Campus / News / May 13, 2010

Man’s best friend

On Monday, May 10, Best Buddies hosted a speaker — and his dog. Mitch Peterson, his mother Vanya Peterson and his dog London came for a presentation on life with a service animal.

 Peterson was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 16. He struggled with seizures so severe that he broke bones and even fell down a flight of stairs. Finding proper treatment was difficult.

“He was so overmedicated that you’d ask him to sign something and he couldn’t remember how to sign his own name,” said Mrs. Peterson. “At one time, he was taking 23 pills a day, but it still wasn’t helping.”

Another difficulty was the loss of freedom that came with the diagnosis. Peterson had been very athletic, but he could not play sports anymore. The exception was baseball, and even when he played, he had to wear a helmet the whole time he was on the field. His seizures also necessitated 24-hour supervision, which was especially frustrating for the teenage Peterson, who said he “pretty much watched TV all day and couldn’t go anywhere without a babysitter, like when you’re a kid.” Peterson became suicidal and sought treatment.

 Things took a turn for the better when Peterson got London. A disability service dog trained by Canine Assistants, London is Peterson’s helper and constant companion. The cost of a service dog is $18,000, paid entirely by sponsors. Receiving London was like “being a 16-year-old and getting a car…he’s my car,” said Peterson.

London’s companionship offered Peterson the independence he had been craving. The golden retriever-lab mix can anticipate oncoming seizures and warn his owner, fetch medicine and bark for help. He can also trigger Peterson’s vagus nerve stimulator with a magnet on his collar in order to help fight the seizure.

 How do dogs like London know when a seizure is coming? No one knows. There is no solid science to explain it, but Canine Assistants said that 88 percent of their dogs develop the ability within their first year of placement.

London anticipated a seizure for the first time about six months after being placed with Peterson.

“He jumped up on my lap and he actually wouldn’t let me get up. When the seizure had passed, he kissed me, then he let me get up.”

The popular explanation for this ability is a dog’s bond with its owner. Said Peterson, “Before London, our family beagle, she could tell when something was wrong…dogs can tell when their owner’s not feeling right.”

 Peterson also credits London with providing relief from stress, a major trigger for his epilepsy. With the combination of the vagus nerve stimulator, anticonvulsive drugs, and London, he now has “very few” physical limitations. He still avoids triggers like bright lights and loud noises and cannot play football, swim or drive, but his seizures are much less severe than before. “They’re fleeting,” said Peterson. “A matter of seconds…a lost time sort of deal.” Peterson says he is now allowed to be active and can go where he wants. He lives independently with his wife and dog and works in a library in Monmouth.

 “He’s always doing his job, even when you think he’s sleeping,” he said of London. “He’s my sixth sense.”

Maya Sharma

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