Friday, February 26, 2010

Service dog gives Maryland teen a safer school experience

From The Gazette in Md.:
Michelle Brown (pictured) was apprehensive when her parents talked to her about getting a canine assistant to help her in school. But Sylvia, a golden retriever and Labrador retriever mix, has changed her life, the 13-year-old said.

"She has changed my life because it makes it easier for me to go to school — and know that everybody likes me a lot more and they don't pay attention to my disability as much," said Michelle, who has cerebral palsy and suffers seizures. "She'll never judge me. She'll always want to help me and she will do whatever she can to make me happy."

Dana Tofig, spokesman for Montgomery County Public Schools, said he is not aware of any other service dogs being used one-on-one in the school system.

Service dogs provide guide, hearing, service, seizure response and emotional support.

Sylvia is known among teachers and students at John T. Baker Middle School in Damascus, where Michelle is an eighth-grader. The Gaithersburg girl has not attended Baker this school year because of a hip injury.

"We welcome anything that will assist our students to access the curriculum," said Principal Louise Worthington, who said she could not speak about individual students.

Cerebral palsy is a term that applies to neurological disorders that appear in infancy or early childhood and permanently affect body movement and muscle coordination, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

Michelle wears braces on her legs and suffers seizures. Sylvia ensures Michelle remains safe and has a friend by her side.

Michelle was born premature and doctors said she could develop seizures, said Dani Boyd-Brown, who adopted Michelle in 1996 when she was a newborn. When Michelle was in elementary school, teachers said she might need one-on-one assistance moving around. The family believed a canine assistant could help and began researching how to obtain one.

Boyd-Brown and her husband, David Brown, "applied all over" for help getting a service dog for Michelle, she said. In October 2005, Canine Assistants, a nonprofit based in Georgia, brought them Sylvia. Milk-Bone Dog Biscuits, a N.Y.-based company, paid for everything, including the dog's training, said Boyd-Brown, who has five adopted children with varying health conditions. Although Boyd-Brown expected a five- to seven-year wait, the family received the dog within two months.

Sylvia is trained as a seizure response dog, said Meghan Hopkins, a trainer with Canine Assistants, who trained Sylvia.

Michelle began having seizures in 2007, when she was in sixth grade.

A seizure response dog is trained to lie next to a person during a seizure, retrieve a cordless phone, alert another person if one is available, or press a medic alert button after a seizure.

About 87 percent of such dogs — including Sylvia — also can predict or react in advance of a seizure, usually with behavior such as whining, pawing, pacing, jumping or barking.

The dog's reaction "may happen a few to several minutes before a seizure, which can be quite helpful for individuals who do not experience an aura or feeling that the seizure is coming on," Hopkins said.

Michelle's seizures can come in sequence, though sometimes they do not happen for months, said Boyd-Brown, who now trusts Sylvia will detect the scent or "aura" Michelle's body gives off before a seizure and alert her.

"She is so in tune to Michelle," she said.

Children used to tease Michelle at school, mother and daughter said. But once Sylvia appeared on the scene, the students stopped focusing on Michelle.

"One day she came home and said, ‘Mom, I'm not the yucky girl with the braces on her legs anymore. I'm the cool kid,'" Boyd-Brown said. "And to me that was worth just mountains. There was nothing I could have done to give her that confidence in life, no matter what. Sylvia just gave her a new level of confidence whatever she did."