My Life with a Seizure-Assistance Service Dog
My husband, Hendrik, and I live in San Francisco with our dogs Josephine and Jolanda, Australian Cattle Dogs, as well as Chief, a Cairn Terrier-Chihuahua-Italian Greyhound mix. I trained Jolanda as my service dog for my seizure disorder with the help of my husband, a well-trained and reliable service dog, my friends with service dogs, and lots of wonderful people on the streets of San Francisco and Berkeley.
Hendrik and I were born in Germany and moved to the United States in 1999. We travel a lot, and Jolanda comes with us every time. She has been to so many places on this planet and has been welcomed with open arms and happy faces. That is a huge compliment for a working service dog.
I spend a lot of time outdoors, helping people who can't afford a dog trainer to train their service dogs. Jolanda is a fine mentor for young dogs who are learning the secrets of service dog work. She knows her job by heart and is devoted to the last heartbeat.
Jolanda is a really fine furry lady. She is almost 9 and has been working for me for seven years with high spirits, joy, and reliability. She loves being out in public, so we go everywhere together: hikes, musicals, museums, the opera, the symphony, aquariums, and on planes. Jolanda makes it possible to participate in all these things, which is the greatest gift.
For Jolanda, life is a party, and she is my best buddy. But the reality is that all the fun stuff for her is a necessity for me. I have a seizure disorder, and Jolanda is trained to do things for me that I canʼt do for myself.
She licks my hands or nudges me when I have a seizure coming up. Her licking and nudging ahead of time is called an “alert.” It may be a few minutes to a couple of hours. She may also nudge my leg randomly throughout the day as a reminder for me to stop for a minute and breathe.
As a service-dog handler, you need to be able to read your dogʼs communication pattern during an alert situation. Jolandaʼs specific alert signals have to be recallable, recognizable, and repeatable. That is challenging, but she is a natural -- and my well-being depends on her preciseness. I also learned to be more mindful about my body.
Jolanda helps me during a seizure through “response tasks.” She has saved me from harm on several occasions by helping me get to a safe spot; fetching my pill pouch, blanket, and phone; getting help from my husband or friend; or finding a bathroom or exit. She will also lie across my arm or body during a seizure so I wonʼt get hurt, or she will lick my face and neck, which is important to help me stay oriented and connected.
Jolanda also reminds me to take my medication twice a day by reminding me of her meal time, which is also twice a day. Itʼs not magic; I just taught her to ask for her food around a certain time. When I put the food down, she has to stay and wait until I take my medication, and then she can eat. Itʼs a ritual and it works really well.
So far we have mainly gotten positive responses from the public. I appreciate it when people offer help and ask what they should do if I have a seizure. They also ask how to identify Jolandaʼs signals. I am open with my disability, because I am dependent on other peopleʼs help when I am in need; I brief staff on airplanes and the usher at the opera, for instance.
Sometimes people feel helpless when they are around me and I am not doing well. They donʼt know what to do. My advice is that it's a tremendous help to just ask people to back off. Don't grab the service dog or touch the person, and make sure that we do not get separated under any circumstances.
I can't predict whether lighting, sounds, or smells will trigger my seizures, so I often feel uneasy in social settings. It's challenging for me to go to the movies, and shopping is almost impossible. When I reached a certain level of dependency, I really felt helpless. A disability should never push you to the point of losing yourself in it or stop you from living a healthy and compassionate life.
I canʼt make my disability go away, but with the support of my husband, medical staff, family, therapist, and friends, I can find a way to live with it and become more mindful about it. My reliable Jolanda has proved that a service dog can change not only my life, but the lives of my family and friends as well.
I am not working right now, because of bad experiences I had with staff relating to my seizures. Itʼs been a while, which increases my insecurities. Not managing to go back to work is the hardest thing for me at this point. The sad reality is that not all employers are welcoming to individuals with disabilities and their service dogs.
Jolanda also helps me with things that people can't help with. I don't mean cuddling or just giving me comfort, but trained tasks. I canʼt express enough how important she is to me. She has saved my life and sanity on so many occasions, and never ever expects a thank you -- other than a romp at the beach.
We usually meet supportive people, but there are times where people try to turn us away or challenge our access to stores, museums, zoos, etc. Not everyone understands or cares what service dogs do, and some people are tired of people pretending their pet is a service dog. People who knowingly cheat have poor judgment and no common sense -- and they are breaking the law by claiming to have a disability.
Whenever Jolanda and I run into an access challenge, we give out copies of our educational flyer. If you have a service dog or know someone who does, I encourage you to share it, too.
When this happens, some entities and organizations respond very cooperatively and understandingly. They invite me to educate their staff, or they retrain their staff and inform me about the outcome. I have been an invited speaker at the VA hospital, transportation organizations, and sports facilities. I also educate staff on a street level.
Others are more stubborn, and think they can make up their own laws. You can report these people to the Department of Justice, which then follows up with them.
We have never been physically or emotionally abused throughout the years, although I know this has happened to other service-dog handlers and their dogs, unfortunately.
Right now I'm training Jolanda's successor, Chief. If all goes well, Jolanda can retire in a year and enjoy being a full-time beach dog! She is a great help during Chief's training. He copies her, which is fantastic.
If you have any questions about life with a service dog, please ask them in the comments, and I will do my best to answer them!
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