'My last hope': Woodbury assistance dog wins veterinary association award
WOODBURY — For 10 years, Lisa Peterson was afraid to leave the house.
Two brain surgeries after a traumatic head injury had left her with psychogenic nonepileptic seizures. At its worst, Peterson had more than 50 seizures in a month.
At first she was able to sense when she was about to have a seizure. But the loss of what she called her "aura" made it impossible for her to predict seizures, sometimes putting Peterson in danger of injuring herself. She couldn't drive, and her husband and children were afraid to leave her home alone. She was depressed and had low self-esteem.
Then Morrie came along.
The labrador retriever was trained as a seizure assist dog by Can Do Canines, an assistance dog training nonprofit based in New Hope, Minn. Morrie's job is to pull Peterson out of a seizure by doing a "snuggle" — lying on top of her while keeping her head straight and licking her face.
But there was something else, too.
"Three days after I got home, because of the bond between he and I, he began alerting me 30 to 60 seconds before a seizure," Peterson said.
Can Do Canines Executive Director Alan Peters said the nonprofit doesn't train dogs to warn people they are about to have a seizure, mainly because they aren't sure what a dog is picking up on when it senses a seizure.
But if the bond is strong between a person and their assistance dog, Peters said, trained dogs can learn to pre-alert seizures.
"Because he not only responds to her seizures but also pre-alerts to them, she's been able to lead a much healthier, safer life than she did before Morrie got there," Peters said.
Morrie was honored Feb. 9 for his service to Peterson with an award from the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association at a luncheon in Minneapolis. He was inducted into the association's hall of fame alongside Sadie, a dog from Tracy, Minn., that saved the lives of her owner and his neighbor, and Fred, a resilient cat with diabetes from St. Paul.
"I am just stunned that he won because my husband and I see the other side of him. When he is out of his cape at home he's still on duty to alert me and take care of me, but he turns into this goofball that likes to run and play," Peterson said of Morrie. "But the minute that I need him, he's all business."
And though Morrie has a fun-loving side, Peterson stressed that the public should be more aware of the boundaries of assistance dogs. For example, people should not approach an assistance dog and try to pet it because it distracts the dog, which can result in a missed seizure and possible danger to the handler.
"He works and he plays, but he's not a pet," Peterson said. "There's a huge difference. I mean, they even joke sometimes that these dogs are medical equipment."
Dogs trained by Can Do Canines go through two years of training, which costs more than $25,000 per dog, though they are provided free to the people they serve.
Can Do Canines is supported solely through contributions from individuals and groups, Peters said. Along with seizure alert dogs, the organization also trains hearing, mobility, diabetes and autism assist dogs.
'My last hope'
Peterson firmly believes that Morrie, whom she has lived with for two and a half years, saved her life.
"It was so bad that I was to the point that I didn't want to live anymore and this was my last chance, my last hope," she said.
After a chance encounter at a grocery store where she met and learned about a seizure assist dog, Peterson realized she may have a chance at returning to a life she enjoyed.
After talking with her husband and children, she decided to apply for a seizure assist dog through Can Do Canines.
Peterson said she has come "full-circle" since she began working with Morrie.
"I'm walking and talking today because of Morrie. I have my confidence back," she said. "When I would be here alone at home and I would have a seizure, I would just wake up and I would be alone and I wouldn't quite know where I was and I was scared, and it would send me into more seizures. Now, with Morrie, I feel his warmth, I know he's with me, I know he's taking care of me and my seizures are less intense and they don't wear me out."
In the past month, Peterson said she has only had two seizures. With her dog's help, she said, she stopped taking seizure medications and has returned to a happy, fulfilling life.
"My relationship with my kids has just flourished — I'm back to the woman my husband married," Peterson said. "I mean, they did not have me for 10 years."
Peterson is affected by the brain injury she received in 2006 in other ways, too. She still has short-term memory issues and she isn't as coordinated as before. But Morrie can pick up items she drops, open handicap doors and press elevator buttons. He can even help her sort laundry.
Morrie has provided Peterson's family with a peace of mind they were missing for over a decade.
"They just know I'm covered," Peterson said. "He just takes his job so seriously. And whoever he meets, he wins their heart. ... He is amazing."