Seiko the "Watch" dog:
His name is Seiko. He's a black, standard Poodle -- the only one I have ever seen that is clipped like a Kerry Blue Terrier. If you guessed that Seiko earned his name as a "watch" dog, you would be right, but not completely right. Seiko watches out for more than muggers and bad guys, he watches out for seizures.
Seiko's owner, Sue, has epilepsy. She averages between two to four seizures per week. From the time she realizes that a seizure is about to start, she has about 15 seconds warning -- about the time it took to read the first paragraph of this column. If she is indoors, she tries to find a wall and then sit on the floor. Outdoors, she walks for ten or 15 seconds before falling to the ground. In either case, she quickly loses consciousness. When a seizure requires medical intervention, called "status", she could die unless treated immediately. By any standards, the hazards of this existence are intolerable.
"I've been robbed during seizures, hit by cars, broken both feet, fallen down flights of stairs, burned my legs... the list goes on and on. Fifteen seizures a month saw me lose the courage to go out alone, often not leaving my house for several weeks. Repeated bouts of status resulted in a loss of independence - someone had to be with me. Finally, our children became afraid to be alone with me. "
Few of us would have the courage to live such a perilous existence – and then, at age 29, the seizures got worse. Sue needed consistent medical intervention to keep her alive. Over the next three years, she spent half of her time in the hospital.
"That's when Seiko came in my front door - bounding all the way: He is my gift of independence."
Sieko's appearance was the result of training by Diana Hilliard and Jacueline Harbour, two exceptionally adept trainers from Ontario, Canada. Each seizure alert dog must be trained specifically to match each owner's symptoms. Most dogs are trained to react to very particular signs of an attack and render aid, or go for help. If the dog can detect signs of a seizure before the owner can, it is considered an added bonus.
"Inside our home, Seiko calls an ambulance with the push of a button. The movement of my convulsive seizures cue him to press a button, connect to a company via modem, until he hears a high pitched whine. That's his signal he has done his job. The company calls an ambulance."
When Sue is outdoors, Seiko barks until help arrives. Once, he continued barking, for over 30 minutes, until a neighbor investigated the sound of a continuously barking dog. Sue credits Seiko with saving her life many times when she was alone and in "status."
As difficult as it is to imagine, Sue has been robbed twice during a seizure. Both times, in broad daylight. Both muggings were "pre-Seiko". Other than his regular services, Seiko is also trained to stand over her and look imposing to would-be muggers – but not imposing enough to scare off paramedics. Sue had not been mugged since she gained her protector.
While most people assume that such a highly trained dog must be perfectly obedient, there are times when Seiko must offer "selective disobedience."
"My husband, Eric, has seen Seiko refuse to obey, keeping me pinned to the ground until he's comfortable with my ability to stand and function. My injury rate has decreased immeasurably and I've stopped finding myself in areas of town I never knew existed. "
Trainer, Diana Hilliard, understands the need for seizure alert dogs to be willing to disobey their owners.
"One of our dogs had been with her owner for only ten days. They were still at the school in training. The dog disobeyed three solid, no-nonsense forward commands, really annoying the owner, and then blocked her owner's path. They were at the top of a long flight of stairs, the seizure started, just as the dog blocked her path. "
On those occasions when Sue does have time to request help, Seiko responds perfectly. One of his best responses is to Sue's call of "Help, Eric" Seiko runs to find Sue' husband, or anyone who might be available.
"During my last bath, I had Seiko bring Eric in time to catch me, as I slid below water level. Now I stick to showers! "
Part of Sue's independence comes from her dog's ability to guide her on city streets. Seiko is trained not to step off a curb without the command, "forward". If Sue is unable to give the command because of an impending seizure, Seiko holds his position. To insure that she will not unconsciously walk forward, Sue wears a leash from her belt to his harness. Seiko acts as a life saving anchor, to prevent Sue from falling into the street.
The added bonus of sensing a seizure before it started came a few months after Seiko began working with Sue. He was initially taught to lie close by her feet whenever he was "off duty". Seiko soon stretched his resting place to about six feet away. After a seizure, Seiko would lick and nuzzle Sue for a few minutes and then go back to his position. After several months of this, Seiko's behavior changed. He seemed able to tell when a second seizure was about to happen.
"When he refuses to go back and lay down after a seizure, even on command, I always have second seizure within the hour. "
Seiko has carried his prediction outdoors. Now, on walks, he has started sitting, and showing reluctance to move forward, on command. He gradually decreases the distance he is willing to go, until Sue stops.
"I am getting better at gauging how close I am to a seizure by how frequently he sits. Last time, Eric was with us, and he said the seizure began 25 minutes after Seiko started sitting. It far outshines a fifteen second warning."
There is a bond between humans and dogs that has lasted for thousands of years. Whether herding our flocks or chasing balls, dogs enrich our lives, far more than merely simplifying our work or assisting our play. The depth of the bond can be seen in the simple way that one particular human signs her E-mail – "Sue and Seiko … trained to watch over me."