Adopted dog helps predict owner’s seizures
When Danielle Zuckerman and her 6-year-old son Nick adopted their dog from Grass Valley animal shelter Sammie’s Friends in January, they were looking for a companion.
They chose the 3-year-old pit bull — whom they named Thor — specifically for his mellow personality. When they surveyed dogs, Thor was the only dog that wasn’t barking; when they started playing with him, he immediately rolled over and waited for Nick to pet him.
So the 28-year-old Zuckerman was surprised when, a couple of weeks after they adopted him, Thor jumped into her lap while she was sitting on the couch in her Alta Sierra home and began barking loudly.
About 15 minutes later, Zuckerman had a seizure.
The seizure wasn’t unusual; Zuckerman has epilepsy, the result of complications suffered from a spinal tap she received several years ago while serving in the Navy.
She had been seizure-free for about a year before the episodes began returning frequently as she transitioned between medications. But Thor’s loud barking was out of the ordinary; she wondered if it was connected to her seizure, but dismissed it as a coincidence.
That is, until the same thing happened a couple of days later. Since Zuckerman adopted Thor, he has detected every seizure she’s had before it’s happened; he’s so accurate that Zuckerman’s doctor has prescribed her a preventative medication to take upon Thor’s warnings that helps shorten both the duration of the seizure and her recovery time.
Thor’s instincts have prompted Zuckerman to formally train him as a service dog, and he accompanies her nearly everywhere she goes — to her classes at Sierra College, to restaurants, to grocery stores and to her son’s school on the days she volunteers in the classroom. The relationship has transformed her life.
“They say we saved him, and I know it’s cliché, but he saved me,” Zuckerman said. “He really did.”
Before adopting Thor, she said, her seizures made her reluctant to leave her house.
“When you have epilepsy, you don’t have control over your own body,” Zuckerman said. “You don’t know if you’re going to be in the middle of a grocery store and drop in front of everyone and have a seizure.”
She would walk her son to his bus stop in the morning, she said, but that’s about it; she was considering dropping out of Sierra College until her seizures were under control, and was relying on her parents, who live nearby, to run errands and pick up Nick from school. That feeling has disappeared with Thor by her side.
“With him I’m not scared anymore,” Zuckerman said. “It’s amazing.”
But Thor has also provided Zuckerman a sense of comfort at home. She noted that Nick has had to call 911 for her several times because of her seizures; she remembered one particularly harrowing morning when she had a seizure in the shower, fell and hit her head.
“It’s just a huge relief knowing that I’m taking a burden off of him,” Zuckerman said. “And also that I’m going to be around for him. I’m not going to get hurt.”
Her doctor said Thor was likely sensing hormonal changes that occur in Zuckerman’s body before a seizure hits.
It’s not unusual for dogs to be able to perceive those kinds of changes, said Terry Sandhoff, the master service dog trainer with 4 Paws 2 Freedom, a Rocklin-based nonprofit organization that teaches people to train their service dogs.
She said dogs, like people, have comfort zones that can be disrupted if their owner starts experiencing some kind of distress or anxiety.
“All of a sudden, the dog’s going, ‘something’s wrong with mom or dad, I’m not so comfortable,’” Sandhoff said.
And also like people, some dogs are just more disposed to paying attention to those disruptions than others, she said.
“If you have a dog that’s totally self-centered, very independent, chances are that dog isn’t going to care a whit about what you’re doing,” Sandhoff said.
Danielle and Thor recently enrolled in the organization’s service dog training program, and will begin the months-long training soon.
Sandhoff has evaluated Thor to gauge his temperament, and said he’s proved himself to be caring and tolerant.
“You look at him and he’s a massive dog, he’s huge, but he’s just so sweet,” Sandhoff said.
That personality is most evident when Thor is around 6-year-old Nick; the dog comes at Nick’s call, sits on his command and gently receives treats from the boy.
He also stands patiently as Nick pets him and wraps him in a hug.
In the nearly three months since they adopted him, Thor has become a member of the family — a sentiment that Zuckerman used to hear other dog-owners express, but didn’t really identify with.
“You know, I kind of rolled my eyes at people who were like, ‘oh yeah, my dog’s my kid,’” Zuckerman said. “And now I get it, I really do.”
But, she said, in her relationship with Thor, the roles are reversed.
“I don’t take care of him,” she said. “He takes care of me.”
To contact Staff Writer Emily Lavin, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4230.
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