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Dodger gets second chance as seizure-detecting dog

By Megan Moser

Dodger waits patiently under the table at Early Edition restaurant.

He lies there obediently as fragrant plates of sausage and bacon come out of the restaurant’s kitchen. When a bite of pancake falls on the floor, he licks his lips but holds his position.

So when Dodger finally does stand up, seemingly for no reason, his handlers take notice.

“Oh, I think he’s alerting,” says Gina Brisby of Manhattan, his trainer.

He’s telling the humans that his new owner, 19-year-old Ashley Peitz of Garden City, is about to have a seizure.

Ashley has had epilepsy since she was 12. Recently, though, the seizures caused by the disorder have become more frequent and more severe.

Ashley and her family realized they had to do something about it.

A string of lucky coincidences and extraordinary acts of kindness brought her to Dodger, a pointer-border collie mix.

And this dog, rescued from a shelter the week he was scheduled to be put down, has been trained not only to detect seizures — before Ashley even feels the symptoms — but also to prevent them from happening.

Epileptic seizures are caused by uncontrolled electrical discharges in the brain. To help keep the episodes under control, Ashley uses a VNS (vagal nerve stimulation) chip. It’s a pacemaker-like device that includes a pulse generator implanted below the collarbone and an electrode that runs up to the left vagal nerve in the neck.

Ashley wears a magnet on her wrist like a watch. When she waves it over her chip, it uses electricity to stimulate the nerve, which regulates brain activity and pre-empts the seizure.

If she misses or ignores the symptoms, that’s where Dodger comes in.

So for the first time, right there in the middle of brunch, the dog stands up, looks at Ashley, and gently puts his paws up on her chest. He wears a magnet on his collar like the one on her wrist, and he swipes it against the spot on her chest where the chip is located.

Ashley coughs a bit and puts her hand on her throat. The shock from the VNS chip is uncomfortable, but she feels fine after a minute. And it’s certainly better than the feeling of having a seizure.

Once it’s clear she’s OK, everyone is happy. It’s a moment to celebrate.

After nine months of training, Dodger officially became Ashley’s service dog just one night earlier. The two of them have just a few handling tests to complete before she takes him back home to Garden City.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “And, oh, my good Lord, he’s changed my life.”

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Dodger wasn’t always Dodger.

When Valerie O’Neill of Ottawa rescued him, he was running the walls in the shelter. But he wasn’t just running next to the walls; he was getting up enough speed that he was running on the walls. She decided to name him Wally.

“When I first saw him, the girl at the shelter pointed and said, ‘He definitely is going to be euthanized this week.’ I just thought, ‘No, you can’t kill him. No. No. I will definitely take him.’ They thought I was nuts.”

O’Neill said she doesn’t know what his original owner called the dog. But she knows that he was pretty bad shape when she took him home. He was almost completely brown with dirt, she said, and seemed to be very anxious from being in a kennel.

“A lot of people can’t see that dog, can’t see what’s underneath,” she said. “They just see the crazy dog in the kennel. I see the dog. I see the potential in the dog.”

Valerie runs a rescue service at her home. She takes dogs that have been abused or are just scheduled to be put down and rehabilitates them, then tries to find them permanent homes.

When she’s looking at a potential rescue, she said she looks for a certain type of attentiveness.

“I look to see if it’s paying attention, if it’s making eye contact,” she said. “I want to see a dog that’s saying, ‘What do you want me to do?’ Not just, ‘Are you here to play?’”

She said in a high-energy dog like Wally, that quality appeared for just a moment.

“It was just a moment, but it was there,” she said.

O’Neill took Wally home and put him on the treadmill to get his energy out. Soon, he was doing 4 miles a day. He liked it so much that he would get on the treadmill himself and then look at her, waiting for her to turn it on.

As Wally relaxed, he helped another dog O’Neill had taken in to rehabilitate.

She said she had a coonhound that had gone into “shutdown.” She wasn’t mean, exactly, O’Neill said, just withdrawn and antisocial. O’Neill was concerned the dog would have to be put down. She started taking them out with a leash between them.

“(Wally) would turn around and do puppy bows at her, trying to play with her,” she said. “One day, it just broke. She started playing, and she never went into shutdown again. He saved her.”

And soon O’Neill realized that Wally was unusually sensitive to humans, too.

O’Neill has mild seizures, and Wally started watching her and acting alert to her seizures. About six months after she got Wally, O’Neill got a call from Brisby, the Manhattan dog trainer.

Brisby had been checking around, looking for a dog that would suit Ashley’s needs.

They had found one prospect, a border collie, but when it visited Ashley’s house it growled at her young niece and nephew.

“Yeah, actually, I have one you might want to come look at,” O’Neill told Brisby.

O’Neill said adopting animals that are good service dog candidates is her ultimate goal. She has placed several service dogs so far.

But Wally, who was renamed Dodger when he began training to help Ashley, is her biggest success story.

“That was my goal when I started the rescue,” she said. “Those are the ones I want to find, those diamonds in the rough.”

 

On Monday, more on Dodger’s training. Plus, how a chance encounter and a friend’s generosity brought Dodger to Ashley.









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