Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Heartwarming Animal Stories Review - "The Angel by My Side"

For the tenth book in the Heartwarming Animal Stories 2012 Reading Challenge, I chose The Angel by My Side by Mike Lingenfelter and David Frei.

This has been one of my favorite books that I have read this year. It is one that I found as I was browsing in the animal section at the library; and I'm so happy that I check it out.

Basically the story begins in 1994 and focuses on the author, Mike Lingenfelter, who was expecting that his life would end soon. After two serious heart attacks and an open-heart surgery, most of the pleasure he had in his life had been stripped away.

Despite the dismal look he had about his life, his doctors still held out hope for him. Their vision was that a dog might motivate him to get out of the house and exercise. They understood the role animals could have in improving human health and enhancing the quality of life.

In fact, individuals who have mental illness or low self-esteem focus on themselves; animals can help them focus on their environment. Rather than thinking and talking about themselves and their problems, they watch and talk to and about the animals.

With that advice, Mike reluctantly found a golden retriever named Dakota who had been rescued from a neglect situation.

As Mike's wife, Nancy, said, "This dog has been through a lot, Mike. He's had a bad heart, people have given up on him, and he keeps getting one more chance to survive. Does that sound familiar? He's just like you."

Despite his initial resistance to having another dog, Mike and Dakota formed a bond that not only provided exercise, but emotional and medical support.

Dakota became Mike’s protector and his best friend, saving Mike’s life many times after forewarning him of oncoming heart crises. Dakota gave Mike back his dignity, his pride, and his life.

Working with Doctor of Veterinary Medicine who had special skills in communicating with animals, Mike learned that Dakota was a spirit guide, and it was his duty to share Dakota and the power of the human-animal bond with the world.

As Brenda (the DVM) said, "This is a spirit guide in a dog's body...some people think of them as angels - they follow us around and sort of hang around up there in the subconscious and help us....I knew it the moment I connected with Dakota - there was so much energy there, it was different from an ordinary animal."

Mike shared, "I had a new purpose in life, and I was happy and productive. It wasn't that long ago that I was trying to figure out how to end my life. Now I couldn't wait to get up each day and share my life with Dakota - and to share him with everyone who might need him. It was about this time that I began to realize that Cody was indeed a guardian angel, one who walked by my side every single day."

The duo made a tremendous impact on so many lives - children who were battling for their own lives at a Shriner Hospital; seniors; children enrolled in special education name a few groups benefiting from Dakota's and Mike's visits.

Mike said, "We visited a lot of seniors. The seniors all wanted to talk - sometimes they were melancholy, and sometimes they wanted to share happy memories. The important thing here wasn't so much what they were saying, but just that they were talking at all.

"Some of them, who were suffering from various stages of dementia or Alzheimer's Disease, were sure that he was their dog. 'Please take good care of him for me. I miss him so,' was something I heard more than once. I always promised these people that I'd take care of him as if he were my own."

When I read this, it reminded me of my Dad who had Alzheimer's Disease. Seeing and touching animals while he was in various stages of the disease meant a lot to him. There was a special connection that they had with one another.

When he was in the very late stages of Alzheimer's Disease, we brought Eenie (the cat) to see my Dad. His face, expression, and what he said all showed how happy he was to touch the cat. I could completely understand the positive impact Mike and Dakota had on seniors.

Dakota and Mike also did a lot of work with the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), and educating business owners about the rights of people who have service dogs to help them in their daily lives.

Ultimately, the story ends when Dakota must fight a courageous and dignified battle for his own life. Even in that process, Dakota taught Mike and others so much about living and the value of life and the human-animal bond.

Mike said, "I'll never get over losing Dakota, and I don't want to. But I have learned to cope with losing him as I think about the wonderful life we had together and all the great lessons he taught me and everyone else he touched."

He continued, "At the end, Cody showed me how to die, and that in death, there's freedom and new life. But Dakota isn't dead. He lives on:
- in the memories of all of those people he touched and in all the awards that he was given;
- in all the wonderful people who volunteer their time in animal-assisted therapy, sharing unconditional love and helping those who may be sick, lonely, or hurting physically; 
- in all of those people with disabilities who count on a service dog to help them get along in their daily lives; and 
- in cancer patients - humans and animals alike - to remind them that there's always hope."


There were some interesting things I learned while reading this book:

- About 200 years ago, a Quaker group in England used animals to help patients in asylums learn to cope with everyday life. But animal-assisted therapy wasn't really documented until World War II, when hospitals used animals to help members of the armed forces recover from the physical and mental aspects of injuries and trauma.

- There are three theories about why dogs are able to alert people about epileptic seizures, diabetic attacks, or heart issues:
1. The animal notices subtle changes in behavior or muscle tremors of which the person is unaware.
2. The animals senses electrical disturbances within the nervous system associated with an impending seizure.
3. The animal smells a distinctive odor given off by the person before an attack.

- Cancer is the number-one natural cause of death in dogs and cats in the United States. As for the type of cancer that Dakota has, the average dog will live only a few months unless they get some prompt care.

- The ADA recognizes that there are "invisible" and "hidden" disabilities - epilepsy, lung disease, diabetes, psychological or emotional disorders, and hearing and vision impairments all fall under that definition. People with those disabilities also have the right to have a service dog with them at all times.


The Angel by My Side is an inspiring book that I would highly recommend...especially for those who enjoy dogs, animals, and learning more about the animal-human bond.

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