The dogs that saved me
People who see his social media posts marvel at how Jerry Lakandula manages to walk more than 10 dogs of varying breeds at the same time without them snapping at each other or getting their leash all tangled up. It’s easy to imagine him the stern paterfamilias out to save an unruly brood from their undisciplined selves.
But in fact, it is his dogs that saved Lakandula’s life. Twice.
“I had a difficult childhood,” the 44-year-old former fitness trainer recalled, adding that his mother had left him with his grandmother in Manila when he was young.
But while the old woman was good to him, other members of the family were not. To punish him for his misdeeds, they would lock him up in a room where the dogs were kept.
“They would lick my tears when I cried,” he said. “At that time, I thought they were just being affectionate. It was only later when I realized that dogs like the salty taste of tears,” he added with a laugh.
Such close company helped Lakandula develop a strong bond with dogs that would later prove to be a lifesaver.
Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease five years ago while he and his wife were working in Kuwait, he had thought of ending his life.
“I fell into depression,” Lakandula confessed.
The thought of not being able to control his movements devastated him because they were required of his job as a physical trainer and fitness consultant.
Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative brain disorder that results in the brain slowing down in its production of a neurotransmitter called dopamine.
With less and less dopamine, people lose their ability to regulate movements and emotions.
Fortunately, Lakandula came across dog expert Cesar Millan’s “The Dog Whisperer” program. “I watched his videos and read his books over and over,” he said.
“I applied everything I’ve learned. That was how I became a dog behaviorist,” he added.
The former fitness trainer met Millan in one of the dog expert’s visits in Asia a few years ago.
Lakandula’s current “dog days” was a sharp departure from his life as a certified personal trainer and bodybuilder who used to compete at Kuwaiti bodybuilding shows in the mid to the late ’90s and had celebrity high-end clients.
He once gave a fitness lesson to former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, he said in an interview with Petr Svab of The Epoch Times.
But the good life had a price, he told Svab. Despite the money, the new car, signature clothing and the latest gadgets, Lakandula started having health problems—insomnia, tremors.
One time, he almost had a stroke. Five years ago, when he was 39, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Gradually, he started losing control over his body and emotions to the point that he contemplated suicide.
But his dogs proved to be his redemption. “When I’m with a dog, I live in the moment. I don’t think of the future, I don’t think of the past, and I act instinctively,” he told Epoch Times.
It’s a state of mind and body that he has learned to master over time.
Today, Lakandula and his family take care of 21 dogs in their home in Dasmariñas, Cavite. Most of the pooches of various breeds were adopted, while a few were surrendered to them by pet owners.
His affinity with dogs has given him enough occasion to practice one of Millan’s teachings: “Dogs respond to unbalanced energy in one of three ways: fight, flight or avoidance.”
“I can’t be stressed because dogs can sense it,” he said.
“It would be difficult for me to ‘control’ them if my mind is not at peace,” he added.
A research by the University of California Los Angeles on animal-assisted therapy showed that “anxiety scores dropped 24 percent for participants who received a visit from the volunteer-dog team.”
The researchers also found that dogs help in lowering the levels of stress hormone epinephrine.
“Dogs help me in stress management,” Lakandula said.
The more he learns about dog behavior, the more he gets to know about himself, said this self-taught dog behaviorist.
He used to be ill-tempered during his younger years, but is now the exact opposite, he said, adding that he won’t allow Parkinson’s disease to prevent him from doing the things he used to do, at least for now.
In fact, he’s looking for funding to be able to attend a training that Millan will conduct in September in California so he can be better at helping owners deal with their dogs’ errant behaviors.
For now, he continues his routine: walking his 21 dogs before the sun rises and late in the afternoon.
It helps that his family’s support for this newfound love knows no bounds. They had renovated their home to fit the needs of his dogs, to the extent that their lawn had been replaced with concrete flooring to serve as training ground for the canines.
Even his youngest daughter, now 21, decided to shift from education to physiotherapy so she could help her father manage his Parkinson’s disease.
Explaining the changes around him, Lakandula said, maybe in jest: “I train dogs and humans.”
But would dogs be easier to train? one asked.
“Ay, sinabi mo (You bet),” said this Filipino pack leader.
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