Man’s new dog can foretell his seizures

January 6th, 2013
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In one crucial way, Alex Smith’s new dog knows him better than he knows himself. Alex, a 25-year-old Bethlehem Township, New Jersey man, has autism and, about every few months, he suffers a seizure.

It will wrack every muscle in his body for two or three minutes and leave him so drained of strength that he collapses afterward, no matter where he is, says his mom, Kristine. He doesn’t know when one is coming on. In fact, he doesn’t really know much about the seizures because “he goes from being conscious to unconscious” when he is stricken, Mom says. Consequently his seizures have caused physical injuries that have landed him in the emergency room.

Fearing for his safety, Kristine and her husband Pete applied to 4 Paws for Ability, a nonprofit in Xenia, Ohio, for a dog that could predict Alex’s seizures. They were approved in 2011, but they were required to pay some of the dog-training expenses — $13,000. Furthermore, the money had to be raised in a public way to help spread the word about 4 Paws.

In October of 2011 a benefit concert was given by keyboard great Bernie Worrell and the local band Geerbox at the Clinton Elks lodge. That raised the bulk of the money, and the rest was acquired by December of that year. “But they don’t have dogs just sitting on the shelf waiting for us,” said Kristine. Training is long, specialized and even personalized.

After 4 Paws decided they had a good match for Alex, the dog — a golden retriever named Zuzu — was put into training. Because scent is the key to predicting seizures, whenever Alex had one, his parents would borrow his shirt, rub it all over him to absorb as much scent as possible and then overnight it to Ohio.

On Dec. 2 Alex and his parents went to Xenia where they trained every day for 12 days, learning commands and “playing the seizure game,” which was actually a drill for the real thing. It’s serious to humans, but a game to dogs.

What was Alex’s role in this? “Alex’s job is to be loved by this dog,” said Kristine. The first step toward that goal is called “jackpotting.” They put dog treats all over Alex, thus making him irresistible. “They bonded really well,” said Kristine.

The training was done with other families who have children with the same seizure problem Alex has. On the first day of training, the instructor stopped the class because “just about every dog in the room was air-scenting. He said, ‘Somebody in this room is going to have a seizure.’” And a boy named Joel had one an hour later.

When a trained dog senses an impending seizure, it will lick its owner’s ear, neck and face in a very intense and purposeful way. Sometimes the dog will bark, too.

At this writing, Alex hadn’t suffered a seizure with Zuzu in attendance, but Kristine is confident in the dog’s ability. And meanwhile there have been other benefits.

Alex’s father, Pete, has said that if the autism spectrum were 1 to 10, Alex would be a 5. He said Alex knows what he wants to say, but cannot speak fluently, so it’s easier for him to withdraw from other people.

But he loves dogs and has always wanted his own. “He’s really proud to walk with her in town,” says Kristine, and when people come forward to admire the dog “the focus is not one hundred percent on Alex, and he doesn’t have to make eye contact” because the dog is the center of attention. So these social contacts are pleasant for Alex. His mom sees the dog as “a bridge for communication” with Alex.

When Alex is sad or has one of the tantrums to which he is prone, the dog will nuzzle or kiss him and help him toward a more positive state. Since a mother is only as happy as her unhappiest child, Zuzu is a major blessing to Kristine and Pete, too.

~ Courtesy of The Hunterdon County Democrat

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