Sunday, July 15, 2007

Plagued with daily seizures, a man's life changes thanks to service dog!

Jim Gier suffered a stroke that paralyzed his left side and confined him to a wheelchair. At age 65, he turned into a recluse, afraid to leave the house because he was so fearful of the painful daily seizures he suffered."I didn't go anywhere, because I didn't want people to see me shaking," said the Bethlehem resident.But like a number of people, Gier chose not to go it alone. His life changed dramatically when he teamed up with Tonto, a "service dog."

"I had quite a few seizures after getting Tonto," he said, "but once we had bonded, I wasn't afraid to go out anymore."Working with a service dog is a choice more people who can benefit from their presence are making. According to the United States Census for 2000, about 33 million Americans between the ages of 16 and 64, as well 14 million people 65 and over, suffer from some type of disability that limits their mobility and independence.

Service dogs provide an invaluable assistance for people who suffer these impairments, says Darlene Sullivan, founder and executive director of Canine Partners For Life (CPL). Based in Cochranville, the CPL trains service dogs in 43 states to help people suffering from Parkinson's Disease, stroke, paraplegia and several seizure-related conditions."Many people think they are not disabled enough to benefit from the assistance of a dog," explains Sullivan, whose nonprofit company helped Gier find Tonto.

"If you get the dog earlier, however, it will keep you more mobile longer."Afflicted with Parkinson's disease, George Schmid, 60, hoped to stay independent for as long as he could. His strategy: a big black Labrador Retriever named Smokey. "I had to decide if I wanted a walker or a loving animal to help me get up in the morning," said the Pennsville, New Jersey resident. "I opted for Smokey."The effect was near immediate.

Since partnering with the pup last October, Schmid says his walking has become far more fluid and steady. He's there from the start of the day: A daily belly rub on the bed from Schmid and his wife Rose, is all Smokey needs to hop to the floor and resume his duties."He's like having an extra wife - a devoted partner for life," remarked Schmid. "He gives me a little extra get up and go and is always waiting for me at the foot of the bed when I get up in the morning."

Sally McLaughlin's situation is even more challenging. Diagnosed in 2003 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease), the 52-year-old Wilmington, Delaware resident can no longer speak. That was no problem for CPL. Trainer Deb Bauer set about retraining Decker, who is also a black Lab. When McLaughlin and Decker's three-week team training sessions began, Decker responded to hand signals flawlessly. Between eye contact and hand signals, the pair quickly learned to communicate.

As keynote "speaker" at CPL's wine auction fundraising dinner last fall, McLaughlin, who now speaks with a synthesizer, described Decker's incredible ability to adapt to her ever changing needs as her arms and legs grow weaker."Since we were partnered last June, Decker has accompanied me solo, with a walker, a scooter, a companion chair, and now a power wheelchair," she says. "He just goes with the flow."

He is smart, too, instinctively knowing that her right hand is much stronger than her left, so he returns items to the right side of her wheelchair, she goes on."As my symptoms progress, I find I rely on him more and more for help," she adds.Tonto, too, is exceptionally smart. The 100-pound Labradoodle (Labrador Retriever and Standard Poodle cross) knows when Gier is about to suffer a seizure.Gier talks about the time he became ill and his wife Charlotte took him and Tonto to the emergency room. The nurses got Gier settled into one of those high hospital beds and a number of caregivers were hovering over him.

Suddenly, Tonto leapt off the floor. He jumped onto a nearby chair, and then sprang over the railing and onto an open space on the bed, carefully climbing on top of his partner, protecting him."What the hell is he doing?" one doctor shouted, not at all pleased. Charlotte Gier explained that her husband would be having a seizure in about 15 minutes. The doctors could not believe it, Jim Gier recalls now with a laugh. They called in all the other doctors and nurses on the floor, waiting to see if that truly happened.Soon the seizures started, and kept going for almost 10 minutes.

Finally, Gier stopped shaking and Tonto jumped to the floor, curling quietly at the foot of the bed, his job well done. "It is a rare dog that has the natural instinct to be a seizure alert dog," said Sullivan, adding that these special dogs must be carefully trained to work safely in public.Gier, whose friends now call him the Lone Ranger, says his stress of being out in public diminished greatly once he got Tonto.

Possibly as a result of the decreased stress, he started having fewer seizures. He used to suffer four or five seizures, but now Gier exclaims that he hasn't had one in over two years.He knows who to thank for that."Tonto is the best friend I ever had," Gier says with a grin.

For more information on Canine Partners For Life, please call 610-869-4902, or visit their Web site at:


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