By Daniel J. Vance


My 7-year-old, wheelchair-using daughter often acts as a high-powered magnet at public events, drawing all other people with a disability right to the metal frame on her wheelchair. It's an uncanny talent she has.

Such was the case again last month at the North American Dog Agility Council (NADAC) National Championships held near our home in Mankato, Minn.

At the finals, entrants smartly guided their athletic dogs some purebred, others not-so through a maze of tunnels, weave poles, teeter-totters and high-jumps. Dogs were timed and judged on their ability to evade or conquer the array of obstacles. Handlers ran full tilt over the grassy arena floor to guide their athletic dogs.

While we were in the process of leaving a session of the exciting event, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned. "What does she have?" a lady whispered as she pointed to my daughter.

It was a question I had heard whispered a thousand times before. After I replied "spina bifida," the lady said, "Your daughter just has to meet my sister Carla." So we followed the lady to the lower level.

In time we learned that "Carla" had post-polio syndrome (PPS), a condition that affects polio survivors up to 40 years following the initial viral attack. Some PPS symptoms are an increased weakening of affected muscles, fatigue, joint pain, and muscular atrophy. The U.S. has 300,000 polio survivors, and the condition may be present in up to half of them.

Carla labored on crutches over to us, and after we were formally introduced she showed us her affectionate lhasapoo, "Petunia."

As it turned out, Carla was an actual competitor at the National Championships, and in ten minutes with the help of a three-wheeled, electric motorcycle, she and Petunia would be running the obstacle course.

She said a small but growing number of U.S. dog agility handlers used a mobility aid.

Her courage to compete, in part, had come from a 140-member group called "Agility on Wheels." The Internet group's stated purpose is to "discuss the special challenges of training for and competing in agility from a wheelchair or with other mobility challenges."

To reach Mankato, Carla had to compete at a regional trial against more "abled" dog agility handlers.

We really rooted her on. She didn't win, but little Petunia did finish with a flourish.

[Mr. Vance's email is djv@mnic.net. Copyright 2002 by Daniel J. Vance]