a sandwich, and I excused myself so he and Jocelyn could enjoy their time together. 

I took care of Teddy shortly thereafter, and we got along famously. He was happy to see me, fun to walk, and well behaved. Matt survived the ordeal. 

I purchased a Kindle copy of Matt's book, "The Dog Story: A Journey into a New Life With Multiple Sclerosis," and before beginning, I sent Matt an email letting him know I was setting out. He responded warmly, saying "I hope you enjoy it. It can be difficult to read in parts, especially since you know Jocelyn." 

I began, and a couple of hours later, I sent Matt another message: "OMG. I can't put it down. Your writing style is so approachable, and your story is really compelling." Matt responded humbly with a simple "thank you." 

It's true. I couldn't put it down. I know that's totally chiché. Maybe a small part of my interest was the fact that I had a personal relationship with these people. After all, rarely do we get to hear such raw, unveiled stories from people we haven't known our whole lives. But it wasn't just about hearing the dirt on people I knew. Anyone who reads this book will feel as if they intimately know Matt and Joceyln. I thought a story about a MS diagnosis would be a total downer, but Matt is funny, and somehow he makes you happy through a very sad story. I felt the impact he conveyed as he shared his story, but I never felt sorry for him. The journey to his diagnosis was rough, but Matt is almost as strong as his wife, and (spoiler alert), together, they have made a wonderful life, despite Matt's tragic disease. 

Although Teddy's picture adorns the cover of Matt's book, I kept waiting for him to make an appearance as I read. I had to wait a long time.

I contacted Matt after I'd finished the book and asked if I could interview him for the well minded blog. He was happy to oblige. 

WM: Matt, I read "The Dog Story" about your journey to a diagnosis. While, initially, it doesn't seem to be a book about a dog, I walked away with the feeling that while your childhood dog helped you find your identity growing up, Teddy has helped you find your identity to live your best life with MS. Is that the message you intended?

Photo courtesy of Matt Cavallo.

Photo courtesy of Matt Cavallo.

MC: That is a great observation, Kristen. I definitely believe that Teddy has not only helped me cope with my diagnosis, but has also helped me live my best life. The title of the book is a bit misleading. "The Dog Story" is not the story of a dog, rather it refers to how I got my dog. A major theme throughout the book is timing. Getting a dog was a debate my wife, Jocelyn, and I had over and over again during the beginning of our relationship and into the early years of our marriage. While I am a dog person and have had a dog my entire life, she never really connected with dogs. To her the timing was never right. We had major life events like getting married, graduating from college or moving to Boston, and a dog was not in those plans.

Then, in the midst of those plans, I had this major health event where I lost the functionality of my legs and got diagnosed with MS. A month after my diagnosis was my 29th birthday. On that birthday, I was handed a present, and it was a book. When I tore the wrapping paper off, looking back at me was a book about dog breeds with a soft-coat wheaten terrier on the cover. I opened the inside cover and there was a handwritten note, saying that a litter had been born, and I was getting a male from the litter.

At that moment, my heart dropped. Now the timing was right to get a dog? I could barely walk on my own and had just been diagnosed with a chronic illness. How was I going to walk and take care of a dog? I wanted to thank Jocelyn and tell her that while I really appreciated the present, that I couldn't possibly raise a dog at this time.

Then, I realized that the timing could not have been more right. At that point in my life, I needed a dog more than ever. Getting Teddy was a major turning point in me starting a new chapter of my life as a man with a chronic illness. I promised Jocelyn that day that no matter what was happening with my MS, that I would walk the dog twice a day. It's been eight years now and I've kept that promise.

WM: Can you tell me more about your relationship with Teddy?

Photo courtesy of Matt Cavallo.

Photo courtesy of Matt Cavallo.

MC: Teddy is more than my best friend. He is more like a caregiver. He has been in my life for almost nine years now, through the good times and bad. He knows when I'm feeling sick and comforts me. He also nudges me and keeps me honest with our daily walks. On the days when I just don't feel like getting up and doing anything, his cold, wet nose prods me out the door.

WM: So Teddy is really important to your quality of life.

MC: Teddy is a great motivator. He keeps me going. I think that he has played a big factor into why I have sustained such a great quality of life despite living with MS.

WM: What is your routine like with Teddy?

Teddy on an early morning walk with me. I kept my promise, too.

Teddy on an early morning walk with me. I kept my promise, too.

MC: My routine with Teddy is the same as it was when I made the promise over eight years ago. I walk him twice a day whether I feel like I can or not. The only difference is that we have two boys now so I now schedule Teddy's walks around the kids' schedule and activities.

WM: How important is regular exercise for you? Would you say Teddy helps you more in the physical sense or the emotional sense?

MC: Teddy helps me both physically and emotionally. Physically he keeps me moving and emotionally he understands my bad days. Exercise is important, but often times I am too fatigued to move. That is where having to take care of Teddy really pushes me to keep walking.

WM: Do you believe in the healing power of animals?

MC: Yes, I do believe in the healing power of animals. While they can't speak our language, they can communicate and sense our emotions. I was in a deep depression when I was first diagnosed, and it wasn't until I got Teddy that I was able to pull myself out of it.

I took this photo of Teddy during my first visit with him. He was great for me, but, clearly, he missed Matt. Just look at those puppy-dog eyes.

I took this photo of Teddy during my first visit with him. He was great for me, but, clearly, he missed Matt. Just look at those puppy-dog eyes.

WM: I understand that you have been traveling a lot lately as a motivational speaker. How do you keep motivated when you can't walk Teddy, and how does he do while you're away?

MC: Traveling had been hard on me. I would like to take him with me whenever I go. I am always trying to make sure he can't see me pack my suitcase. Jocelyn thinks I infer way too many human traits on him and that he is fine when I'm away. The truth is that I am the one that is not fine with being gone. I need to keep my promise.

WM: Have you considered the possibility of Teddy becoming a service dog for you?

MC: I have, but Jocelyn is pretty sure he would flunk out of the training school! He is also an unneutered male who marks everything, so I'm am not sure how well-behaved he would be in public places. He is definitely lovable but lacks some of the social refinements you would expect from a service dog.

WM: Do you have any plans for any more books?

MC: Jocelyn and I just completed our second book, "Seven Steps to Living Well With a Chronic Illness." It's a self-help book for people seeking guidance for living well despite being diagnosed with a chronic illness. Some of the topics covered in the book include tips on navigating the health care system, emotional and physical healing, and, of course, the healing power of a companion animal. The book is due out this spring.

I, for one, can't imagine a better couple to tell the story about living well under dire circumstances. Matt and Jocelyn are upbeat, positive people who continue to conquer their life's challenges every day. 

Matt has generously offered to send a personalized, signed copy of his book to a well minded reader. Regardless of whether your life has been touched by a chronic illness, Matt's story is an inspiring look at overcoming seemingly impossible obstacles, made better with the help of a dog.

Please enter this very special giveaway.

Connect with Matt at

is this service dog legit?

The topic of fake service dogs is hot right now, and I feel a personal attachment to the debate. I have cared for a handful of service dogs, and though I'm far from being an expert on the subject, I think I understand the basics of what makes an actual service dog. The other day I was in COSTCO, and I saw the cutest little Boston Terrier. He had a handsome red vest on, embroidered smartly with the words "SERVICE DOG." Of course, my eyes are immediately attracted to the animal in any situation. I wanted to kiss this little guy, and then I noticed that everyone else did, too. And they were.

As much as I like to make out with just about every dog I see, I resist my temptation with service dogs and keep my distance. They deserve the proper respect to do their jobs with minimal distraction. And I'm a good doggie kisser, so I can be a distraction. I observed this particular dog in COSTCO with his owner on a regular leash (okay) at the hot dog pizza counter tables. His man was feeding him bits of hot dog and pizza, and several people were coming up to them and showering the dog with affection. The owner just let it happen and didn't explain that the dog was on duty, or anything of the sort.

The dog, himself, was not behaving in the fashion I know to be service dog behavior. He was begging for food (hey, stick with what works) and he was wandering around to the extent of his leash, even getting a bit tangled in the pole that held up the bench seat. Hmm.

I then was particularly confused when the owner took the dog toward the restroom (one of my littles had to go, too, coincidentally). He tied the dog to a sample cart that was being prepped to hit the floor while he went to the restroom. Huh?

I'm waiting for the littles to come out of the bathroom, and this is the "service dog."

Are service dogs typically just tied to things? I don't think I've ever seen this in my life.

The sample person had to completely disinfect the cart after the dog was untied (I know this because my other little timed a bathroom trip just perfectly after the other, so I got to go back).

This all just seems a bit odd to me. It's not the New-York-diva-lady-with-a-fake-service-dog-in-a-purse scenario that we've been hearing about in the media, but it's questionable to me, nevertheless. And my emotions are at the heart of the problem. I didn't DARE question the man. Nor did anyone working at COSTCO. That service vest seems to command as much respect as a police officer's uniform. I would never want to insult the man with the dog by questioning him. What would I even say?

So is this dog the real deal? If not, what do we do about this?