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Good dog!

Seeing Eye dogs were just the beginning. Today's service dogs smell spikes in blood sugar, relate to autism, soothe trauma. Meet America's caregiver canines.

Mar. 8, 2012   |  
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Fern, a Labrador retriever, and Pip the papillon help the Rittinger siblings deal with autism and diabetes.
Fern, a Labrador retriever, and Pip the papillon help the Rittinger siblings deal with autism and diabetes. / David Yellen/USA WEEKEND

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The Rittinger family of Savage, Minn., is less frantic these days.

The blood sugar spikes and dives of Megan, 9, who has diabetes, are monitored minute by minute, so problems are instantly detected and addressed. Her brothers, Justin, 11, and Jacob, 9, both autistic, are coping better.

Thank two dogs, says mom Gina Rittinger.

Pip, a spirited 8-pound papillon service dog trained by 4 Paws for Ability of Xenia, Ohio, barks when Megan’s blood sugar swerves, even in the middle of the night. And Labrador retriever Fern, trained by 4 Paws for autism assistance, constantly watches for signs that Justin is spiraling into distress. When he does, Fern presses tightly against him “to provide comfort and interrupt the cycles,” Gina says. “Justin tells her things he can’t express to us.” Jacob, who ran when in the throes of an episode and lashed out when grown-ups stopped him, doesn’t resist when Fern halts him with a tether. Moreover, Fern realizes Jacob isn’t comforted by her body press, so she doesn’t do it with him. “The [boys’] meltdowns are much less intense with Fern here,” Gina says. “Our home is less chaotic. The dogs are doing their jobs and giving us all a sense of calmness.”

Thousands of service dogs at work

Pip and Fern are among thousands of dogs trained to help humans in ways unimagined a decade ago. They warn bipolar people when their body chemistry goes awry, alert epileptics that a seizure is coming, help people with Alzheimer’s keep their balance and stay calm, and warn highly allergic people of harm.

Dogs’ storied noses — they are at least 1,000 times more sensitive than humans’ — explain much of that, experts say. They smell the tiniest shifts in body chemistry or a minuscule particle of an allergen like peanuts, and they are trained to respond.

And yet, most people who have service dogs say the animals do more than what they’re trained to do. It’s the stuff of miracles.

“There’s training,” says Karen Shirk, founder of 4 Paws, which has placed hundreds of dogs with kids who have disabilities, and “there’s also things the dogs do that no one can really explain.” Take the child with epilepsy who was assigned a seizure dog “trained to interrupt the seizure behaviors.” The child never had another seizure in the many years she had the dog; when the animal died, seizures resumed. “Nobody knows why.”

Unraveling a dog's ability to help

Some of what service dogs bestow comes because “as dogs have evolved with us, they’ve become very adept at picking up cues about our behaviors,” says Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University’s School of Veterinary Medicine.

He finds it unsurprising that service dogs “evolve into being better partners as the person and dog spend more time and experiment together.” What needs study: the “specific mechanisms” of animals’ ability to help.

The Department of Veterans Affairs launched a study last year of the influence dogs have on post-traumatic stress disorder. Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs of Williston, Fla., is pairing more than 200 trained-for-the-individual dogs (many veterans also have injuries and missing limbs) that will be tracked to identify benefits.

“It’s so powerful to see these people, who had regarded themselves as a shell of what they used to be, get their dogs and take on life again,” says Guardian Angels founder Carol Borden.

Vietnam veteran Raymond Galmiche of Navarre, Fla., has battled PTSD for decades. His service dog, Dazzle, has done what years of therapy could not, he says. When Galmiche descends into flashbacks of carnage, the German shepherd licks and nudges to bring him back to the present. When nightmares hit, Dazzle wakes him, cutting off the descent before it goes too deep. Galmiche now isolates himself less; his war guilt is diminishing. “Dazzle has my back. He keeps me focused.”

It’s not overstatement to say these animals not only improve lives, they save lives.

Jennifer Arnold, founder of Canine Assistants of Alpharetta, Ga., has placed more than 1,000 specially trained dogs, mostly with people with mobility problems or seizures, since 1991. She speaks of a young woman with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) who requested a service dog in the 1990s. She got it, even though the life expectancy for people with ALS is usually two to five years from diagnosis. That was 16 years ago, and the woman now has her second service dog. “Dogs,” Arnold says, “can have an extraordinary impact, not all of which we completely understand.”

Says Shirk: “God gave us dogs for a reason. We have only begun to know a portion of it.”

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