Seizure alert dog proves to be just what epilepsy patient needed.
All the stars were in alignment, or as 19-year-old Ashley Peitz sees it, God had a plan in bringing Dodger, a pointer/border collie mix, into her life.
"It's just, I've been waiting for Dodger for a long time," she said. " ... You think God's punishing you and everything, but God had a plan, just like He had a plan for me when I had that seizure when I was 11."
Ashley was diagnosed with epilepsy a few short months after having that first seizure and has had seizures on a pretty regular basis ever since.
According to webmd.com, in people with epilepsy, electrical signals sent to the brain are disrupted due either to an injury or the person's genetic make-up, causing brain cells to emit signals in an uncontrolled fashion. This creates over-excitement, somewhat like an electrical overload in the brain, leading to seizures.
Ashley recently was implanted with a Vagus Nerve Stimulation device, or VNS chip, which according to webmd.com, is programmed using a computer to generate pulses of electricity at regular intervals to the vagus nerve, which transmits them to the brain. The settings on the device are adjustable, and the electrical current is gradually increased as the patient's tolerance increases. The patient also is given a hand-held magnet, which when brought near the stimulator, can generate an immediate current of electricity to stop a seizure in progress or reduce the severity of the seizure.
It is because of the debilitating seizures that Ashley has struggled with most of her life that Dodger is such a God-send.
"This dog, I think it's like he saved my life," Ashley said.
Dog on alert
Dodger is trained to alert to seizures about 30 minutes before they hit. When he alerts to one, he begins gently jumping on Ashley to alert her. Then, if she is unable to swipe the magnet bracelet that she wears over her VNS chip, Dodger will hover over her until the magnet on his collar activates it. This, in essence, either stops or prevents the seizure entirely.
Dodger also makes Ashley lie down when he has alerted to a possible seizure, and then nudges her onto her side to prevent her from aspirating. He stays between her and any obstacles that she potentially could fall into, should a full-blown seizure occur.
Dodger has proven himself repeatedly, since Ashley and her mother, Audra Peitz, picked him up on Nov. 6.
"He's detected five or more seizures, so he's kept me from having them," Ashley said.
Prior to getting Dodger, Ashley said, after a seizure, she typically would have to sleep for almost a full day afterward to recover, but because the seizures can now be prevented, or at the very least, stopped more quickly, her recovery time is only a couple of hours.
She said that Dodger always stays at her left side.
"He has to be on this side because most likely, when someone goes into a seizure, they're most likely going to tilt on their dominant side, and this is my dominant side. I'm a lefty," Ashley said.
After witnessing one of Ashley's seizures about a year ago, her father's friend, AJ Griffin, contacted Gina Brisby, who runs U Good Dog Service Dog Training in Manhattan, about getting a service dog for Ashley.
"AJ told us that he watched his friend's daughter have a seizure. He said it was the scariest thing he had ever seen and that the worst part was that there was nothing he could do about it," Brisby said. "He knows we train seizure dogs, so he asked if we could work out a deal so he could get Ashley a dog."
Service dogs, Audra said, typically cost between $40,000 and $60,000.
"Who has that kind of money? We'd never have the funds to pay for something like that," she said.
But money was never an issue in this case because unbeknownst to the Audra Peitz and her husband, Chad, Brisby and Griffin came up with a deal that Griffin would board her horse for a year, if she would find and train a service dog for Ashley.
"My husband would do anything for anybody, and for AJ to do that, I feel like he did it for Chad, too," Audra Peitz said, fighting back grateful tears. "That's what it's all about."
Griffin said that helping the family in this way was a no-brainer.
"Me and Chad have been buddies for years, and that's what buddies do. I'd do anything for Chad," Griffin said. "It's not about the money or anything like that. It's about being buddies."
Not only has Dodger saved Ashey's life, but she also has saved his, in a sense.
"That dog was on death row when they found him," Audra Peitz said.
Dodging a bullet
Valerie Oneill of Safe Pause Dog Rescue and Rehab in Ottawa, rescued Dodger from a local shelter when he was just days away from being euthanized.
Brisby, who trains all types of guide dogs, including seizure service dogs, prefers to use shelter dogs because they are typically old enough to train as service dogs. When she visited the Safe Pause facility and Dodger, who was known as Wally at that point because he ran along the shelter walls all day, immediately alerted to Brisby's own daughter, 19-year-old Haylee Lubrano, who suffers from non-epileptic seizures.
"When she knows we're going to a shelter, she'll take her seizure medication late so that we can tell if a dog that is there will be sensitive to seizures, and Dodger alerted to her immediately that day," Brisby said.
She said that while it's difficult to determine how dogs like Dodger can actually detect impending seizures, she thinks that it's the nose that knows.
"They can smell one part per billion, so we think it's the smell. We know that a person's body chemistry changes prior to a seizure, so researchers believe that it's the smell," Brisby said.
As part of his training, Brisby taught Dodger hand signals for sit, stay and lay down, and exposed him to a variety of different situations. Brisby said he is even taught not to obey, when necessary.
"It's called intelligent disobedience, which means if a seizure is coming, Dodger isn't going to do anything that Ashley tells him to do. All he is going to do is alert and make her lay down," she said.
When Brisby spoke with Ashley, she learned that Ashley wanted a service dog that would allow her to ride her horses and to attend college classes. In addition to sharing the same age and sharing the experience of having seizures, Brisby's daughter also loves to ride horses and attends college classes, so Dodger was trained with her in both scenarios.
They trained him for about 10 months before sending him home with Ashley.
Audra Peitz said that Ashley and Dodger hit it off immediately.
"The first time that we went to visit him, he instantly went to Ashley," Audra Peitz said, adding that several weeks later, when they picked him up at a Starbucks, he went straight to Ashley, after only meeting her once. "They walked in the door, and her dog sees her and was like over there licking on her. He could hardly wait to get to her."
Meant to be
Audra Peitz said having Dodger has provided the family with a huge sense of relief.
"She was having grand mal seizures weekly for like three months," she said. "So it's a big relief. We still have Kierstyn coming out, but the medicine has helped and the dog's helping."
Keirstyn Peitz is Ashley's sister, and a CMA/CNA.
She recently quit her job to stay home with her children, so she has been staying at the Peitz's house with Ashley, while Chad and Audra are at work. Since getting Dodger, Ashley is able to stay by herself more often.
Audra Peitz echoed her daughter's sentiments about Dodger.
"It's like they were always meant to be with one another," she said.