Riley Mers, who has a severe peanut allergy, looks out the front window of her home in Monument, Colo., with her service dog Rock’O, who’s trained to alert the 10-year-old if even trace amounts of peanuts are present.
Rock’O keeps his deathly allergic young pal away from the peanuts and peanut residue that lurk in unexpected places. Kayla pokes and barks at her owner seconds after his body chemistry goes awry and his bipolar medications must be taken. And Alma does rehab activities with patients in the brain and spinal cord injury unit at San Jose’s Santa Clara Valley Medical Center to help them regain strength and learn new ways of doing things.
Rock’O, Kayla and Alma are at the vanguard of a new wave of service dogs trained to handle things their humans cannot. From alerting owners to an impending seizure to helping people with psychiatric or memory conditions (including Alzheimer’s) stay stable and safe, service dogs are helping an ever-broadening array of people live more normal, independent lives, just as they have helped hearing-, seeing- and mobility-impaired people for decades.
“Rock’O is an extra layer of protection,” Sherry Mers of Monument, Colo., says. The Portuguese water dog received service-dog training in Colorado and then spent months of peanut-sniffing training at the Florida Canine Academy in Safety Harbor, which trains bomb- and narcotics-sniffing dogs.
Mers’ daughter, Riley, 8, is so severely allergic to peanuts that she has been rushed to the emergency room simply because she came into contact with particles of peanut dust, and the specter of anaphylaxis hovers whenever she leaves home. The girl attends school in a “contained” environment that assures no contact with anything that has been near peanuts, and her rare outings have always carried risk.
But Rock’O has broadened her world. On a mall visit, he sniffed a bowl of peanut-studded candy several feet away in a jewelry store and prevented Riley from going in, and he warned her away from an area in her own yard where peanut shells were on the ground, apparently carried there by squirrels.
Now the girl is confidently — and safely — getting out more. “She said the other day, ‘I think I will be able to go to college now,’ ” says Mers, who has started a non-profit foundation (angelservicedogs.com) so children with “hidden disabilities” such as severe allergies and seizures can afford specially trained animals to help them.
Sniffing out new ways to help
Experts predict that as time goes on, dogs will be trained to deal with many other human conditions in ways not yet contemplated. Already, for example, returning waves of severely injured military personnel have spurred some service-dog groups to investigate new ways to help.
“There has been an increase in amputees, poly-trauma and PTSD. The assistance-dog industry needs to take a close look at how to serve this group,” says Clark Pappas of Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Canine Companions for Independence (cci.org), which launched a Wounded Veterans Initiative in 2007 to provide assistance dogs to injured soldiers and has teamed up 55 so far.
Meanwhile, dogs are helping in a variety of ways. Kayla, the German shepherd owned by David Nowak of New Brunswick, N.J., who was diagnosed in 1998 with bipolar disorder, “has her paws full 24/7,” he says.
His rapid-cycling bipolar disorder, he says, means his moods can shift at lightning speed. Medication helps, but stress and other factors can throw him into a peak or valley almost without warning. When Kayla senses a shift in his body chemistry, she whines and goes to the medicine cabinet, alerting him to take his pills. In some cases, he passes out, and she’s trained to poke him until he comes to. If that doesn’t work, she barks until help arrives.
A dog trainer for many years, Nowak has trained two dogs to help him, as well as two service dogs for others with bipolar disorder. Without a service dog, he says, “I probably wouldn’t leave the house much. Anxiety can make me pass out, and then, of course, you wake up disoriented, which could lead to another spiral.” Kayla, who carries his medications on her service-dog vest when they go out, “has given me comfort and stability.”
‘Facility dogs’ to the rescue
Alma, the San Jose hospital dog who dons a name badge and goes to work each day, is one of a growing category of service dogs referred to as “facility dogs.” Alma had almost two years of service-dog training by Canine Companions for Independence, but instead of being assigned to a person requiring everyday help, she — and others like her — are assigned to a health professional.
Occupational therapist Carole Adler is Alma’s handler, and the dog’s duties depend on the needs of the person she’s helping: She might get brushed by someone trying to rebuild upper-body coordination, or she might serve as a four-legged “cane” for someone who is learning to walk again.
The golden retriever/Labrador retriever mix also is regularly invited to the burn unit to assist with rehab there. Healing skin is extremely sensitive, and “the kids are often afraid the therapists will hurt them as we put them through exercises to stretch a burned arm, for example,” Adler says. But “we can get them through the necessary movement with Alma — kids will throw a ball for her to fetch and have such fun they’re not focused on the pain.”