Martha L. Thompson’s book, Giving Paws: Having a Service Dog for a Hidden Disability, is a book about one woman’s discovery of her own soul as it comes, again and again, to a choice between struggle and surrender.
There are a good many important things to write about Thompson’s book, and this review intends to cover as many as space allows.
But, in case space runs out, the really important thing to write about Giving Paws is that thing about the soul and how it sometimes hides in the oddest places–in anorexia and immunodeficiency diseases, in diarrhea and destroyed lungs. In feeding tubes and small dogs, and in really, really crazy people who sometimes want to do volunteer work. I recommend the chapters “Hagatha” and “Persecuted Fireplug.”
Giving Paws is a book about service dogs: about having them, training them, learning to believe you deserve them.
It is a book about hidden disabilities: about chronic illnesses and pain, about depression.
It is, of course, the story of Thompson’s disabilities and of her discovery of service dogs, and especially the service dog, Henry. In a larger sense, it is the story of the healing power of animals. Read that license plate carefully.
But whatever else it might be, there is no page, no word that is not informed by the quest for the spiritual life.
The title of Giving Paws: Having a Service Dog for a Hidden Disability raises two questions:
1. What the heck is a hidden disability? And,
2. If there is such a thing, what can a service dog do about it?
Martha Thompson thought there probably wasn’t until a couple of doctors taught her differently.
Martha Thompson thought service dogs were for big disabilities, obvious, visible disabilities, until Henry trained her.
Although I love the wordplay in the title of Martha Thompson’s delightful and useful memoir, Giving Paws, I was tempted to call this review, “Henry, Gus, and Me.” So real do these dogs become before you are halfway through the book, that it’s difficult to imagine writing anything without calling them by name.
Henry Helping Me
The author of Giving Paws: Having a Service Dog for a Hidden Disability brings to her story elements that I consider essential. She is honest, she is humorous about a serious subject, and she is passionate about reaching her readers.
Giving Paws is a memoir. It is the story of those disabilities that are not only hidden but, in the mind of Martha Thompson, certainly didn’t qualify anyone for a service dog. Thompson was fortunate. Her internist and the Americans With Disabilities Act disagreed. Her internist recommended she get a service dog. Enter Henry,” an irresistible, black and tan dachshund/chihuahua puppy.”
In her Introduction, Thompson describes the difficulties when she first took Henry to work. Her disabilities didn’t show, and Henry didn’t look like anybody’s idea of a service dog. So they asked, “What’s the matter with you?” Hard to glean much sympathy for, not to sugar coat it (which the author decidedly does not) diarrhea and depression. The general public, like Thompson before Henry, tends to skepticism about disabilities that aren’t obvious and service dogs that don’t weigh in at 75 pounds.
Giving Paws is, in many ways, Thompson’s letter to that public saying, in the simplest terms, “Listen. Look. Pay attention. Things are not always what they seem. I learned. So can you.”
Before Henry, there was Gus. Many years before Henry, before Thompson had given any thought to service dogs and disabilities, before Los Angeles, before Don and The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, before she and Don bought a house, before they were married, before any of that, there was Gus. When she was
“a thirty-one-year-old actor living in a one-bedroom apartment on Central Park West Avenue and 103rd street in Manhattan,”
Gus, a German Shepherd mix, “with root-beer-colored eyes . . . a handsome widow’s peak” and ears that “flopped halfway down his . . .face” ia important for a number of reasons. He was the first.
He changed Thompson’s view of herself and the world and got her ready for the years ahead and for Henry. It was Gus who showed her how much love she could give and Gus who returned that love in full. It was Gus who put her feet on the path to marriage and healing. If Gus loved her so much, perhaps she could love herself.
Giving Paws takes us on a journey from Manhattan to Los Angeles, from a single life to marriage, from Gus to a houseful of dogs, a cat, some turtles, and just a few birds, and from there to the larger menagerie at the zoo, where she enrolls in a staggering number of classes, falls in love with Lorena, a maned wolf, volunteers as a tour guide, and where she served as the Coordinator of Volunteer Programs.
With a little help from her friends.
It takes us, simultaneously, on a journey through Thompson’s physical diseases: her anorexia; a rare immunodeficiency disease whose symptoms include daily diarrhea; and, something called “Valley Fever,” that ultimately destroyed her left lung.
And, finally, it takes us–with great courage–on the journey of Thompson’s mind and spirit as they fight for survival. We learn about her depression. Those of us who are at all familiar with rapid-cycling manic depression (or bipolar disorder) recognize the signs of danger. Work at the zoo is exciting and she plunges in. She has Henry and they are doing well as Henry is trained as a service dog. She is happy. But Martha Thompson has an eating disorder. She eats less and less. She loses weight. She has dizzy spells. Her psychiatrist notices and insists she reduce her hours at work. Thompson becomes paranoid and, in spite of reassurances, worries she will lose her job. She loses more weight.
And that voice inside–the one we all hear at one time or another–says,
“Everyone knows you’re a fruitcake and Henry is just a dumb dog.”
A bit shy of halfway through the book, in the sixth chapter of twenty-one, Thompson writes
“When I excitedly embarked on a life enhanced by a service dog, I anticipated many hours, days and months of training, as well as a lot of anxiety before passing the final exams. What I did not anticipate were all the other challenges that came with having a four-footed assistant by my side.”
The reality of living with Henry marks a turning point in Thompson’s journey and in this book. It is from this point on, that Giving Paws becomes a resource for anyone considering a service dog. There is information about finding and training service dogs; there are resources for people who have some form of “hidden” disability. There is an entire chapter of research on the general impact of animals on health.
Thompson writes about the consolation of just knowing she isn’t alone. There is a list of the pros of having a service dog and a rather impressive list of the cons. I have been unable to choose a favorite, but these are contenders:
- You will be challenged by a law enforcement officer at some point. Chances are good that he or she won’t do so entirely appropriately.
- Your disability will be discussed on or before the first date if you are single and have a service dog.
There are more stories–of stress at work, of new dogs, of more pain, and always there is Henry.
Giving Paws ends when Thompson makes a trip to Wisconsin to visit her mother. She goes home. When her mother puts her on the plane back to Los Angeles, she is feeling hopeful. She has resigned from her position at the zoo and will have more time to write. She looks ahead to “the next phase” of her life.
“Saying goodbye to Mom was hard because I felt so safe with her. As I sat on the plane back to Los Angeles, I trusted that everything was going to be okay. Henry, who was curled up on my lap, would encourage me to try harder to take care of myself. If I had any willingness to heal, his love would ground me and remind me that life was worth living.”
Martha L. Thompson has written the moving, honest, personal story of her struggles with both physical and mental disorders, and anyone who has any experience of illness that is chronic, or invisible, or unsympathetic, anyone who has been in the grip of depression or lived through the frightening highs of mania will read this book with heart in hand.
And as a purely personal reflection, I will confess that Martha Thompson is the only woman I have ever met who picked up her husband on a plane because he was reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.
Henry, and Don
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Order Thompson’s First Book, The Oxygen Mask Rule: How My Battle With Anorexia Taught Me to Survive