'The dogs amaze us every day'
May 12, 2015 11:27AM
By Steven Hoffman
Newark, Del. resident Sarah Vible was diagnosed with epilepsy during her sophomore year at the University of Delaware. Her family reached out to Canine Partners for Life and she was paired with Rosebud, a friendly four-legged companion that alerts her when she is about to have a seizure. Mike Stracka, also a Newark resident, relies on his dog, Annabelle, for many tasks that he can't do on his own. In Georgia, a service dog named Rollo helps Danielle, a high school senior, walk on her own further than she has in years, and warns her of impending cataplexy episodes. Derrick, who lives in Illinois, relies on Patrick to alert him when he is about to suffer from a seizure. Hannah, who has Muscular Dystophy, relies on Saffron to help her get around the West Chester University campus as she works to complete her degree.
For people like Sarah and Mike and Danielle and Derrick and Hannah, the dogs are more than constant companions. They are heroes. Sometimes, they save lives. They always make lives better.
Vible was caught in a vicious cycle after she was diagnosed with epilepsy last year. One of the triggers for seizures is stress. The more seizures she had, the more stress she felt. The more stress she felt, the more seizures she had.
“I tried to take medicine to control the seizures,” Vible explained. “The medicine helps, but it doesn't do everything.”
Her family learned about Canine Partners for Life and how the Cochranville, Pa. organization trains dogs to alert people who are about to suffer a seizure.
At first, Vible wasn't sure that she wanted to have an alert dog with her all the time.
“It makes my invisible disability very visible,” Vible explained. “I wasn't sure about that.”
Any doubts vanished when she met Rosebud for the first time. The dog was able to begin alerting Sarah when she was about to have a seizure. Sarah also quickly bonded with her canine companion.
Stories like Sarah's are common at Canine Partners for Life.
2015 marks the organization's 25th anniversary, and during that time the CPL staff has trained more than 600 canines to partner with people from around the United States who suffer from a wide range of physical, neurological, and cognitive disabilities, including muscular dystrophy, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, cerebral palsy, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, spinal cord injuries, strokes, seizure disorders, arthritis, spina bifida, Parkinson’s Disease and more. Canine Partners for Life is a leader in the assistance dog industry, and has placed dogs in homes in 46 states.
Darlene Sullivan, the founder of Canine Partners for Life, remembers getting a call from a woman with multiple sclerosis who had benefited from the help of an assistance dog. She wanted to know if a canine could also help her daughter, who suffered epileptic seizures. Sullivan didn’t know at that time whether Canine Partners for Life could train a dog to provide alerts for seizures, but after some training the organization paired a dog, Misty, with the woman. Once they were together, Misty detected the third seizure and never missed another one, signaling their arrival by crawling on the woman’s lap and refusing to leave.
“We were then flooded with applications for alert dogs,” Sullivan explained.
Dogs have proven themselves capable of detecting a variety of ailments, offering new hope to thousands of families.
Canine Partners for Life started with Sullivan and one dog, Solla, from the Delaware SPCA. Soon, they were joined by a volunteer and the first two donors. Sullivan would meet with each potential recipient herself. Now, there is a team of trainers and staff members, but back then she was handling a lot of the training by herself. Training the dogs has always been a cornerstone of the mission and, according to Sullivan, they need to have certain qualities to succeed—confidence, creativity, and flexibility are at the top of the list.
The dogs are trained how to handle a variety of chores, from simple things like picking up dropped objects to more advanced tasks like opening doors, operating lights and elevator buttons. They can take purchases and wallets to a cashier in a store. The dogs can learn how to assist a person with dressing and undressing. They can retrieve a wheelchair or provide balance or momentum to their person. They can provide stability on stairs or rough terrain. They can even assist bed-dependent individuals to move around, preventing bedsores.
Once a dog is immersed in the training program, the next step is to find the perfect placement.
There is an application process for people who want the assistance of a CPL dog. After working with the dogs for two years, the trainers know the dogs well. The other half of the equation is getting to know the applicants. CPL officials meet with each one. What kind of person is he? What is her lifestyle? Over the course of 25 years, CPL officials have become proficient at matching up a person with the right dog. It starts with making sure that the dog matches the person’s physical needs. A person who stands six-feet-four and needs a service dog that can provide support for balance will need a larger dog.
Beyond the physical match, there must be a personality match as well.
“Each dog has an individual personality, just like each person has an individual personality,” Sullivan explained. “When you partner with a dog, it’s a commitment. They are with you wherever you go.”
Vible said that she and Rosebud are a perfect match because they are both smaller and have big personalities with lots of energy.
“Canine Partners for Life did a great job of matching me with the perfect dog,” she said. “I have a really good match with her. They take the time to put the right dog with the right person.”
The relationship between a recipient and a dog must be a lasting one, too. Most of the dogs will serve between eight to ten years.
Stracka suffered a serious injury after a bad fall in 1988, and has been in a wheelchair ever since. It was about eight years after his fall that he was paired with Harmony, his first CPL dog, and it made a big difference in his life as the canine was able to assist him with various chores, including reaching for things that he can't reach.
Annabelle, a yellow Labrador, is his second CPL dog.
“She is an awesome dog,” Stracka said. “You can get this dog to do anything. You can just see the character in her. She's a funny, little character.”
Stracka can communicate with Annabelle through verbal commands or hand signals. When he holds his fist to his chest, for example, that means she should sit. At other times, all he needs to do is give Anabelle a look and she will instinctively know how to respond.
“A lot of times, she just knows what I want,” he explained. “I've trained her to meet my needs.”
Annabelle is Stracka's constant companion. When he finishes with a shower, he might tell Annabelle to go let someone else in the house know that he needs some assistance. At other times, he might write someone a note, put it in a bottle, and tell the canine who to take the note to.
Stracka and Annabelle do demonstrations in schools and community events. He likes the idea of informing others about the importance of what the CPL dogs can do.
The dogs, who are nothing less than heroic in their dedication and service to their partners.
Stracka goes everywhere with Annabelle by his side.
“She's really a good companion,” he said. “The emotional part of this is that I never go anywhere alone.”
Vible is now a junior at the University of Delaware and is experiencing fewer seizures. She loves traveling around the campus with Rosebud.
“She's just great,” Vible said. “We're always together and I love having her around. My friends all think she's the best. She's smart and very sweet.”
At this point, Sullivan is never surprised when alert dogs prove themselves capable of helping with some new ailment. The service dog industry has moved far beyond simply training dogs to help people with restricted mobility. Today, dogs are even being scent-trained to provide alerts for diabetes sufferers. New discoveries so often start with a telephone call for help, and there’s no telling what other ways dogs might be able to provide assistance for in the future. More than 50 million Americans over the age of five have some form of chronic physical disability, and that number is growing as the population ages.
“The dogs amaze us every day, but I think we’ve just started finding out what they are capable of,” Sullivan said.